Just 18 short months ago, almost no one — not politicians, not reporters, not lay people — used the term ‘fake news.’ Sure, bias and dishonesty have existed in politics, in sales, in industry and in media forever. What’s new since the viral spread of the ‘fake news’ concept, though, is our almost universal belief that fake news is around us everywhere, all the time.
The result? Too many North Americans are willing to disregard facts as ‘fake’ if they don’t align with our personal perspectives.
That’s bad news for agriculture unless farmers step up to the challenge of meeting fake news head-on.
No industry is as regularly, as intensively, and often as personally attacked by agenda groups as farming. Depending on where you turn, farmers are painted as alternatively (and sometimes, simultaneously) concealing, poisoning, destroying, abusing, devastating.
If the negative messaging makes you indignant, outraged or anxious, you’re hardly alone: farmers across the country and around the world report decreased overall contentment and increased stress associated with farming due to negative online attacks.
Where farmers often go wrong is in directing their anger, frustration and stress towards the everyday consumers who are reporting less confidence in agriculture and the food system. Often, those consumers are simply expressing a need for information. They’re victims of the fake ag news, just like farmers.
“In general, the consumer comes at it from a pretty honest perspective. They really do want more information,” says Andrew Campbell, a dairy farmer in southern Ontario’s Middlesex County, who is the founder of ag advocacy agency Fresh Air Media and the voice behind social media’s popular Fresh Air Farmer. “The challenge is if they all go to Google like we all do for everything. Whatever is on the first few pages is what sets their mindset on a particular issue. But what if those first five pages are fake news? Then ag is up the creek.”
Luckily, there is a way to help get agriculture back down that creek. Farmers need to guide consumers through the fiction-masquerading-as-fact confusion.
“At different junctures in agriculture we’ve had to add different features to our resumé. Now communication is one of those things we need to add,” says Campbell.
It comes down to building authentic, trust-based, transparent relationships with consumers.
“Our brains happen to be wired to believe sensational stuff immediately,” says Campbell. “But once we have a personal connection, that supersedes the sensational. If you can develop personal relationships — whether one-on-one or on a larger social-media scale, you’ll find that people are going to be far more likely to believe the facts that you present than the anonymous fake news page they read online.”
Building relationships is about building trust. While that might happen most easily via social media for some farmers, it can also happen after church, during a golf game, or while sitting in the stands at your kid’s hockey game. Be proud to be a farmer, and be willing to share the facts that go along with your farm reality.
“When was the last time you had a conversation about what you do on your farm? The people around you already have viewpoints on your production practices; you just haven’t had a conversation with them about it yet,” says Campbell. “And, chances are you’re coming from similar perspectives. You both care about what you feed your kids, about environmental issues, about animal welfare.”
So, start the conversation. All it takes is:
A willingness to be open and accessible
Consumers want real information about the things they care about. If you aren’t willing to provide quality, timely, honest information, they will collect their information elsewhere.
“I’ve had people telling me that if they know information is coming from an activist, they take it with a grain of salt. But after they hear it so many times, they can’t help starting to think: ‘What if it is that way?’” says Campbell. “If you look at trust surveys, farmers are at the top and activists are down around lawyers and used car salesmen. But if that’s the only person they ever hear from, eventually they’ll believe it.”
An ability to listen
Consumers are not making up their fears. While the activists and sales people who have stoked the fears are motivated by money, the spark of concern existed before.
“You have to ask where the fake news is coming from? What’s made them believe it?” says Campbell. “If you pat them on the head and say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that; we’ve got it taken care of,’ you haven’t answered any questions. But if you listen to the root cause of why they are concerned… then you can go about answering those specific issues.”
A commitment to communicating frequently
Your marriage, friendships, and working relationships wouldn’t survive long if you put in just one session of conversation per month or year, no matter how great the conversation at that time. The same goes for building trust with the wider public.
A whole lot of genuine care
“We have to be factual. You can’t make stuff up. But, remember that simply stating and arguing that ‘this is how it shall be’ is never going to get us anywhere,” says Campbell.
“The challenge we have in agriculture now is that, for each one of us, there is no such thing as fact. It’s all perception. You can argue till you’re blue in face about facts, but if someone doesn’t believe you, it won’t matter what you say.”
So, focus on building relationships and showing care. It’s a lot easier for someone to cross to your perspective if you’ve built bridges rather than walls between you.
Campbell believes agriculture is coming around to the idea that communication is the single and only way to counter fake news.
