Viral disinformation in food & ag: are we prepared?

January 28, 2022

Last year, in collaboration with AgriFutures Australia and The Institute for the Future, we wrote a report on 5 major forces we believe will shape the future of food and ag in the coming decade. Now, we are diving deeper on one of these forces in particular: viral disinformation in the food system.

At this point, we suspect you might be asking two questions:

  • What exactly is viral disinformation, and
  • Why should we care?

The basics: What is viral disinformation?

Viral disinformation is dishonest information that is deliberately meant to manipulate people and designed to circulate widely and rapidly. Disinformation is distinct from, and more nefarious than, its close relative: misinformation. Misinformation is misleading or false information that is not created or shared with the explicit intent to manipulate others — in other words, it’s an honest mistake. While the impacts of misinformation are no less important, it’s the deliberate intent to manipulate that makes disinformation in particular such a threat.

Of course, the idea of using biased and misleading communications to influence people’s beliefs and attitudes is not a new phenomenon. But what really sets viral disinformation apart from propaganda is its democratized and decentralized nature. Today, technology enables virtually anybody to create and disseminate false information that is disguised to look genuine. And technology and social media also mean that disinformation can organically spread far and wide with little control once it has been created.

What does this have to do with food & ag?

From democratic interference to pandemic-related conspiracy theories, viral disinformation has risen to the world’s collective attention in the past 5 years. But, disinformation is by no means restricted to the realm of politics and global crises, and food and agriculture are no exception. Examples of disinformation impacting the sector range from campaigns that are seemingly innocuous to those that are downright dangerous, including:

  • In an apparent attempt to boost Lady Gaga’s rankings on the billboards, users on social media fabricated a Starbucks promotion that the company eventually had to publicly acknowledge and discredit;
  • A click-bait video spreading falsehoods about products ranging from rice to baby foods generated nearly 93 million views on Facebook within a week of being posted;
  • A Washington DC based pizza restaurant was embroiled in a politically motivated disinformation campaign targeting Hillary Clinton, which ultimately resulted in a shooting at the restaurant.

These examples make it clear that individual brands and businesses, as well as entire industries, can fall prey to viral disinformation, and with very material consequences.

So, what do we do about it?

This is exactly the question we are asking. Over the next few months, we will be doing a deep-dive on disinformation in food and ag to better understand the threats facing the sector, and crucially, how stakeholders across the food and ag system can better respond to and manage these threats. As we go on this journey, we’ll be regularly sharing what we are learning. So if you’d like to come along for the ride, stay tuned!