News - May 19, 2016

Social media intensifies food battle

Albert Sikkema

Social media are a new playing field in which food policy is discussed and shaped. With the help of these media, critics have got together in an informal movement pitched against the food industry, observes communication scientist Tim Stevens.

According to the doctoral researcher in the Strategic Communication chair group, little research has been done on the role of social media in the agrofood sector. In the social media, mass communication meets one-to-one communication between friends and kindred spirits. This means that social media not only spread news, but also form the basis for social networks and policy influencing.

Social media play a key role, for example, in the media hypes around food scandals such as the horsemeat scandal. On social media these kinds of issues tend to be reduced to a conflict between mainstream and organic farming, in which the scandal feeds mistrust of the food industry. Because the food industry is not very transparent, critics in the social media have plenty of chance to spread their ideas, which then get magnified in ‘echo chambers’, says Stevens in his thesis Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

Social media also influence food policy indirectly. An informal food protest movement has grown up: a network of people who campaign internationally. Their interests and ideologies are diverse, says Stevens, but they find a common enemy in ‘the’ food industry. This food-related movement can influence mainstream communication and policy development through hypes and framing. The food industry is aware of that danger, notes Stevens. In 2008, for instance, Monsanto doubled the size of its communications department, particularly the social media team.