Monday, 2 December 2019

Shooting the medium - the Lancet versus #yes2meat

Remember the EAT-Lancet diet that was promoted at great expense by the billionaire couple Gunhild and Petter Stordalen in January? It called for people to restrict themselves to portions of meat, eggs and dairy that make a WWII ration look like a feast. And the 'public health' lobby wanted to use government coercion to make it happen.

The Stordalens have since split up and the World Health Organisation has distanced itself from their movement, but Richard Horton's Lancet remains committed.

Last week, the once-great journal published a 'study' in which academics from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (which is a 'scientific partner to the EAT Foundation') complained that people had been writing mean tweets. They are annoyed that the EAT-Lancet diet was rounded mocked and criticised just before and after the launch.

They say...

Although the report was positively received by established international media outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times, it also led to highly polarised debates online including misinformation, conspiracy theories, and personal attacks along with the hashtag #yes2meat.

Who could have guessed that something that was received by the Guardian and the NYT would not be popular with the general public?!

To understand the effect of this controversy, we have collected and analysed a dataset of Twitter activity linked to EAT–Lancet and yes2meat with 4278 Twitter users and 8·5 million tweets. Our analysis confirms that a digital countermovement managed to organise rapidly, essentially dominating online discussions about the EAT–Lancet report in intriguing and worrying ways.

'Worrying', eh? So what happened?

Although #yes2meat, from the outset, was used to promote meat-based diets independently of the report, it rapidly became the term against the Commission that opponents organised around online. By actively promoting #yes2meat right before, during, and after the EAT–Lancet report launch, this counter movement was approximately ten times more likely to be negative about the report than positive or neutral. This scenario has resulted in the wide distribution of critical (and at times defamatory) articles on alternative media platforms. Hence, the EAT–Lancet report not only sparked the spread of a science-based message under the official hashtag #EATLancet, but also resulted in the formation of a new sceptical online community organising around a new hashtag #yes2meat. 

They provide a handy graphic to show how the pesky public came out in force to slam the new dietary regime.

There has been a lot of Twitter-based 'research' in 'public health' in recent years, particularly in the vaping space. Usually, the aim is to present normal members of the public as industry stooges or bots.

The authors of the present study don't attempt to do this. They have to admit that...

...this diffusion was not driven by automatically produced content through so-called social bots, but by a growing community of sceptical social media users.

The EAT-Lancet report was published at 11.30pm on January 16th (UK time). A press release was sent out two or three days earlier under embargo. I knew about it by January 14th so I'm sure plenty of other people did too.

Looking at the #yestomeat hashtag, the earliest relevant tweets are from January 14th.

The low carb, high fat (LCHF) community was particularly rattled by the study. I have written before about their zealous social media presence. Some of them are indeed inclined towards conspiracy theories, but since these theories mainly centre around the supposed influence of industry - particularly 'Big Food' - the Lancet is not well placed to complain. It was playing the same game at the time.

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not after you. Those who pointed out that the EAT-Lancet project was a heavily funded attempt to push a near-vegan diet on the world had a point...

Having preempted the report, the #yes2meat hashtag went mildly viral, mainly among people who treat being a carnivore of a key part of their identity. Some of the tweets got hundreds of retweets, as you can see above. And whilst some of the tweets were of the tinfoil hat variety (this is Twitter after all), some of them linked to reasonable critiques...

Ultimately, what is the issue here? The EAT-Lancet report was designed to get maximum publicity. Sure enough, it was noticed by lots of people - many of whom found the whole thing preposterous and sinister. Some of them took to Twitter to criticise it. So what? Free speech, right?

The authors of the new Lancet study don't quite see it that way. What you and I might call robust criticism of a highly controversial proposal, they call 'content pollution'.

Scientists and journals face serious challenges in a rapidly changing media landscape that is susceptible to the intentional dissemination of misleading content. Health communication campaigns are clearly susceptible to polarisation, so-called content pollution, and disinformatin.

What evidence is there that there was intentional dissemination of misleading content? None is provided in the article.
The controversies online associated with the EAT–Lancet Commission, we believe, show how a rapidly changing media landscape and polarisationpose serious challenges to science communication on health and climate issues.

Or, to put it another way, the ability of journals such as the Lancet to exploit their fading reputations by publishing political tracts masquerading as scientific studies is being undermined by the great unwashed having a voice.

Scientists and scientific outlets such as The Lancet need to be continuously aware of, and act proactively, to avoid manipulation and misinformation about issues of fundamental importance for human health and the planet.

That rather begs the question, does it not? Some criticisms of the EAT-Lancet report were silly, but others were well founded and made in good faith. The Lancet can't be expected to engage with every critic, but it could try engaging with some of them. Instead, it arrogantly assumes that the problem is not with its own report but with social media for allowing people to express an alterntive view.

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