Truth, Lies and Culture Wars – Social listening analysis of meat and dairy persuasion narratives

November 2023 Report
Truth, Lies and Culture Wars - report cover image

Executive summary and key findings

In an age where information flows freely, misinformation is a potent force that can shape public perception and influence elections, corporate and political decisions. This study is a deep dive into information and misinformation on social media around production and consumption of animal products. We also examine the narratives surrounding meat and dairy alternatives and the science on health and environmental impacts of our food system.

Agricultural production is responsible for an estimated 37% of all global green- house gas emissions – of which emissions from animal agriculture represent over half (57%). The sector generates 32% of the world’s methane emissions, making it the single largest source of human-made methane emissions. Animal agriculture takes up a disproportionate amount of land: over 80% of the world’s land is used by animal agriculture, which only contributes 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of its total protein. Meanwhile, crops produce 82% of global calories and 63% of total protein. If the livestock sector grows at a ‘business as usual’ rate, without diets shifting, by 2030 the sector will account for 49% of the global emissions budget for 1.5°C degrees.

In other words, as meat and dairy production grows at the current rate, its proportion of global emissions will grow to the point that it is almost half of the global emissions deemed acceptable for the world to limit warming to 1.5°C degrees.
High levels of red and processed meat consumption is linked to ‘a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and premature death’. In wealthier regions people are eating more animal-derived protein than is required or considered healthy. For example, one study found that in North America, Latin America and Europe red meat consumption is 300-600% higher than daily recommended levels. It found that consumption of other animal-derived protein, such as poultry and eggs, was also over recommended levels. Consumption of fruits, vegetables and plant-sourced protein was roughly half the recommended level.

There is clear scientific consensus on emissions from animal agriculture. Despite this, calls for a shift to healthier and more plant-based diets, and for greater environmental regulation of the sector, often face significant backlash from farmers, meat and dairy companies and associated scientists. Some of the most severe backlash is found on social media – which is why we commissioned this study.

Changing Markets commissioned Ripple Research to review over 285 million digital posts, mostly on Twitter (X), related to meat and dairy. They spanned a 14-month period from 1 June 2022 to 31 July 2023.

The data was extracted using opinion mining technology, leveraging Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms and machine learning techniques. This was combined with analysis and background research from a team of data specialists. Out of this, around 948,000 conversations were found to feature misinformation. This was then investigated for specific trends. We were able to categorise misinformation into seven specific types. We also analysed when the misinformation was posted and what topics sparked a peak in traffic on social media.

Our key findings

Misinformation trends

We categorised misinformation into two types:

  • ‘disparage’: narratives that disparage alternatives to meat and dairy, such as alternative protein and vegan diets (78% of misinformation)
  • ‘enhance’: narratives that promote meat and dairy products or diets for their perceived benefits (22% of misinformation)

Disparaging meat and dairy alternatives: five attack points

We found five main attack points in disparaging posts:

  1. representing alternative protein products as unhealthy
  2. discrediting alternatives for their climate or environmental impact
  3. leveraging cultural polarisations (‘the culture wars’)
  4. undermining independent scientific research on the impacts of animal
  5. framing changing diets as part of an ‘elite’ agenda for ‘The Great Reset.’

Enhancing meat and dairy: main themes

We found two main themes in posts that promoted meat and dairy:

  1. ‘Health-washing’ – positioning animal-based food products as essential for good health.
  2. ‘Greenwashing’ – framing animal products as environmentally friendly options.

Both these narratives are heavily used by meat and dairy companies for their cor- porate and product branding, as highlighted in our study.

Misinformation peaks
Analysing misinformation over time highlights the frequency of posts around certain topics. A major driver is misinformation generated by conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories like ‘The Great Reset’ connect powerful people like Bill Gates to misinformation about lab-grown meat. We also saw how climate denialists attacked alternative protein products as worse for the climate. Peaks also happened around UC Davis’ study, which was published as a preprint meaning it hadn’t been peer reviewed, suggesting lab-grown meat is 25 times more environmentally damaging than beef.

Misinfluencer analysis

Our misinfluencer analysis investigates accounts driving engagement and posting most frequently on certain subjects. It shows 50% of engagement comes from just 50 accounts. Many of these are self-described wellness experts or notable far-right and right-wing media and political figures. This suggests certain people are trying to undermine scientific consensus on the reduction of meat and dairy consumption necessary to stop climate change and improve public health.

Case studies

We carried out two case studies to gain a deeper understanding of the spread of misinformation on two critical topics:

  • the preprint study from UC Davis suggesting lab-grown meat is worse for the environment than conventional meat
  • misinformation around nitrogen policy proposals in the Netherlands and farmer protests.

The first shows how a non-peer-reviewed study on the impacts of lab-grown meat created a spike in online conversations. This study became linked to real-world policy discussions in response to the Irish government’s plan to reduce farming emissions by 25% by 2030. Governments already face a huge uphill battle on policy around meat and dairy from lobbyists and other representatives of the sector. Misinformation and sensationalism creates online hysteria that often diminishes the political will to act.

The second shows how a transnational far-right movement is not only weighing in on, but driving, much of the misinformation around Dutch nitrogen policies. Our analysis shows how the far-right has used protests in the Netherlands to capitalise on anti-government sentiments. The result is an increasingly polarised and divisive debate fuelled by conspiracy theories. This makes badly needed progress on a real-life environmental pollution problem even more challenging.

Our report outlines how much of the misinformation we’ve identified can be linked directly to the meat and dairy industry.

Misinformation focused on culture wars and conspiracy theories cannot be directly linked with the meat and dairy industry – it’s driven instead by a far-right agenda. However, their agendas can overlap. So while the industry may not be driving more extreme misinformation, they ultimately benefit from ‘business as usual’.

Misinformation around animal farming and meat and dairy consumption has dangerous implications for policy development. This is evident in moments when social media misinformation intersects with the real world. For example, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s statement he would drop a non-existent meat tax was rooted in culture war ideas of preserving personal freedoms. Similarly, the disputed study from UC Davis researchers was used for arguments on why the Irish government’s plans to reduce farming emissions were misguided. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands the future government will have to tackle the nitrogen crisis against a backdrop of international far-right attention, on top of local increases in populism and polarisation. At the time of writing the far-right party PVV led by Gerd Wilders gained the highest number of seats in the recent Dutch election and might lead the government, potentially reversing climate policies in the country.

We are also seeing a growing surge in policies attempting to, and succeeding in, banning lab-grown and synthetic meat and meat and dairy-related terms for plant-based products. These can be linked to the misinformation identified in our report.

Debate around regulating meat and dairy production and consumption is becoming more divisive – fuelled by concerted efforts to spread misinformation on social media.

Increasing polarisation on a critical climate and health issue risks making policy in this area more difficult. It’s vital that governments with high levels of animal agriculture and meat and dairy consumption reaffirm their commitments to the Global Methane Pledge, as well as to addressing the wider climate and health impacts of their food systems. By looking at the evidence, rather than reacting to polarised online misinformation, they can make positive choices for people and the planet.

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