How to Deal with Stupid: Part 2/10 – Social Media: How stupid gets its wings

Not: “Share if you have evidence”

The #FoodBabeArmy is not an intellectually elite Internet tribe. Few of Vani’s followers are terribly concerned about evidence or citations. Food is personal and they want to feel good about themselves and the food they eat. And they want to share that good feeling with their friends (Share if you care!). Scientists speak in a language they don’t understand and that makes them uncomfortable. They have repeatedly been told that they are feeling uncomfortable because these scientists are all Monsanto-paid shills (when you don’t understand the science, attack the scientist). The Food Babe joined in the witch-hunt on the science communicator, University of Florida professor, Kevin Folta, with the vindictiveness of a wolf.

Vani doesn’t need science or evidence; she delivers trust, adoration and reassurance about consumer fears and concerns – facts don’t matter in a world built on feel-good rhetoric communally shared with opposite views excluded.

The Food Babe has celebrated that she bans anyone who questions her claims or her sincerity so the likelihood of dialogue and exchange of differing views is highly diminished. Banning people on social media pages, even for the most innocent of questions, has become a very common tool for creating an image of widespread agreement. By banning those who disagree, Ms Hari has created the perfect breeding ground for stupid and it grows from well-fertilised compost.

  • The Chipotle restaurant chain has tried to capitalise on the fear of synthetic food additives and industrial farming, provoking the pro-natural beast while pretending to be the small, local, organic alternative. By building up a perception of natural, local ingredients being much better than food with additives and stabilisers while operating at a global corporate level, it should come as no surprise that Chipotle restaurants would suffer food safety issues. From September to November, 2015, they have had three different unrelated food safety crises: salmonella, norovirus and a series of E. coli outbreaks that is still spreading at the time this blog was published (November 2015). Those social media gurus who have been demanding unsafe food distribution practices have been silent on the Chipotle crises (if it is not retweeted, it did not happen!) but the empty restaurants and collapsing Chipotle share-price is evidence enough.
  • Social media has created a perception that bees are dying off by the billions and that we are doomed to global mass starvation if we do not immediately ban neonicotinoid pesticides. After three years of hysterical social media campaigns (Greenpeace even has two save-the-bees campaign sites competing with each other), the facts are not meeting the social media reality: the bees are doing quite well; field trials have shown little risk from neonicotinoids (although data available suggest that untested organic farming approved pesticides are more dangerous to bees, in some cases wiping out up to 90% of hibernating bumblebees); and farmers are reporting drops in production yields without adequate crop protection measures. Facts can be avoided as the activist social media campaigners are stepping up their data-free scare campaigns, paying scientists to produce some numbers or trace evidence and fundraising in order to keep regulators frightened.

    Are these bee campaigners liars or just stupid? Those caught in their narrow belief silos who dispel contrary data on impulse are merely actors marching in this parade of stupid. I believe though that those profiting from this fear campaign in the organic industry food lobby know full well that their pesticides are as dangerous if not more, and their daily lies and scaremongering to gain market share seem remorseless.

How does social media change the communications process?

Since the storytelling days of Moses, communications has been built around the idea of one speaker diffusing a message to many followers. Trust was built into the role of the credible messenger who owned the information and transmitted it to the audience. The success of the communication process depended on how well the message was received (or in complex structures: cascaded) down the targeted chain. Good communications was about building the strength and credibility of the messenger. Until the widespread use of the Internet, we had received messages from widely agreed authoritative sources (leaders, national news broadcasts, great thinkers, doctors, scientists …)

With social media, the trust in the messenger has been broken (we have lost trust in our institutions, organisations and authoritative experts and role models). It is no longer about the one messenger successfully transmitting a message to the many, but rather the many transmitting the same message to the one (me). The many messengers to the single audience entails repetition, from many angles and a different (peer to peer) trust relationship. A message is received (ie, successfully communicated) when I buy into it (the virtues of ownership, empowerment) and then become a messenger retweeting or sharing the message to the next target.

Stupid can be clever

An illustration: The Food Babe will make a comment about how a chemical food additive she can’t pronounce is also used in yoga mats, add a “Yuck!” and a funny picture, and this meme will go viral in minutes. Having seen it dozens of times from many sources in less than an hour, I am fairly confident that it is factual and in turn share the message forward, becoming part of this mass messenger service. Rather than a cascade, the Food Babe’s message spirals out from a central point, gaining followers exponentially and reinforcing this trust authority. She then uses this power to demand that the restaurant chain removes this useful additive, creating a caring image with power to influence and further enlarging her trust circles. Vani knows how to take science and make it look ridiculous.

Stupid can be clever.

Communications has become communal, built in silos of communities that find comfort and reinforcement in agreement. I belong to a tribe. If I disagree with the messages coming from the many to the one, then I leave that community. If I challenge the community, the communication tools have created the ban mechanism – I am excluded from the trust circle or shouted out with a language that is anything but civil. Familiarity and kinship are important trust builders and we find comfort in shared belief systems – tribes. These systems do not welcome dialogue.

