Telling the farm story is critical in a growing age of misinformation

Tim Caulfield

Misinformation is nothing new. Humans have been stretching the truth since the beginning of time, but the growing amount of misinformation generated today and the speed at which it moves is one of the defining issues of our time, says academic and author Dr. Timothy Caulfield.

As a member of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law, and author of books such as Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions, Caulfield has spent his career studying and tracking movement of misinformation about everything from popular culture to food and agriculture.

What he sees today is an infodemic that’s growing in size and scope at incredible speed. “Over the last five years it has accelerated… both the amount of misinformation out there, and also the impact that misinformation is having on beliefs and behaviour. I argue it’s one of the defining issues of our of our time.”

Caulfield notes that academic studies have indeed identified the misinformation threat. One study he cites surveyed thousands of participants across 19 countries. It ranked misinformation “right behind climate change as the greatest threats to humanity right now. That’s where we are talking about,” he says.

Caulfield shared his views on the rise of misinformation at the recent Grain Famers of Ontario March Classic meeting in London, Ont. To no one’s surprise, he singled out social media for the role it has played in the infodemic. “Social media has been a game changer… Everyone knows that, but I don’t think we can underemphasize how true that is. And increasingly so, especially with the rise of entities like TikTok (with over 2 billion subscribers). It’s not just entertainment, not just dance videos, people are getting their news and information from TikTok.” He adds that studies indicate that between 20 to 50 per cent of TikTok content  has some degree of misinformation. (Story continues after the interview.)

And the misinformation age is getting more worrisome with the arrival of ChatGPT, says Caulfield. The artificial-intelligence (AI) chatbot launched in November, and its ability to access and review massive amounts of information to produce original information content on demand, has already led to calls for developers to put the breaks on further ChatGPT AI development.

“I think it’s terrifying… I’m an optimist and this is one of those topics that really does scare me because it is so powerful, it is so realistic, and in fact, I even think that some of the commentators are underplaying its power,” says Caulfield.

“There’s content that looks authentic, it looks real, and it can be very persuasive. So short term, I think the answer is for all of us to have our critical thinking skills amped up to eleven…. We should check with other sources to verify content that we see because when something comes across our radar, and it looks that real, it looks that authentic, it’s easy to believe. And it’s not always the truth.”

See Related: RealAg Book Club Episode One: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

In the interview, Caulfield discusses the need for higher emphasis on critical thinking skills and media literacy to help navigate the growing power of misinformation. He also shares insights on why it’s vitally important for farmers to continue to share stories of how they farm and their commitment to agriculture and food production.

“I think that the farming community can play a really important role, debunking not only stuff about their own products, whether it’s grain or whether it’s dairy products, but also playing a role in the broader conversation, because people trust farmers, they want to hear from farmers.”

Caulfield admits the task of debunking myths about everything from GMOs to the treatment of livestock can be overwhelming but he feels farmers can make an impact. “Providing the good science makes a difference… especially if you package it in a way that’s shareable, that’s entertaining with farming images and great farming stories.”

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