How can farmers tackle ‘anti-agricultural extremism’ online?

Individual farmers must share their  personal experiences online in order to combat anti-agricultural extremists, panelists at this year’s Macra na Feirme conference have warned.

It was suggested that a lack of positive information, circulated by farmers, is “partly contributing” to online bias against the agricultural industry.

However, not everyone agreed that it was the fault of farmers. It was also suggested that others share some of the responsibility.

This weekend, hundreds of Macra members from across Ireland, gathered at the organisation’s annual rally and conference in Gormanston, Co. Meath, to discuss the futuristic world of agriculture.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘iFarmer-Technology in Agriculture’. Yesterday, a panel discussion on ‘Farming and Digital Media’, discussed how the industry could use social media to combat negative representations of the industry online.

Panelists, including: Newstalk 106-108fm journalist Adrian Collins, Nuffield Scholar Brian Rushe and Mary Phelan, social media manager at IFAC Accountants, all shared their experiences with the audience.

Finding common ground

Collins said the “loss of a middle ground” has become an issue online – and not just in farming. He said people are being pushed to take extreme positions across a range of issues.

He said: “You could see it in the recent US elections – it was the extreme positions that people ended up having to take. No one listened to Hillary Clinton’s policy papers on what she was going to do about trade deals; they just wanted to build a wall.

It’s breaking it down into 140 characters which makes your message much harder to put across.

Values

“If you want to give some sort of scientific evidence, or if you want to show that standards in Ireland are higher, it can be harder to make that position by purely appealing to science.

“You have to find some kind of common ground so you can understand each other and talk about your values. It may be that people are interested in health and fitness food or animal welfare.

 You need to be able to say; here are the health reasons we produce this the way that we do; maybe we can discuss this on a common ground – instead of saying ‘actually you’re wrong and these are the facts’.

Taking responsibility

Rushe explained that online debates can quickly be distracted by side-line issues.

He said: “I used to think it was the job of the IFA to defend farmers online but as a spokesperson for that organisation, whoever is speaking on behalf of IFA defending farming, the attack comes against the IFA or whatever organisation they are from.

If someone wants to attack the IFA (Irish Farmers’ Association) they can attack them without feeling sorry for them. But if I stand up here as ‘Brian Rushe the family farmer doing his best’, it’s not as easy. It’s not the same thing.

Rushe told the crowd of his disappointment when debate surrounding his own Nuffield project was “hijacked” by animal rights activists.

He said the focus of the criticism became about his role; and farming in general; instead of the value of his research.

Rushe believes it is the responsibility of every farmer to share information about their job online and said that “complacency” in the industry had allowed anti-farming views to dominate online.

He said: “I’m not too worried about what anyone eats, how they eat or whether it’s meat or not, but I have a massive issue with someone pushing an ideology by taking away the reputation and good name of farmers.

For too long we have not been taking this seriously; we have put it to one side saying ‘this is a niche group’. But they have a national audience that includes ‘influencers’ – those who influence younger generations.

Exposure

However, Phelan stressed that it was difficult for a farmer’s comments to have equal weight when coming up against a celebrity or lobby group.

She said: “You can argue your fact very well; but you can’t downplay the affect those people have – and not just in one country.

You can tweet Lewis Hamilton and say: ‘Well, actually, that’s not the way my cows are treated.’ But at the end of the day he doesn’t care.

“Yes Twitter is a very good way of making an argument, but you don’t have a million followers so it’s very hard to come up against that.”

Whose job is it anyway?

Phelan added that companies also have responsibility for how farming was presented online.

She said: “Companies that actually work with farmers – such as Aldi, Lidl, Bord Bia – they can create a platform to take [that message] to an international stage and they have credibility behind them.”

However, Rushe said farmers have a personal responsibility to get that industry message across.

He said: “You cannot Google any term whether it’s glyphosate, GM (Genetic Modification), dairy farming or beef farming without a barrage of negative stuff.

Taking farming online

For someone that’s uninformed they cannot pick out the truth from the fiction; so they will be drawn to the extreme. That’s what’s informing these people’s opinions.

“We have to take some responsibility in that we have let that opinion become commonplace; we haven’t been part of the conversation for too long.

“It’s the day-to-day things you do that might seem mundane to you that we need to share; to someone else that could be extraordinary,” he concluded.