The growing unease over cancel culture isn’t an endorsement of those smearing agriculture but rather a desire to address misinformation more judiciously
Throughout 2020, #boycott hashtags were pervasive against food companies on Twitter. In Michigan, a 14-year-old 4-H student received threats and other hateful taunts from vegans on Facebook. Celebrities behind “natural” foods rallied their fanbase and used their lofty and influential platforms to portray certain growers and ranchers as monsters.
Cancel culture in agriculture is embarrassingly real, painful, and corrosive to our industry. Centered around the aggressive and overwhelming ostracization (or “cancellation”) of a person, business, or brand on social media, cancel culture movements have been successful at undermining reputations and putting farmers’ livelihoods in jeopardy.
And from a growing chorus, there is urgency behind the call that cancel culture needs to stop.
Food is an intimate part of everyone’s lives, tapping into the very passions that energize people and motivating them to speak out with unfiltered condemnation, particularly where conflicting belief systems collide. Certain sections of the ag industry take a disproportionate brunt of the cancel culture vibe: death threats aren’t uncommon toward cattle producers and dairy farmers, no matter if they operate a public persona on social media or quietly eke out a living away from the digital crowds.
Yet, the momentum goes both ways, and the ag community itself has united to pounce on the missteps of celebrities or the food choices offered at events.
The idea of cancel culture wasn’t new in 2020, but a pandemic that kept people socially isolated and tethered to technology more than ever had amplified the negativity that infected social media (some platforms reported as much as a 70 percent increase in usage). Twitter, where fast-moving, real-time conversations dovetail with user anonymity, is the originating platform of this newest and harshest version of cancel culture, but cancel culture also has its tentacles in Facebook, where algorithms and discussion in Groups narrow fields of vision and create a herd mentality.
The most poisonous characteristic of cancel culture is its ability to destroy future dialogue, and that’s where agriculture will suffer the most.
“Any time we are shutting the door on conversation and dialogue, that is problematic,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, Vice President of Strategic Engagement at the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “Whether we’re talking about a burger chain that sells a lot of beef putting out an ad with some questionable sustainability claims or a soup-and-sandwich restaurant known for criticizing modern animal agriculture announcing a policy on antibiotic use, we are still talking about customers who sell meat, poultry, dairy and eggs.
“Angry, knee-jerk reactions calling for boycotts will not lead to productive conversations and may shut the door on future engagement,” she said.
Notice that Thompson-Weeman didn’t specifically name either of the businesses she referenced — an option for those who choose to wield their concerns topically, rather than micro-targeting a business.
Yet, it’s understandable to have different response standards depending on the situation. An influencer or savvy interest group that profits off a pattern of deliberate misinformation and antagonism may warrant stern criticism from the ag community, one that doesn’t actually rise to the level of “cancel culture.” Even as its definition increasingly broadens across society, calling something cancel culture should be reserved for overblown responses to a person or businesses that innocently makes statements or conducts actions because of knowledge gaps or naïve world views — and fails to be given the opportunity apologize or make amends for those actions.
Those are the instances when agriculture needs to step up and show how capable it is of constructive communication.
“There are often much greater results when we allow trade organizations, credentialed experts, and public relations professionals to approach these businesses or people in a non-public-facing and more professional manner,” said veteran ag communicator and farmer advocate Ryan Goodman. “An emotional blog or social media post evokes strong responses from our audience, but often does not result in the change we’re seeking.”
Because nutrition and food security are universal human needs, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on what they choose to consume and how products are grown and marketed. GMOs. Organic. Sustainability. Regenerative. Natural. Hormones. All of those terms have become rallying points for different tribes, and that has made for a crowded industry of stakeholders wanting to have a say — loudly.
This tactic often lacks tact
In agriculture, as across all cancel culture campaigns, the instigator’s end goal is served by making the criticism public. While a direct message via Facebook or Twitter can sting, a public lashing can encourage others to weigh in, turning a singular comment against a celebrity, influencer, or business into a grassroots movement to destroy people’s livelihoods. That is perhaps the strength of many animal-rights activist groups — to plant the seeds of outrage, spun in an appealing and often sanctimonious way, that motivates average people to join the condemnation.
