Leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, the Russian Institute allegedly began shifting its focus from distributing propaganda in the Ukraine to taking an active role in galvanizing anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment across the United States.
It was last year sometime when my wife, Jamie, suggested I listed to the Radiolab podcast entitled “The Curious Case of the Russian Flash Mob at the West Palm Beach Cheesecake Factory.” It was eye-opening, to say the least. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the takeaway was just how easy it is to spread intentionally dishonest information and how easy it is to get people to believe and share that information.
Information bias is a tricky, nuanced topic. And it’s one we as farmers should be mindful of.
On my Facebook feed, right now, someone I knew more than two decades ago posted a wildly inaccurate political video that has been viewed 1,094,311 times. It’s analytics like this that make me want to spend less time on platforms where things like it are distributed.
We’re being inundated with information and we’re becoming passive towards the many things competing for our attention. This is a worst-case scenario and doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does to some and many others are somewhere on this spectrum.
I am not in a position to tell you which or whose information is trustworthy. I am not the gatekeeper, nor am I impervious to potentially being swayed and/or seduced by biased advice or recommendations that don’t tell the whole story. But I will say that we need to be careful and smart about what we believe, what we share and what we put into practice in our lives and on our farms.
Sifting out the truth
“It’s easier to fool people than it is to convince them they’ve been fooled.” This is a great, true quote often attributed to Mark Twain, though that has not been verified. I’ve been duped and I’m sure I’ll be duped again. But, it’s alarming how much traction well-dressed lies get.
This is not a problem unique to agriculture. It’s a problem with how we consume information, in general. We could all stand to be more critical of what we read, hear and/or watch. I take pot shots at my undergraduate education in philosophy all the time. But, I’m grateful for how critical it urged me to be towards the myriad of stimuli around us.
Since provincial agriculture departments across Canada began cutting extension services over the last 15 years or so, farmers have been victims of an information vacuum that has been filled by private companies.
Recently, at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in Niagara Falls, I met a biologist from Quebec, a province that still funds public extension and agronomy. He maintained that farmers having access to an agronomist who knows the unique challenges of their farms and is not being pushed by a specific interest has been key to the success of many operations.
There is nothing inherently wrong with accepting brochures or advice from private companies. After all, inaccurate information can come from anywhere, whether its motivated by private business, commodity groups or government. Similarly, accurate information can come from a variety of sources.
We need to be mindful of this context, though. We need to be mindful of the fact that while we are used to being inundated with product and agronomic information, its packaging has changed.
With news, there are sources I do not trust. There are sources I take with a grain of salt and there are sources I generally believe to have taken the necessary steps to verify the facts before publishing them.
Whatever your political bent, I’d encourage you to listen to the Radiolab podcast. Wherever you land after doing so — whether you believe it or not — it’ll make you think and it’ll spark some interesting conversation. That’s what being critical is all about: conversation, engagement and not taking things at face value.