Thursday, July 16, 2015

Let's stop with the silly memes and start learning the science!

As the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) polarizes, a clear understanding of biotechnologies and their effects becomes increasingly unlikely. The fight to control 'public understanding' of biotechnology has each side choosing what to voice, what to keep silent, and how to present themselves and their opponents. Not only has the debate devolved into mudslinging and character assassinations, but it has also seen the rise of internet memes as primary warfare. As it stands, with proponents claiming 'science' on their side and activists championing justice against conspiracy and greed, it seems likely that those concerned will be increasingly pigeon-holed into oblivion. Activists are in part responsible for the corner they are getting painted into. They gauge their effectiveness through quantifiable indicators (number of 'likes' or 'followers' they are gaining on social media, for example), indicators that hide the much greater number of people they are distancing themselves from.

Social media has a tendency to attract like-minded people together, giving the impression of gradually increasing breadth of influence, when in reality much of the media activist's effort is merely consolidating a geographically distributed minority. The increase in "likes" or "followers", essentially guaranteed in a world of seven billion people, ensures that page managers continue the approach they have been taking. A typical meme, consisting of an image with a caption, inevitably comes across as simplistic and silly to those who have an opposing view or are 'sitting on the fence.' After some time, the continued onslaught of memes even has the effect of dulling many of those who are sympathetic to the cause. While I identify as someone very concerned about the impacts of the 'biotech revolution,' I now skim past most of the GMO-related news that ends up on my facebook feed. I know of many others who do the same. The essential problem is that the GMO debate has turned into another instance of partisan bickering, thereby attracting only those who enjoy aggressive oppositional battles. For the great majority, the issue gets passed by. Most people consider themselves moderate and are suspicious of what seem to be excessively one-sided characterizations.

The danger for the anti-GMO movement is that when this majority does pass over the GMO issue, they end up siding with the proponents of GMOs. This is because most food already has GMOs in it and it takes an effort to avoid them.

A social media page manager should only consider significant increases in likes or page views as indications of success. And by significant, I mean doubling or tripling within very short periods of time or even better, exponential growth curves. The new 'likes' should be people who are not already following half a dozen other social media sources that are pretty much the same sort of content. It is my opinion that this sort of success can only happen when activists take a much more self-reflective and experimental approach to how they manage their social media. With pages like Biofortified and the Genetic Literacy Project, the pro-GMO crowd is reconstructing itself, and is writing material that seems much more well-written, well-reasoned, and believable that the stuff I am reading on the Organic Consumers Association website. They are approaching their writing as a pedagogical activity. They are slowly and carefully building up a collection of writing and resources that will convincingly present themselves as the scientific authority on the matter. The fact that their science is largely based on an early and erroneous way of describing the relationship between genes, traits and organisms will become increasingly irrelevant. In the science wars, it is not science itself that triumphs but the image of it.

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