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Food science in a post-truth world

In a world of instant digital media news it is difficult for the public to tell what is real and what is fake. Sterling Crew explores how to safeguard the integrity of food science communication in a post-truth era. At a time when fake news is on the rise, trust in high quality, honest food science news reporting has never been more important.

The Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ its 2016 international word of the year. It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.

By its very nature, food already has a predisposition towards the emotional as it has a very personal impact on our lives. We all have to eat. In an age of fake news, the need for accurate reporting, analysis and comment is clear. In uncertain times, people need trustworthy information on food so that they can make informed choices. It is evident that fake news stories will have an effect on people’s opinions about food and the food choices they make. These stories can be potentially harmful if they are misleading.

Fake news

The term ‘fake news’ has just been named as Collin’s Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ for 2017. Fake news is entirely made up but is contrived to resemble credible journalism and to attract maximum attention. It is

written and published in order to mislead. It was popularised by US President Donald Trump during the presidential election campaign and its ubiquitous use during the year has contributed to undermining the public’s trust in news reporting.

Manipulating food news for political or financial gain is certainly not a new phenomenon. Social media, however, enables fake news to reach more people, more widely and more quickly. Unfortunately, it lacks the editorial and fact checking controls of conventional sources of news. We have moved to a marketplace where quality journalism competes on an equal footing with unqualified boisterous opinion. Billions of people now get their primary information from the internet, social media platforms and smart phones. A quarter of the world is on Facebook. In a world of instant digital media, it is hard to tell what is real anymore and this is potentially very damaging for food safety, integrity and nutrition. The speed of modern day communication is reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s quote ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.

Anyone can have an idea, publish it and spread it to the public without the permission of the traditional 20th century editorial gatekeepers.’


We live in a world of sensationalistic clickbait - content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page. This is designed to drive revenue and play on people’s paranoia to get their attention. Despite often overwhelming contrary evidence, fake news stories can still go viral as ideologically and commercially motivated groups take advantage of social media interaction and algorithms. If online news is going to find you, it probably will be because of a targetted algorithm that draws it to your attention.

There is concern that armies of malicious ‘bots’ could be assisting in the spreading of fake news. Bots are web robot software programmes that run automated tasks over the internet. In practice, it is problematic to identify where fake news is being targetted and it is difficult for users to identify it. Asking a number of questions can help to identify whether news is fake or genuine (Table 1). Anyone can have an idea, publish it and spread it to the public without the permission of the traditional 20th century editorial gatekeepers. Scientific evidence can be wilfully misreported and procedures for redress and correction are often absent. A recent report from Members of Parliament on the Science and Technology Committee on Science Communication and Engagement found that the people have a strong desire to know how science impacts on their lives. However, 71% of people believe the media sensationalises science and 67% say they have no option but to trust those governing scientific information. Just 28% believe that journalists check their facts when reporting scientific matters. Fake news could be contributing to their concerns on fact checking.


Is it a credible source?

Is the author credible?

Has the story been reported anywhere else?

Is it on the radio, TV or in the newspapers?

Has it originated on unedited social media sites?

Have you heard of the organisation that published the story?

Does the website where you found the story look genuine, Is it a copycat site?

Does the website address at the very top of the page look real?

Does the photo or video look normal?

Is it contemporary?

Does the story look credible?

Could it be a hoax?

Who would gain from its publication?

Can it be checked by experts?

Public health concerns

Fake news makes it harder for people to understand complex scientific food issues. This creates a food science deficit, a lack of understanding and knowledge about how food science and technology works and how it affects them. Whether reporting on safety, fraud, provenance or nutrition, fake news stories can have real life consequences. The debate on food relies on the quality of the news and the information available. An attribute of fake food news is that campaigners often continue to repeat their points, even if they are found to be untrue by independent, respected food science organisations and experts. This can create a climate of doubt where there should be none. For example, although the case for anthropogenic global warming has been made beyond reasonable doubt, there is still public uncertainty over climate change as a serious public health threat, despite the compelling evidence in the scientific literature. Its impact on food security and safety, as a result of agricultural losses, could be catastrophic. Fake news from special interest groups has fuelled the skepticism. Bad health advice from fake news sources, such as on the MMR vaccine, has had undesirable effects on the lack of take-up of vaccines and on herd immunity.

Searching the internet reveals fake news stories that distort and mislead the debate on the safety of regulated food additives and food processing. Scaremongering stories have also targetted the use of agricultural pesticides, causing concern where there should be none. Fake media headlines can encourage people to adopt the latest fad diet with potentially adverse effects on their health. Qualified dieticians and nutritionists base their advice on solid peer-reviewed evidence. The messages on the value of reducing the amount of alcohol, salt and sugar in our diets could be undermined. The ‘Frankenstein food’ stories on genetically modified organisms are favoured targets that misinform the debate. Genetically modified (GM) crops have an essential role to play in safeguarding the security of our food supply, protecting the environment and improving our lives. Fake news on GM crops could hamper the fight against global poverty and could have a disastrous impact on the word’s poorest people.

The need to differentiate

Fake news must be differentiated from obvious parody or satire, which is an attempt to humour rather than mislead. For example, the famous spaghetti tree hoax report broadcast by the BBC’s highly respected current affairs programme, Panorama, on April Fool’s Day 1957, was probably the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment has ever carried out.

It purportedly showed spaghetti being harvested from trees. Many viewers were taken in as, at the time, spaghetti was largely an unknown novel exotic food, the source was a highly credible one and the filming was very convincing. It is equally important for the public to be able to differentiate between genuine science stories, supported by research and expert opinion, and fake news.


It is evident that it is the news media, rather than science, that is influencing public opinion. Often too much weight has been given to unqualified sceptics, who reject peer review and evidence-based facts. It is not that consumers are credulous, but the conventional news format is easy to imitate and some true food stories are almost unbelievable.

Fake news coupled with new means of media consumption can feed food disinformation and deception, distorting the truth using emotional persuasion. Fake news is not going away. In a post-truth world, food scientists and technologists have an important role in fact checking and keeping the public informed.

We all have a responsibility as news generators and consumers to ensure that we are maintaining a balanced diet of sources to help minimise exposure to misinformation and fake news.

We need to foster and facilitate food science engagement with the media. At a time when fake news is on the rise, high quality, honest food science reporting has never been more essential.

Sterling Crew FIFST, FCIEH, FRSPH. Managing Director SQS Ltd. Strategic Advisor Shield

Safety Group. Vice President Institute of Food Science and Technology. Chair of the IFST

Food Safety Group. Email:

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