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Is Rampant Misinformation Derailing Climate Action in Agriculture?

In this, the biggest election year in history, Changing Markets Foundation investigates the damaging spread of misinformation online concerning the meat and dairy industry and how it is influencing both policy and public opinion.

Social media misinformation has in recent years become a concerning phenomenon, with problematic narratives ranging from fake news on the Covid-19 pandemic to pseudoscientific fearmongering about the impacts of vaccines. Through our work at Changing Markets Foundation’s methane campaign, we have increasingly become aware about the significant amount of misinformation posts around the environmental and health impacts of meat and dairy. For this reason, we commissioned an analysis that revealed a disturbing number of posts using conspiracy theories, junk science and cultural wars with the goal to undermine a shift to more sustainable food and farming around the globe.

‘Disparage’ and ‘enhance’ narratives and what drives them

Our report on meat and dairy social media misinformation — Truth, Lies and Culture Wars — is based on the analysis of over 285 million digital posts on X, Reddit and forums by Ripple Research during a 14-month period from 1 June 2022 to 31 July 2023, revealing that roughly 948,000 posts featured misinformation. 78 percent of these conversations fell into the “disparage” category — attacking plant-based proteins, vegan diets and climate science; a smaller share of posts (22 percent) fell into the “enhance” category — where the health of environmental benefits of eating or producing meat and dairy products were exaggerated — which we often refer to as “greenwashing” or “health-washing.”

The biggest category of misinformation (which topped the World Economic Forum’s list of Top Global Risks for 2024) was driven by conspiracy theories such as The Great Reset — which claims that the ‘global elite’ coordinated the Covid-19 pandemic to bring about a socialist world government, which would govern in favour of these elites. When it comes to meat and dairy consumption, the theory posits that rich individuals such as Bill Gates are plotting to weaken humanity into ‘diseased subjects’ by feeding them insects and ‘fake meat’ in order to maintain control.

‘Misinfluencers’ as a key driver of misinformation

Another interesting finding of our investigation was that over half of engagement with misinformation posts was linked to just 50 accounts. These so-called “misinfluencers” are highly engaged individuals or entities that actively spread online misinformation. Some of them are right-wing media and political figures, which have been the key players in the rise of the popularity of conspiracy theories such as The Great Reset.

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For example, by 2021, the term ‘Great Reset’ had received over eight million Facebook interactions and almost two million Twitter shares. In October 2023, The Great Reset conspiracy was translated into the documentary No Farmers No Food — which explores “stories of farmers forced out of business” and “the hidden agenda behind Green Policies that are pushing people to eat bugs” — directed by misinfluencer Roman Balakov of the Epoch Times, a far-right media entity.

Dutch farmer protests and the rise of online conspiracy theories

No Farmers No Food is featured in our case study on how a transnational far-right movement seized the misinformation campaign around Dutch nitrogen policies. The government was forced to take drastic measures following a ruling from the Dutch High Court in 2019, which suspended the expansion of any nitrogen-emitting projects. As agriculture is responsible for nearly half of nitrogen emissions, livestock numbers would have to reduce by a third by 2030 to achieve this goal. In 2022, the government therefore set out plans to buy out farms for €25 billion.

This initiative garnered significant backlash — with farmers protests raging throughout the country — and resulted in the resignation of agriculture minister Henk Staghouwer and the formation of the right-wing Farmer-Citizen Movement, which received the most seats at the 2023 provincial elections. It was also a major driver of social media misinformation — mostly driven by conspiracy theories arguing that the Dutch government was dispossessing farmers to create space for asylum seekers.

One Dutch politician that pushed these online conspiracies, Geert Wilders — with his far-right Party for Freedom — won last year’s Dutch elections. Although it is impossible to say whether online conspiracies led to this election result, growing political polarisation is one factor involved and has been exacerbated by social media misinformation.

Misinformation gaining wider ground with farmer protests

Since we launched our investigation, No Farmers No Food launched its own X account — which gained 50,000 followers in just two weeks. This account is run by James Melville, a right-wing anti-lock down campaigner and one of the misinfluencers identified in our report in the Dutch case study. The No Farmers No Food campaign is capitalising on farmers’ discontent and arguing that the main culprits are climate and net-zero policies.

Reacting to German farmers protests, Melville said in an interview that governments’ draconian net-zero measures are making it “almost impossible for farmers to make some sort of profit.” Other right-wing groups around Europe have made efforts to align themselves with farmers, also by largely simplifying their demands to the withdrawal of various climate and environmental policies — which has resulted in many of these policies being dropped at the EU level, as well as in Germany and France.

In the UK, many right-wing politicians expressed support for No farmers No Food, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — who joined a protest by Welsh farmers against the country’s reform of agricultural subsidies. No farmers No Food is capitalising on farmers’ grievances and continues to firmly push conspiracy theories, illustrated by its retweet of LBC host Maajid Nawaz’s X post stating “Farmers stand between us and WEF’s desire for us to “eat bugs, own nothing and be happy.”

Dangerous times for the future of climate action

Online misinformation can influence political decisions and shift public opinion on crucial issues — even influencing election outcomes, as seen in cases such as the Brexit referendum. For this reason, 2024 is a crucial year to address these concerning trends as over half of the world’s population is heading to the polls — 4 billion people across 76 countries. More people will vote than in any previous year, including in major world economies such as the UK, Germany, the US and India. Additionally, European elections will take place in June — determining the future political direction of the largest economic bloc and the most important regulator in the world.

Political direction for many governments will be determined in this year’s elections — including to what extent they will base many of their policy decisions on science vs populism, which is on the rise around the world. Many mainstream political parties are moving more towards the extreme right in their calculations to win the votes. Farmers protests are playing a key role in this realignment, and it is extremely concerning that conspiracy theories play such a big role in this process.

If we proceed in this direction, the future of climate action might be further delayed and derailed when we are really running out of time. Politicians must rebuild consensus around today’s most pressing issues — including business’s role in climate change and public health — and base it on the science and facts. Addressing overconsumption of meat and dairy products ticks both of these boxes and should be prioritised by governments around the world.