“Passion and activism become problematic when it crosses from sharing your own viewpoint (or the merit of your product) into focusing on destroying someone else’s reputation or business,” Thompson-Weeman said. “At the Alliance, we firmly believe in the importance of providing various food choices for consumers that meet different values and budgets, and promoting those choices using factual, balanced information. When you start advocating for removing choices or spend more time disparaging other choices than explaining the benefits of your own, that crosses a line and is unproductive.”
While the definition of cancel culture (and those instances that are cited as cancel culture) is a moving target, Thompson-Weeman describes how even undercover videos — carefully choreographed and edited for maximum emotional impact — can be a type of cancellation. These videos “provoke outrage while not telling the whole story,” she said, resulting in a backlash against the farm as well as the branded products coming from that farm. It was an phenomenon seen in 2019 at Fair Oaks Farms, when some Midwest grocers stopped carrying Fairlife dairy products after an undercover video was released and public outrage intensified (this happened despite apologies from Fair Oaks leadership and pledges to improve training and production on the farm).
While those grocers responded to the undercover video in a tangible way, not every cancel culture campaign damages its intended target like that.
“In most cases, calling for a high-profile person or large business to be canceled does not have negative implications on the target,” Goodman said. “It does, however, look bad on those who are constantly calling for the boycott.”
Goodman references the backlash instigated by the agricultural community against restaurants that make company policies regarding topics such as antibiotics, welfare practices, or genetically engineered foods. Just last year, Starbucks said that it was promoting dairy-alternative coffee flavorings, an effort it said was aligned with sustainability but was met with resistance and calls for a boycott from many in the dairy industry.
Yet where did being “done with” Starbucks ultimately leave those of us in agriculture? With little actual leverage for change and with the appearance of having a chip on our shoulder.
“A very insignificant portion of their business comes from the rural and agriculture community — they wouldn’t notice the loss of our business,” Goodman said.
Does having a combative approach incentivize the person who is being targeted to do better the next time around, to learn from a single mistake or a pattern of misunderstanding, or to apologize sincerely? Private messaging is exponentially ineffective the larger the company (and certainly doesn’t work when a company or influencer is stating falsehoods intentionally or for profit), so many people do feel there is value in amassing allies and uniting in criticism, especially when a target genuinely should have known better or should have acted more responsibly.
The path forward
We may ask how broad is the idea of cancel culture in agriculture, and should a fear of being “canceled” limit any criticism of a brand or business?
“We’re seeing these increasingly complicated and nuanced situations getting grouped together under this phrase,” said Jonah Bromwich of The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times. “Each single incident that gets chalked up to cancel culture has its own particulars. It has its own details. It has its own context. And the phrase has just become this incredibly broad brush for each of these kind of complicated, nuanced scenarios, each of which really deserves to be unpacked on its own terms.”
Sometimes people look at cancel culture as intentionally hurting a business because of a philosophical disagreement or for saying something bigoted; other times, it’s to lobby for an individual to lose his or her job; or else it simply undermines an owner’s or worker’s reputation.
In all of these instances, cancel culture is the advancement of a singular narrative behind a “scorched earth” tactic.
Worse yet, a campaign to cancel someone or something too often “raises awareness of an issue that wasn’t on the radar for most consumers,” Goodman said. “However, a continued and persistent attack (like campaigns from groups against livestock production or modern agriculture technologies) is something that can be addressed through an organized effort if a plan is clearly defined.”
That’s why understanding a business’s or person’s intent is so important. It adds context to statements and actions that could easily become the target of a cancel culture campaign.
“On one hand actions (and words) have consequences, and one can’t really expect to do and say whatever they please without sometimes encountering pushback,” Thompson-Weeman said. “On the other, differing views are sometimes dismissed outright without consideration and one misstep can render a brand or person ‘canceled.’ Not all criticism is ‘cancel culture,’ though.”
To elevate those of us in agriculture past this, there are options.
“Take a moment to stop and think before participating in an effort to cancel others online,” Goodman advices. “Most often, the target will not be persuaded to change by an attack. However, many others are watching how we respond.”
Especially when the faux pas is innocent and the potential target is willing and open to improvement, the agrarian community would do far better to respond with kindness than with animosity.
“Take a deep breath and think before you speak or type. Write out the rant you’d like to post and send it privately to a friend,” Thompson-Weeman said. “Give yourself a minute or two to cool down before deciding what you’d like to say (and if you need to say anything at all). If you do decide to react, keep it constructive and remember what your end goal is.”
After all, screenshots last forever.
Ryan Tipps is the managing editor for AGDAILY. He has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.