29.11.23 Environment

Pro-meat misinformation rife on social media, says report

Apparent misinformation about meat, dairy and alternative diets appeared in almost 1 million social media posts over the course of 14 months, including those by prominent figures such as Donald Trump Jr, according to a new report.

An analysis of 285m posts mostly on X, formerly Twitter, between June 2022 and July 2023 found more than 400,000 accounts to have published distorted or false information. It said that the posts had amassed 3.6m likes, shares and comments – with just 50 accounts getting half of that engagement.

The posts were all found to share “false or misleading information” and were identified with the help of machine learning techniques in combination with human analysis. The work was carried out by Ripple Research on behalf of Changing Markets, a foundation that supports sustainability campaigns.

The report said that a number of the identified posts also promoted conspiracy theories about powerful elites, while others overlapped significantly with climate-denial narratives or engaged in polarising debates playing “into the ‘culture war’ divides”.

Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said: “We have reached a very interesting juncture where the end goals or the objectives of information warfare and information operations around climate are no longer exclusively about the process of decarbonisation.” She added that these activities are “weakening the public mandate for action”.

While the Changing Markets report shows the dominant pro-meat and dairy narratives on social media, it says it could not determine whether big meat and dairy companies are orchestrating these conversations.

Cooking up a storm

Among the posts identified by the report was a May 2023 tweet by Donald Trump Jr, who posted to his 10m followers: “We must ban fake meat to save the planet!!! Lab-Grown Meat Produces Up To 25 Times More CO2, Study Reveals.”

The tweet linked to an article about a study that had modelled various scenarios of lab-grown meat production to understand its environmental impact; only the worst-case scenario suggested lab-grown meat could be 25 times worse for the climate than beef. John Lynch, a researcher on agriculture and climate at the University of Oxford, said scientists do not yet have a “clear picture” of what scaled-up lab-grown meat production would look like, but that it would probably be more energy efficient than it currently is.

The study had not been peer reviewed. Nonetheless it received coverage in New Scientist as well as in the international press and on social media. The author of the study told TBIJ he was “pretty surprised” it was picked up in the media and that he is planning to submit it for peer review.

In July, it was cited in a parliamentary assembly by Italian senator Giorgio Maria Bergesio, who described lab-grown meat as “Frankenstein products” that run counter to Italian identity.

This month, the country banned the production, sale and import of lab-grown meat, which agriculture minister Francesco Lollobrigida – one of the founders of the prime minister's far-right Brothers of Italy party – said “[does] not guarantee quality, well-being and the protection of the Italian food and wine culture and tradition”.

Hoarding attention

Changing Markets analysed posts from X as well as on Reddit and blogs, and sorted the posts containing misinformation in to two categories: those that enhanced the benefits of animal products – which made up 20% of posts – and those aimed at disparaging the alternatives. These made up the remaining 80%.

Prominent figures found to have posted disparaging misinformation tweets included the anti-vaxx doctor Anastasia Maria Loupis, who in July posted to her 1m followers: “There is no such thing as ‘man made climate change’ so why does the World Economic Forum want people to eat bugs, micro plastics, fake meat, seed oils, and air proteins?”

Another was Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman who has previously likened public health experts and climate policy makers to “witch doctors and rain dancers”. In April he posted a series of tweets linking lab-grown meat with cancer cells and described a future in which “an expanding corporate-government alliance will have the means necessary for absolute control of people”.

Maddy Haughton-Boakes, senior campaigner at Changing Markets, told TBIJ that conspiracy theories about powerful elites are used to advance the argument that “any suggestions that we should reduce meat and dairy consumption and production – even in line with healthy diet guidance – is an attack on personal freedoms”.

The effect of these divisive narratives, she said, is that “it becomes almost a taboo subject at just the point when we really need to be taking action. We have to at least cut methane emissions 30% by 2030, in line with the science. And the debate is just becoming even more difficult.”

While the report traced the misinformation posts to more than 400,000 accounts, around half the total engagement was received by just 50 users.

As well as Trump Jr, these “attention-grabber” accounts included rightwing personalities such as Cabot Phillips, an editor at conservative news organisation the Daily Wire, and Peter Imanuelsen, a vlogger better known as Peter Sweden. The report did not describe the content of their posts.

Sweden, who describes himself as an independent journalist, told TBIJ that he rejected the allegation of “spreading ‘false or misleading information’ about meat and dairy products/diets”.

Pressure has been growing on social media companies to address the issue of climate misinformation. Some platforms, such as Pinterest, have imposed bans on climate misinformation in content and advertisements. X, however, was in September ranked the worst platform for climate misinformation by the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition.

“Misinformation on social media doesn't happen in a vacuum,” said Haughton-Boakes. “It seeps into the real world. And it does have real-world implications for policy debates.”

She added: “I think there's got to be a discussion around ensuring that policy debates are very much focused on the scientific evidence. This is a much broader issue than just meat and dairy.”

Donald Trump Jr, Thomas Massie, Cabot Philips and Anastasia Maria Loupis did not respond to requests for comment.

Reporter: Hajar Meddah
Desk editor: Andrew Wasley
Deputy editor: Chrissie Giles
ditor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Frankie Goodway
Impact producer: Grace Murray

Our Food and Farming project is partly funded by Quadrature Climate Foundation and partly by the Hollick Family Foundation. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.