Blog originally posted on my old site on 27 November 2015. See the French translation.
Although I am at a busy time with the beginning of the academic cycle, I will try to finish this ten-part series by the end of 2016 with the book: Science in the Age of Stupid out by the spring. Note that this blog was written before Donald Trump’s success in the US primaries. For an assessment of some of the events of the first half or 2016, see my post-Brexit blog: Living in the Age of Stupid.
I am sure there are days when the Food Babe, Vani Hari, must close her laptop, look out of her living room window and marvel: How is it that a woman with a diploma in computer science and without any education in toxicology, chemistry or nutrition could become a global leader in diet and public health, dictating to governments, large corporations and millions of followers what ingredients are permissible in our diets.
The fact that most of her claims have been thoroughly debunked and ridiculed by the scientific community has not hurt her rapid rise to fame, far from it. Every evidence-based attack seems to make her more popular, further swelling the ranks and energising her #FoodBabeArmy. As the Food Babe, Vani is a shining example of how social media has created a new, clever and powerful form of stupid. Indeed, a little knowledge is an unnecessary thing.
Vani is a shining example of how social media has created a new, clever and powerful form of stupid. Indeed, a little knowledge is an unnecessary thing.
While there are a wide number of food and lifestyle gurus plying their trade on social media (in the English-speaking world, we find raw food neo-religious genius David Wolfe, anti-vaxxer Natural Nancy, the anti-rational Health Ranger at Natural News, Living Traditionally, Mamavation …), I will concentrate on the Food Babe for this analysis as she has been the most evident in breaking rules of good conduct and pushing social media beyond the limits of responsibility. All of these actors’ pages have exculpatory clauses and disclaimers that tell you to not rely on information their pages provide while also justifying that the products they endorse may include referral fee payments.
Social media, as a communications tool, concentrates on emotional stories over factual evidence, building perceptions around bias seeking confirmation within shared belief communities. Anecdotes spread widely and relentlessly repeated can usurp facts and defy the need for verification. When Vani, on the Food Babe TV channel, screams into a camera that some unpronounceable chemical, used by some evil corporation, is latently lurking in our bodies and does not need to be there, her concerned and benevolent followers kick into campaign gear spreading the message virally. Within hours, health authorities and large companies (from Kraft and Subway to General Mills and Starbucks) react, not with scientific evidence or information, but with precautionary measures and declarations of substance removal. There is no dialogue or exchange of ideas on food safety or reasons why food scientists used that substance. Social media creates an environment where facts lie vulnerable to a blitzkrieg of emotional and highly irrational columns of Panzer tanks.
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.
Many would argue that charlatans like the Food Babe have been around for as long as there has been snake oil to sell, but this time, with the tools of social media, the results are different, reaching a far greater audience, far faster and with greater effect on individuals, companies and institutions.
A communications revolution
Every change in communications technologies has enormous consequences on the main institutional structures of the day. When Gutenberg developed movable type, it was intended to increase public access to Bibles, not to disseminate dissenting voices against the Catholic Church (that then fueled the Protestant Reformation). When the telephone was invented, many aristocratic writers were furious at the demise of social decorum and vulgarisation of human interaction. Cinema and radio changed political structures and allowed an ease of manipulative propaganda on an unsuspecting population in the 1930s while the advent of television brought about a sharp rise in middle class consumerism changing the economic structures and social aspiration.
There has been no communications revolution as significant as the digitalisation and open diffusion of knowledge. The Internet and its socialisation (Web 2.0) have already disrupted significant institutions and markets, transforming music, culture, travel and business, the way we communicate around an interconnected world and consider what it means to be in a community. We are just at the advent of changes that will affect institutions likely for generations to come (including banking, finance, entertainment, taxis, hotels and, of course, politics and regulations).
What these communications revolutions have in common is that the societies welcomed the new technologies often with an innocence to the messages the communicators were delivering. Joseph Goebbels was able to package powerful emotional messages with cinematic effects without the public capacity to discern fact from fiction on the big screen. So too when Orson Welles caused panic with his War of the Worlds radio programme. A decade later, George Orwell saw the manipulative capacity of those then new communications tools when he penned Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Still in its nascence, social media is finding many innocent people falling victim to the manipulative skills of charlatans using anecdotes to create fear and provide alternative solutions. Like previously emerging communications tools, it will take some time for people to adapt and realise that not everything on Facebook or twitter is true because a friend (or many dozen friends) repeated it. It may be wishful thinking, but the day may well come that statements by Vani Hari will be treated with the same seriousness as spam emails from Nigerian billionaires.
Mass-messaging: Wash, rinse, repeat
Today the Mommy Bloggers and environmental campaigners throw volumes of anecdotal content disguised as evidence out onto social media in a personalised, pseudo-authoritative manner that the public is not able to discern as political activism. A warm fatherly doctor’s face, a motivational achiever who is otherwise just like me, a person fighting to protect my safety or my freedom to choose – all of these Web 2.0 snake-oil salesmen have used the fog of the new communications tools to gain trust, sell their wares, change policy and gain influence.
These actors on the “tiny screen” have undermined expertise and trust in institutions and organisations and innocent individuals follow them at their peril whether it involves not vaccinating their children, treating cancer with baking soda or embracing with conviction one of the explosions of dietary fads: gluten-free, Paleo, organic, lactose-free … Clearly there have been diet fads before social media took over the expertise channels, but nothing of the speed we see today – an explosion that has propelled stupid into the mainstream via a form of mass-messaging.
The difference is the “virality”. Prior to the socialisation of the web, viral marketing efforts would take much longer to build up via word of mouth – the first Star Wars film, for example, took months to build up a following. Today a film makes or breaks it on the first weekend. A message can go viral on social media in a matter of minutes and through repetition and iteration deliver any message, however absurd, to its destination. Time is essential for quality checks, assessment and the invocation of the stupidometer. Social media moves far too fast for facts to catch up with stupid.
Just before the Thanksgiving weekend, several American activist Facebook sites (Just Label it, March Against Monsanto, EWG) mass-messaged the same, dated idea – that the problem with GMOs is that they combine two things that don’t occur together in nature. The argument is clearly stupid – the ingredients in bread also don’t occur together in nature but that does not imply that bread is bad (and not everything that occurs in nature is, by definition, good). But seeing that argument on so many pages, and then amplified by the network of anti-GMO Mommy blogger sites, Facebook shares and retweets, the average follower to these pages would find this information convincing through relentless repetition.
Any speaker knows that to deliver a message to an audience, it needs to be said multiple times. With repetition, the recipient develops a familiarity to an idea which softens any rough edges or questionable elements. I might disagree with a point, but if it is delivered to me multiple times through different messengers, only the most confident of minds can stand up to the force of such mass messaging. It takes a lot of energy and conviction to not accept the power of a widely expressed message.
Stupid can be deadly
This democratisation of expertise has created an arrogance of faux intellect (ie, stupid with an attitude): individuals visit their doctor informing them how their ailments must be treated (or in the case of vaccinating their children, not treated); bemused farmers do not know how to react when consumers tell them how they need to grow their crops; brand managers are reacting (without contacting their scientists) when millions sign petitions regarding the use of a food additive in their recipes; and policymakers are compelled to include pressure groups as stakeholders due to their means to mobilise fear or outrage on Avaaz. None of these professions has found a clear way to put stupid in its context. Some examples of the manipulation of social media:
- 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.
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.