Adapted from an article published in the February/March 2014 issue of Food Safety Magazine.
Not too long ago, the daily news cycle was largely dictated by The New York Times. The Big Four news networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN—followed its lead. Now, information is 24/7 and it is digital and “social.” News increasingly breaks on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube —whether by traditional reporters, bloggers, or eyewitnesses.
Today, YouTube has about 50 percent more viewers than the three major network newscasts combined. A recent example of YouTube shaping conversations about food was an animated film depicting a dejected scarecrow wandering around a contrived, large-scale food production facility. One restaurant’s attempt to sell more of its “better” products, the video conjured strong negative views of certain other segments of the food industry.
Not only did the video receive 12.6 million views as of May 2014, but it was also covered extensively in the mainstream media, driving up subscribership to the creator’s YouTube channel and receiving more than 32,000 shares.
Imagine how much more extensive the impact of Oprah’s boycott of hamburgers (out of fear of BSE, better known as “mad cow” disease) would have been if YouTube had existed at the time.
Aside from TV, millions of people are “cutting the cable,” streaming 100 percent of their video on the Internet. Many newsmakers now take their messages directly to their audiences on Facebook and Instagram. In recent years, celebrities, the British Royal family, and even the White House have bypassed traditional news photographers to capture some of their most significant media moments, instead distributing their own photos and “selfies” on social media.
This form of media doesn’t come without its challenges. Social media has spurred an environment of skepticism and unbridled criticism of everything ranging from reality TV to modern food production. Every food-related development becomes an opportunity for anyone with a Twitter account to declare the End of Days, their alarm-inspiring sound bites taken as fact by their millions of followers. For some inexplicable reason, when negative information is shared on social media, no matter how unrealistic it may sound, the inclination is to panic instead of question the information and seek out the facts. Preeminent risk communicator Peter Sandman explained this contradiction between perception and reality by saying, “The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.”
Then there’s what is best described as “pseudo-news.” Some websites purporting to offer health and nutrition news, published and promoted by non-experts, gain huge followings as they churn out fringe science and outlandish claims.
One news site, BuzzFeed, has built a massive audience, curating content from other websites and serving it up in the form of “listicles” that most anyone can create and post in true “news” form. These include pseudo news, but also some legitimate news articles. To the average person, however, it would be very difficult to tell the difference.
For example, a BuzzFeed story from June 2013 decried “eight foods we eat in the U.S. that are banned in other countries.” The piece was chockfull of unsubstantiated claims and nearly devoid of context. The article inspired a far more balanced story on the ABC News website, the author of which consulted a range of scientific experts. According to one of those experts, “the amount of understanding in the [BuzzFeed] article was so minimal, it really pushed my buttons as a scientist.” But, which of the two pieces do you think got more hits?
The BuzzFeed article, of course. As of earlier this year, it had received 5.6 million views, 476,000 Facebook likes, and 14,000 tweets. The ABC News article, on the other hand, had garnered a mere 3,500 Facebook likes and fewer than 400 tweets.
We evolved from a time of scavenging for food where lethal toxins masqueraded as nourishment, making us somewhat paranoid as prehistoric cavemen. We don’t have those concerns now, but the fear has been programmed, to a degree, into our DNA. But if we heeded every single warning from the “tweeters of doom,” what would we have left to eat or drink (other than water—and some would question the safety of that, too)?
This is not in any way intended to dismiss the positive power of social media in advancing food safety. If a deadly strain of bacteria truly is on the loose in the food chain, then admonitions on Twitter or Facebook to avoid certain foods or take certain precautions are wise to heed. The viral nature of social networks can spread word of a food recall far and wide, long before the first “breaking news” banner goes up on television.
Similar to CDC’s PulseNet, social media can help pinpoint food safety concerns and foodborne illness outbreaks before they get out of control. Algorithms theoretically can be designed to search streams of tweets for reports of symptoms and then cross-referenced geographically. Probably the best-known application of this currently is Google Flu Trends, which mines reams of data for search terms related to flu symptoms, remedies, and so forth to produce a map of where the risk of contracting the flu is greatest.
Government is also getting into the game of using social media to monitor health threats and communicate food safety information. For instance, CDC has created a widget for blogs where consumers can get quick and easy access to a database of food recalls. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) has developed state-specific Twitter feeds about food safety (Despite the good intentions, however, few of the state feeds have more than a few dozen followers nearly two years after launching.)
Unfortunately, credibility doesn’t always equal influence, which is a problem if the Twitter handle getting the most retweets isn’t fact-based.
Emotions are what make us human and set us apart from other species. But they are also fallible and unpredictable, whereas true science is rational and dispassionate. As such, there will always be those who perceive misinformation as reality.
It takes only a moment to hit the “share” button when the latest headline comes shrieking across our laptop, notebook, or smart phone screen—certainly less time than it takes to read something in its entirety, weigh the facts, and offer a thoughtful comment on social media. But which choice is truly more evolved?
Matt Raymond is senior director of communications at the International Food Information Council and Foundation.
Anthony Flood is senior director of food safety and defense communications at IFIC and IFIC Foundation.