It’s Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. You’re doing a Google search on genetically modified crops in Europe. One of your search results is from the U.K.’s Daily Mail web site – an announcement that Monsanto is closing wheat breeding stations in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. You look at the article’s date: Jan. 31, 2012.
If you oppose GM crops, you’re thrilled, and immediately use the Daily Mail’s “tweet this” feature to alert all of your Twitter followers, many of whom retweet the news to their followers. Soon, Greenpeace Europe picks it up and tweets it. Numerous other organizations follow suit. The news begins to move across Twitter and into online web sites and blogs. GM opponents celebrate, and some retweet the story several times. It morphs from the closing of wheat breeding stations in four countries to Monsanto pulling completely out of Europe.
Very few people notice that the story on the Daily Mail’s web site continues to show whatever the current date is – Jan. 31, Feb. 1, Feb. 2. When we see the story on Tuesday, we know it’s an old story. Reporters contacting our offices in Europe are told it’s an old story being recycled as a new story.
A few GM opponents also think something is wrong. The story refers to announcement by Monsanto, and the few people who bother to check can’t find the news release on Monsanto’s web site. They tweet a cautionary note and ask for some corroboration. But most people aren’t concerned – this looks like an unexpected victory in their war on GM crops. And they trust the people who are tweeting it.
GM Watch, an organization which opposes GM crops, knows the story is old. It actually researches it and discovers the actual date: Oct. 16, 2003. (The date on the Daily Mail story kept changing because the site’s search engine always displayed the current date, not the original date of the article.)
To its credit, on Wednesday Feb. 1, GM Watch tweets the correct date and tells people the story is old. Twitter reports began to calm down. But reports continue to circulate; not everyone sees the GM Watch tweet.
Enter Natural News, another opponent of GM crops. It publishes a rehash of the Daily Mail story on Friday, Feb. 3, with a link to the story, which now has a date (surprise!) of Feb. 3. Its fans and followers use the convenient “tweet this” feature and it starts all over again. Separately, a UPI reporter in Europe sees the noise on Twitter, checks the Daily Mail site, and publishes the story on UPI’s wire service – not bothering to check whether it’s accurate or not.
We posted a statement on our Facebook page and the link on Twitter. It took some doing to catch people’s attention amid all the excitement, but Natural News eventually published a reluctant correction (but a correction nonetheless); UPI pulled its story from the wire. The Daily Mail has made the original publication date more prominent. Many of the key people who were prominent in spreading the news have deleted their tweets.
There are likely a lot of lessons here, not the least of which is how gullible you can be when you want to believe something is true, and a newspaper web site or your favorite organic news web site gives the appearance of it being true.
Social media and web sites are wonderful communication channels when used responsibly. If you trust the people you follow and the sites you visit, you accept the information they tweet or post as accurate. But it’s often astonishing what people will tweet on twitter or post to Facebook and YouTube, and what people will believe.
On any given day, you will find people who believe (because they saw it on Twitter) that Monsanto controls the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the EPA, the Food & Drug Administration, the European Union, the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. State Department, the White House, the Chicago and Los Angeles police departments, the U.S. Congress, various city councils in the United States, all public universities in the Midwest (and many of the private ones), and all major U.S. news media including the New York Times.
You will see reports that Monsanto owns the Blackwater security firm, the Whole Foods grocery store chain, and Stonyfield Farms (for the record: we own none of them). People routinely tweet about our new artificial sweetener (we’re not in that business) or our pig business (we’re not in that business, either). You will see a “researcher” promoted to a “scientist” and then promoted to “one of pre-eminent scientific experts in the world” because someone wants to believe what he says.
The big lesson here: online reports can be wrong. Just because you want something to be true, just because it fits with your worldview, and just because your best friend posts it on Facebook or Twitter, doesn’t mean it’s true.