Could 'fake news' kill seafood consumption?

It may have helped give America its new president. Could it crush an entire market?

Ah, fake news. In the glory days of 2015, few of us gave much thought to its impact, scrolling past the ridiculous headlines and generally believing that the stories were confined to conspiracy theory sites like, well, Breitbart.

The joke is on those of us who dismissed it: it may well have helped elect a president, and far more people were receiving their news outside of mainstream channels.

So with the ability to affect seismic changes, it stands to reason that fake news could cause significant damage to the reputation of a food. And it looks like it just may have.

At the Global Seafood Marketing Conference (GSMC) in San Francisco last month, executives openly discussed the decline in consumption of tilapia in the US, and put the blame on -- once again -- the media.

My colleague John Fiorillo and I were skeptical. We couldn't remember any massive mainstream media expose on tilapia that hit the headlines in the past couple years.

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Turns out, we were looking in the wrong place: these stories couldn't be found by traditional channels. They found their life on social media.

To get to the bottom of the disinformation, I ventured into the bowels of Facebook, where only the boldest and least busy people dare to go.

What I found was astonishing. Why? Not because I was surprised to see negative stories about aquaculture, or tilapia in particular. Those have been around. No, what shocked me was the number of times the exact same unsubstantiated, unsourced stories were posted, over the course of two years, by people with millions of followers.

One story in particular, with the perfectly reasonable headline "Warning...Stop eating tilapia ASAP before it's too late," is as ubiquitous as cat photos online.

Simpleorganiclife.org, a purported health and wellness site with 1 million Facebook likes -- posted the story late last Thursday. The week prior, a Facebook user called Natural Cures Not Medicine, with over 2 million likes, posted the exact same story. Those are just two of dozens upon dozens of reposts.

As far as I can tell, the first mention of the story on Facebook came in 2015, courtesy of places such as Natural Solutions Magazine, a page with 2.6 million likes. They cite the highly respected journalist Mr. Healthy Life. When you visit Mr. Healthy Life (please don't) and follow the source on the bottom, you end up with a broken link, on a page with stories that include "Crossbow vs. Body Armor: Which one is stronger?" So we're not dealing with the smartest people on the planet.

Another Facebook story, "Eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon," is another Facebook favorite, based on a highly dubious study. Clean Eating Online (1 million likes), Juicing Vegetables (1.8 million likes), and the Library of Most Controversial Files (yes, it's real and it has over 2 million likes) all posted the "worse than bacon" item.

The common thread, it seems to me, are that the sites and personalities posting these stories tend to be related to health and wellness, and, upon closer inspection, tend to be looking for traffic to sell you snake oil products.

The other common thread is that these stories get clicks. LOTS of clicks. That why you'll see pages like Natural Solutions Magazine posting the same sensational "stop eating tilapia ASAP" article over and over (over the course of a year and a half, they posted it on Facebook at least 10 times).

As a person whose job entails writing headlines, I can tell you that it's a dark art -- part grammar, part science, and yes, part marketing. A journalist wants his or her work read.

But if you write a headline, you better deliver on your promise, at least in the world of real journalism. In Facebookland, anything goes in the quest for the almighty click.

What's most disturbing is that you can watch this misinformation daisy chain in real time. While I was researching this column, the "tilapia will kill you" story was literally being re-posted as I wrote.

I didn't dig into European Facebook pages, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that what we're finding on Facebook's English site is being replicated around the world.

We're still trying to uncover the genesis of the current pangasius scare in Europe, but it's likely social media played a role there as well.

So what is the solution? Posting positive stories? A larger marketing budget? Crisis PR firms? Angry comments? It seems to me social media scares are like the fabled Hydra -- cut off one head, and another appears.

I had a nice chat with an executive from the seafood sector Friday, and we both speculated where this might be going. The frightening conclusion we both arrived at was how simple it would be for any fish to fall victim to this bizarre and brutal cycle.

Looks like none of us are safe from fake news.

Feedback? Contact: drew.cherry@intrafish.com

Follow me on Twitter: @drewcherry

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