A new war on the horizon: the digital food fight

07.06.21

In a world where ‘fake news’ is now an oft used phrase, it’s safe to say the deliberate spread of misinformation is here to stay, and agriculture isn’t immune. Increased consumer susceptibility to misinformation and associated decline in trust is fast becoming an accepted norm, and recent experiences in the finance sector are testament to why the food system needs to be on high alert.

Diving into the world of viral misinformation, the AgriFutures Australia report Future forces: a ten-year horizon for Australian agriculture, authored by AgThentic Advisory and Institute for the Future, explores what it means for Australian food and fibre, challenging rural industries to consider the implications and what can be done today, to be ready for tomorrow.

Let the digital food fight begin

Imagine… a future food brand manager scrambles to manage their brand and supply chain relations when a viral disinformation attack threatens their products reputation.

Radical videos on YouTube, coordinated social media campaigns, paid opinion pieces on popular streaming sites; it’s guerrilla marketing at its best, being used to undermine and undervalue the brand and products.

While there is a level of familiarity with these tactics, and level of control, what’s on the horizon is a different story. Deepfakes (photos and video manipulated with artificial intelligence to create nearly undetectable fake media), conversational AI like GPT-3 (a neural network that can write and converse indistinguishably from a human) and cheap, accessible botnets (systems of software applications that run automated tasks on the internet) that can manipulate online discussions, will all contribute to a future where the average person won’t be able to verify information for themselves.

In the context of agriculture, food issues such as food safety and reliability are ripe for the picking when it comes to the spread of misinformation. Unfortunately, the statistics paint a grim reality, with the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer finding 66% of people are worried that technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real.

Rallying the industry and consumer response

How an industry responds in a misinformation crisis will need to be front and centre of any future business strategy. Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs and Founder of The Future Market, Mike Lee, believes the food system can learn from experiences in the finance sector.

The GameStop and WallStreetBet fiasco is a case study in how quickly information can move online and turn into action that can dramatically impact companies and individuals,” said Mr Lee.

But what does the story of a troubled retail video game store stock and a band of amateur day traders finding fast riches have to do with the food system? Imagine if instead of day traders focussing their contempt on a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund, they were tech savvy food consumers unhappy with a food company’s approach to an environmental issue, such as food waste or water pollution. The results could be just as detrimental.

“The use of digital technologies could just as easily be used in this situation to spread false or fabricated information and lead to the unjustified unravelling of that food company. The snowball effect makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to stop and consider the truth of what is being communicated,” explained Mr Lee.

“The internet has become a force multiplier for weaponising information–both good and bad, true or false–and getting hordes of people to act on it as an emotionally fuelled mob. Savvy consumers have to train themselves to be mindful of dubious food claims.”

Mr Lee cites shades of this kind of behaviour in food over the years; MSG myths that led to “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” over 50 years ago; Steve Jobs vague regime of alternative medicine treatments and a fruitarian diet that may have saved or prolonged his life after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and fraudulently labelled olive oil. There is a never-ending stream of dubious food myths that are propagated by online influencers without appropriate scientific credentials and followed by their fans with little question.

Keeping our wits about us

Mr Lee questions how the food industry might help consumers keep their wits about them in a world where misinformation quietly creeps into our feeds, inboxes, and DMs.

The report Future forces: a ten-year horizon for Australian agriculture offers hope that new ways to detect inaccurate information online will help expose “bad faith campaigns” as early as possible.

New preventative measures and fact-checking tools will allow the public to boost their collective immunity to such campaigns. Viral information campaigns will become a standard tool for influencing public decision. There will also be a normalisation of addressing issues like viral conspiracy theories propagated by disinformation attacks early on by building in response plans and preventative measures.

For the farmer and the entire food system, the world of interconnected digital infrastructure will unleash new opportunities, in particular closing the information gap between themselves and consumers. Closer ties will allow for a more seamless transition of information up the supply chain, flagging the changes needed to grow and process products better suited to markets and specific consumer needs.

With a strong network of high-resolution sensors and monitors, and autonomous equipment that closes the loop between insight and action, organisations will be able to optimise their products for economic and climatic resilience. These choices will create a market and infrastructure very different from the current agriculture system’s landscape, breaking the current paradigm limited by today’s infrastructure, transportation, and labour costs.

In the fast-paced online world it is inevitable the digital food fight will give rise to less savoury tactics. The Australian food system will need to keep pace, stand firm on the frontline and work with the direct channels to engage their customers and maintain trust.

We encourage you to read the full report and consider the unique implications for your own industry or business: how might the future of food change, and what can you do today to be ready for the future of tomorrow? To download the report, visit: Future forces: a ten-year horizon for Australian agriculture.