Food for Thought: Misrepresentation of GMOs in Social Media

by platonicorchestra on April 1, 2015 - 9:43am

       Since about twenty years ago, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a part of our everyday world. With the goal of producing seed variants that are more resistant to pesticides as well as being capable of warding off insects, scientists were able to create a “superior” amalgam of organisms by merging the DNA of various species and make large-scale farming a more efficient method. Today, the world produces more food than it actually needs. However, this relatively new science presents many unknowns, and scientists and the public alike are not all yet ready to accept its safety. In this way, this issue sprouts a controversial debate about the safety and the ethical use of GMOs, against which many anti-GMO groups are standing up to fight. In this article, we will be looking in particular at the reasons behind the influence of social media on the public’s misperception of GMOs.

       Firstly, the general consensus among the world’s scientists is that there is no evidence that GMOs have a direct negative effect on human health. Based on Pew Research Center’s recent poll on “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society” (2015), 88% of American scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, compared to 37% of U.S. citizens. This 51 point gap clearly demonstrates the disparity between the public and the scientists’ perception. While the mistrust of this new science is understandable, there has not been a single case of illness due to GMO consumption in over thirty years (Suzuki). Further, the scientists who contest this fact are sometimes even named “junk scientists” within the scientific community (McHughen). At least the majority of scientists seem to be confident on GMOs place in society. In any case, there seems to be a miscommunication, or at least a misrepresentation regarding GMOs in our society.

       In Canada, there are dozens of anti-GMO groups operating on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, such as GMOFreeUSA and GMOFreeCanada, aiming to raise awareness of the dangers of GMOs. These groups often share sensationalist pictures and articles that tend to display GMOs in a very negative light. For example, GMOFreeCanada shared an infographic and a study that claimed that exposure to pesticide augmented autism risk by 60% (original Facebook post in Works Cited). However, the linked article clearly stated “this study almost certainly underestimates the true strength of the association between pesticides and neurological problems” (Doyle). Here, information is manipulated and certain facts are being left out in order to fit the group’s agenda. Even though these groups aim to raise awareness of the “dangers” of GMOs, they might be harming society instead by providing misleading and inaccurate information.

       Even though causation does not equal correlation, we have to take into consideration that social media plays a huge role in the global society’s perception on GMOs: in a 2013 study, over 600,000 tweets related to GMO and GMO-labelling have been identified (Smith 237). On the Internet, information spreads quickly, and it is easy to be swept in an “echo-chamber” in which a popular idea reverberates throughout the public. Social media sites cater to the individual’s interests, so they filter out information so that one will be exposed to similarly-minded people. Thus, instead of acting as a multi-faceted forum for debates, social media websites can amplify the divide of opinions. For example, given the current popularity of anti-GMO movements, more people can be exposed and inevitably develop a more biased world view toward GMOs. Thus, this raises the question of whether social media websites, which are becoming the most accessible and frequented form of media nowadays, have the responsibility to regulate content, such as misrepresented information, which can negatively affect society. We would have to be careful not to fall into the echo chamber but rather find a way to escape it. Social media websites such as Twitter are one of the Internet’s last frontiers of freedom of expression. Instead of searching for a way to censor or filter certain information, as incorrect they may be, the long-term solution would be to correctly educate the public about such sensitive subjects so that the public can build a more critical mindset. Scientific facts should be communicated transparently and thoroughly to the public so that no further confusion arises in the future.

       In conclusion, social media plays a big role in shaping the public’s perception of GMOs. Often, some scientific facts misunderstood by anti-GMO activist groups are misrepresented in social media and the public receives an inaccurate view of GMOs. However, this can be prevented by providing a clear education regarding genetic engineering in future generations. It is only when the public fully understand what a GMO is that it can start to effectively debate the ethical nature of GMOs, which is a further interesting subject. In the meanwhile, we must be conscientious that not all information on the Internet is correct, and use our critical thinking abilities to use the most credible sources online.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Doyle, Kathryn. "Study Links Pesticide Exposure in Pregnancy to Autism." Reuters. 23 June 2014. Web. 26 March 2015. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/23/us-pesticides-pregnancy-autism....

McHughen, Alan. "The Junk Science Clowns Behind the GMO Scare." Troy Media. 6 March 2013. Web. <http://www.troymedia.com/2013/03/06/the-junk-science-clowns-behind-the-g....

Smith, Laura, Linhong Zhu, Kristina Lerman, and Zornitsa Kozareva. "The Role of Social Media in the Discussion of Controversial Topics." Social Computing (2013): 236-43. Web. <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.414.7820&rep=re....

Suzuki, David. "Understanding GMO." David Suzuki Foundation. Web. 27 March 2015. <http://www.davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/queen-of-green/faqs/food/unde....

“An Article Linking Autism (and Other Disorders) With GMO Food.” GMO Free Canada. 24 Jan. 2013. Web. <https://www.facebook.com/GMOFreeCanadaGroup/posts/128912767275646>.

"Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society." Pew Research Centers Internet American Life Project. 29 January 2015. Web. 27 March 2015. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-sci....