Many farmers used to ask him why he bothered trying to correct consumers’ food and farming misconceptions, advocate for agriculture, and invest in social media. Then, consumer pressure started to force changes that aren’t in either farmers’ or consumers’ best interests, like restaurant chains that started insisting on new production standards, and governments that started imposing new regulations.
Now, more and more farmers are stepping into the ring alongside him. And, he says, those who aren’t yet willing to speak up for agriculture are no longer so critical of his and others’ ag-advocacy.
“It’s coming. There is growing recognition that those who are participating in the conversation are doing it for good reasons and not wasting their time,” he says.
What a difference a few years make, points out Campbell. Not so long ago, farmers worried that consumers didn’t care about food production and farming realities. Now, consumers clearly care. If we can shift that care into pro-ag advocacy, imagine what an industry we can build.
People are paying attention, Campbell says. “They want to know, which means we’ve got our wish. Now we have to fulfil what we wanted. We have to give people the information they need and build the good will so if we need them down the road, we have relationships in place.”
Anti-ag messaging: it’s all about the money
A decade ago, people basically trusted their food and the farmers who created it. Today, there is an epidemic of untruths about agriculture and food swirling around the internet, cropping up in conversations, and having an impact on everything from what people put in their grocery carts to what laws our politicians hang their hats upon.
The average consumer is now three generations removed from a farm. Because they no longer understand the heart and soul of farming, convincing them to accept sensational, fear-based untruths about what agriculture does and doesn’t do is easy. And, it can be very, very lucrative.
In the new internet reality, anyone is allowed to broadcast anything they want, founded or otherwise. More importantly, anyone is allowed to profit from those broadcasts, provided they can capture and then effectively translate the attention they receive into product sales, advertising dollars or donations.
“Not knowing anything about (individuals involved in anti-ag messaging), I’m sure they got onto the scene from being concerned. They might have had concerns about big, broad-ranging issues, and they may want to do good at some point. But then all of a sudden they stumble into, ‘Whoa, there is money to be made here,’” says Campbell.
It turns out that fear — concocted or otherwise — can earn real money.
In 2014, Vani Hari moved from being relatively unknown to being a leading (i.e. well-known and very well compensated) food and health blogger and activist. Her blog, called Food Babe, achieved viral readership after she began attacking Subway’s use of azodicarbonamide, an FDA-approved dough conditioner, in its bread. Though the same chemical was used with no backlash in hundreds of other bread and bakery products sold from Starbucks to McDonalds to grocery stores, Food Babe specifically attacked Subway’s use of the “dangerous chemical.”
“If you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it,” she was quoted widely as saying at the time.
Hari didn’t create the concern about artificial ingredients in food: that already existed. She simply tapped into a lucrative way to benefit from the concern.
“If you choose a specific word that is hard to pronounce, hard to remember, hard to spell, you can convince your audience it must be scientific and it must be worthy of concern,” says Campbell. “You just have to know how to pinpoint it.”
It’s not just individual bloggers who benefit from fanning flames of fear. Advocacy groups and agenda-based organizations might be manned by people with deep convictions who believe they are doing the right thing. But at the end of the day, the organizations have big capital investments, big budgets, big staffs, reminds Campbell.
“How do they make those budgets? By getting big donations. By selling books, selling keynotes, selling natural medicinal products that haven’t been tested.”
Take it one step further: it’s not just individuals or organizations that benefit from fake news. Mega companies like Google and Facebook do too, says Campbell.
Google and Facebook’s power and wealth come from just one source: convincing users to spend time on their platforms. People online mean advertising dollars; more people online for longer mean more advertising dollars.
Google and Facebook know the best way to hold your attention is to feed you more of what you already want, already think and already prioritize. So, it uniquely customizes what it shows you based on one’s search history, demographic information and a shockingly robust understanding of one’s fears, biases, tendencies and priorities. If you’re already scared, Google’s search algorithm knows you’ll keep clicking if it prioritizes articles that build on that fear. If you’re already mad, Facebook will make you want to read more by embedded articles and ads that fuel your anger. Designed to serve their business, the algorithms’ unintended consequence is they polarize people, amplify fringe voices, and reinforce our (often negative) default opinions.
Is a mom a dupe if she stops sending her son to Subway over concerns about azodicarbonamide? Is the Facebook friend ignorant if he reposts a blatantly wrong opinion piece about farmers’ abuse of their livestock? Is the grocery store consumer crazy if he suspects conventional farmers are trying to kill him through chemicals? Actually, no. They’re just pawns in a very, very lucrative game. If we can see them as such, we’re positioned to open respectful conversations and, ultimately, tackle their fear with fact.
This article first appeared at AGCanada.com.