With the traditional communications model, if I had dissented or did not accept the message, I was largely isolated (so long as the communicating authority maintained credibility). My isolation would more likely force me to question my logic and belief systems. Now dissenting voices leave and find their own tribal communities to reinforce their thinking. In these communities, any doubt can be dealt with by dogmatic wordplay. There is no questioning of their logic and belief systems. In other words, with this social media communications structure, stupid has a greater opportunity to thrive and proliferate.

For example, for decades, under the messages communicated by health authorities, scientists and doctors, children received vaccines for polio, TB and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). There was little dissent and great public health threats were eradicated. Even the Andrew Wakefield study that linked the MMR triple jab vaccine to autism was widely debunked with discussions limited largely to the UK. But as social media grew, so did questions of the risks of vaccines and their ineffectiveness (using a clever rhetorical manipulation of data on flu vaccine failures extrapolated to all vaccines). The more authorities and scientists challenged the positions of celebrity gurus like Jenny McCarthy, the more popular they became, locking themselves in their own comfort silos and negating all counter arguments as propaganda from paid pharmaceutical shills. The anti-vaxx community has swelled, threatening the public health achievements made over the last half century. This is a level of stupid reversing progress made by science never seen before in the history of humanity.

Stupid gets its wings

So stupid gets its wings on social media and can affect personal decisions, whether it is to eat organic, not vaccinate your children or treat cancer with baking soda. Surrounded by relentlessly repeated anecdotes, even a fairly rational person may feel less of a need to seek evidence or question the data that stupid is using in its arguments. These silos can do a good job fighting off clear evidence to the contrary with trust drivers and feel-good rhetoric.

Where stupid starts to fly and get dangerous is when it then tries to change laws and regulations – to affect how others can and cannot act, suffer economic consequences or health threats. This is the longer term goal of this pamphlet – on how stupid can effect policy. First we will look at the religious zeal of these eco-campaigners and their playbook before getting to their policy tricks. That is Part Three in How to Deal with Stupid.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. AlainCo says:

    just to connect your vision with others

    this article in french
    cite this editorial,2825.html
    talk of “democracy of gullible”…
    presented in a book

    google translated:
    “For several months, the glyphosate molecule is the subject of a serious controversy. Patented in the 1970s as the active ingredient of Roundup herbicide, it has become one of the most sold in the world herbicides. He was evaluated numerous times by various regulatory bodies have consistently found that he represented a low risk to human health.

    But the controversy began in March 2015 with a study by the International Agency for Research against Cancer (IARC), dependent on the World Health Organization (WHO), which identified a carcinogenic risk. Certainly, a more recent study by the same organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said it was “unlikely” that glyphosate is carcinogenic “to humans who are exposed there by the ‘food “. Similarly, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considered the carcinogenic hazard “improbable”, but the doubt is there.

    Finally, the registration of glyphosate arriving in late June expiration is challenged under such a vast smear campaign on the networks and in the media.

    In his book Democracy gullible , Gerald Bronner describes how the Internet has revolutionized the marketplace of ideas and how – especially on scientific issues – it tends to create a society of hypochondriacs.

    To understand the processes at work, it takes a few emblematic examples of questionable assumptions like astrology or the existence of the Loch Ness monster and measurement reviews the first 30 sites available on the Net. In each case, it shows that if one takes into account that the sites that take place, 70% of them present arguments in favor of these beliefs we know yet without real foundation.

    So I wanted to test the thing on the subject of glyphosate. To do this, I entered the term “glyphosate” in the Google search engine and viewed the first 30 proposed sites, eliminating those that corresponded to retail sites. The result is amazing in its accuracy. 30 visited sites, 8 are neutral, 16 have arguments for banning and 6 only offer arguments for the use of this substance. Thus, 72% of sites that take position denigrate glyphosate. They are generally linked to organizations or individuals who campaign against pesticides.

    The case of glyphosate seems to copy that describes Gerald Bronner, that rumors that once were confined to small groups, can now grow. They arrive to spread at the speed of networks under the effects of one hand, the mass dissemination and availability of information (the amount of information generated on networks has become immeasurable) and other hand, free access to public information market. Everyone can express themselves on the Internet.

    In Bronner, what we find today on the networks is not representative of public opinion, but only those who express the strongest there. The sound of more motivated to learn activists and believers is deafening. The beliefs are expressed in almost total silence on the part of those who could present counter arguments but who do not, probably due to lack of motivation and time. And this is how some beliefs may outweigh others. Not because they have proven their veracity, but because they have made themselves more visible and convincing undecided.

    A battle is unfolding before our eyes. The proliferation of bans precaution name goes against a rational risk management, using the principle of individual responsibility. This is particularly the case when economic actors are encouraged to prohibit certain substances and replace them with others over which they do not have the same perspective.

    It is crucial that the scientific world, the intellectuals but also producers or consumers take responsibility. It would be wrong to give up and let the anxiety and alarmist discourse proliferate by renouncing the ideas of teaching work.

    Cécile Philippe is executive director of the Molinari Economic Institute.

    Liked by 1 person

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