Misinformation through social media

Animal agriculture needs to monitor networks and develop appropriate countermeasures to present valid facts to our consumers.

In a recent research report in the April issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Infection Control, researchers at Columbia University evaluated tweets which mentioned antibiotics to evaluate the degree of misinformation and the extent to which consumers may be influenced by incorrect messages.

Approximately 50,000 status updates involving antibiotics were evaluated over five months in 2009. The tweets were categorized into one of eleven subject groups including “administration,” “side effects” and “usage” of antibiotics. The “misunderstanding and misuse” category comprised only 700 of the more than 50,000 tweets, initially suggesting that that misinformation is not a problem.

In the case of 345 status updates which incorporated incorrect concepts and statements, these tweets reached a total of 172,000 followers. Another category with 302 status updates eventually reached 850,000 recipients. According to the president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Dr. Cathryn Murphy, “these findings reminded us that we need to continue monitoring networks such as Twitter and explore ways to positively impact public health using social networks.”

Antibiotics are a major issue in intensive animal agriculture. Misinformation and distorted public perception is driving legislation in a direction which may be deleterious to consumers. Politically motivated and inappropriate regulations have the potential to unjustifiably impact the productivity of dairy, poultry and swine enterprises.

We have recently witnessed a number of public issue campaigns based on “false science” such as the fraudulently stated association between childhood vaccination and the apparent increase in the prevalence rate of autism spectrum. Much of the misplaced concern was fueled by the social media including the internet where anyone has the right to post anything, irrespective of validity.

This structured scientific evaluation of the social media on the subject of dissemination of misinformation of antibiotics is of concern not only with regard to this narrow topic but may extend to the broader issues associated with intensive agriculture. Animal welfare, sustainability and environmental issues are highly emotional and frequently misunderstood, complex subjects which cannot be reduced to a simple tweet or a sound bite.

It may be of value for a consortium of industry groups to fund a research program evaluating social media with respect to aspects of flock and herd welfare. The findings may assist in developing appropriate responses and strategy to counteract the organizations which are intent on disrupting highly productive cost-efficient and sustainable production of eggs, milk and meat.

We are unfortunately aware of the concept that “frequently repeated lies become the truth” coined during the late 1930s in Europe and the more recent adage that “perception is the reality.” This suggests the need to understand how false information is disseminated by activists using the social media. It is only by analysis and evaluation that appropriate countermeasures can be developed in the context of a broader strategy to present valid facts to our consumers.