We live in an age where the president conducts policy and announces staffing changes from a social media account. What makes you think that you can get away without scrutiny on yours?
I know that’s blunt, but the fact is is that the public, activist groups, and newspaper outlets watch what farmers and other ag professionals say on social media — and you don’t need to have any celebrity status for your words to be used against you and against the industry.
“It’s all information, and whether we like it or not, that is modern journalism today. Everyone in our society has become an information resource,” said Jenny Schweigert, founder of the Keeping Ag Real podcast and former executive director of the AgChat Foundation.
It’s unfortunate to have to say this, but more often than not, when your social media posts get cited by news outlets, it’s going to be used in a negative way. Sunshine and lollipops don’t draw in readers and clicks, and being able to exploit people’s passions can be good for the media business.
Worse, too, is when something you say gets taken out of context. Consider how this famous “pen is mightier than the sword” phrase reads when used alone vs. used in its full sentence:
Couple that with a likelihood that you’re more willing to have a typo on social media than you are on your website or in a formal email to the media, and it’s no wonder that people across the ag industry seem to be saying contradictory things more often than they intend.
“I think we all need to be aware that what we post on social media is public, whether we have privacy settings set to the highest level or not,” said Amanda Zaluckyj, a farmer who has blogged for years under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. “This is especially true in Facebook groups, on public pages, and when we comment on our friends’ posts. We have to recognize that we are always in the spotlight and what we post represents us and our industry.”
This is not a call to dodge the discussion — quite the opposite, in fact. We need as many voices in agriculture speaking up as possible. But as soon as we recognize how people interpret and repurpose the things the way, the sooner we can be more effective communicators. And we can be sure that people are watching and eager to latch onto many of things you say.
“It’s not realistic to expect journalists to not utilize what you put out on a public forum, whether you’re posting it publicly or privately, that is not your forum, you don’t own that: Facebook does, Twitter does, Snapchat does, Instagram does. You can even go through the guidelines when you sign up for an account and look at the small print and what you’re agreeing to,” Schweigert said.
We also have to understand that a journalist or activist group won’t necessarily seek our permission to quote something we’ve said, nor are they required to follow up with us. Instead, they may take a comment you said on a message board and then ask their state farm bureau office if “that’s how the majority feels” about a particular topic. In that instance, your words wouldn’t be used against you directly, but they may be used to corner someone else on an issue or pressure them into making on-the-record statements that they may not otherwise wish to make.
It all sounds very nefarious, doesn’t it? Well, it is. While there are many good and fair journalists out there, there are plenty in the mainstream media who do have biases that they’ll bring out through their writing. (I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and I’ve seen it all.)
The formula for what to do is simple on paper but not as simple to execute. We need to think through what we say to others in person, what we post on social media, and how we interact in general with those watching. I often feel that our social media selves are our most honest selves — we let emotion guide us more than we might otherwise. We let our guard down. We think the computer screen and the physical distance between us and those we communicate with may mitigate any negative impacts.
But we’d be wrong.
I appreciate that we can be authentic on social media, and there’s definitely a concern that being too much in your own head (or too stilted) when you write can make you come across as less passionate or less enthusiastic, so we have to work hard to find a balance between speaking what we believe and making sure those beliefs have a solid foundation below them.
“Even if the media isn’t looking or reading, we should remember that our customers are looking and reading,” Zalucky said.