Farmer co-operation can combat cyberbullying

The dilemma of consumer education about agriculture is intensifying. One important way to engage in consumer education about farm practices is online — specifically, social media.

But now it appears that the rational voices of some farmers are being hounded out of social media through cyberbullying.

Surveys show that farmers are the most-trusted source of information about the food system. Yet how are farmers expected to engage in conversations with the public when their efforts cause so much stress that they cease to participate?

There is a way ahead, but it involves a high degree of co-operation and vigilance.

Online bullying has affected some respected sources. Alberta farm blogger Sarah Schultz has backed off due to online harassment.

Kevin Folta, former chair of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida and a blogger on bio-science, stepped down last year in part because of online bullying.

The mental health effects of cyberbullying can be profound. Victims, who are trying to engage in respectful debate, can be made to feel helpless, angry and depressed after being flamed by activists, sometimes being called horrible names, or threatened.

This comes at a time in which farmers already face a great deal of stress. A nationwide survey of more than 1,100 producers in 2015-16 showed 45 percent of respondents had high stress levels and 35 percent suffered from various degrees of depression. Sources of stress are often not under farmers’ control, including weather, fluctuating markets, changing regulations and debt.

It’s understandable then, that some farmers trying to educate consumers about farm practices back off from social media when they feel attacked. This is happening while online misinformation is poised to affect policy and consumer purchasing patterns.

Saskatchewan’s Lesley Kelly, a prolific blogger who farms with her husband, Matt, has seen the ugly side of social media.

“If they don’t agree with your message they attack your parents, they attack your looks, (they say you’re a) bad mother,” she said. “They’re there to make my life hard. It can really hurt you to the core.”

The House of Commons committee on agriculture recently tabled a report on farmers’ mental health that, among other things, recommended the government engage in a public education campaign about cyberbullying in agriculture and advised that cyberbullying be made a criminal offence.

These are admirable goals, but criminalizing cyberbullying can be sidestepped by rewording comments to resemble free speech, while still retaining the tone of cruelty.

One effective approach for farmers who wish to participate in social media education is to gather a community of supportive followers who can jump into a nasty conversation and turn the tables — drowning out the negativity with civility and facts.

Kelly says it can work. “I have a community of people who are vocal on social media. We have the same values and same goals and we do have our own chat group,” she said. Participants will provide support in forums where misinformation is causing problems.

This effort can also be driven by farm associations, which can help by formalizing the process. Producers can be organized to operate online in teams.

That can offer support in the form of effective communication and rejection of hostility in a focused manner.

People who are interested in dialogue with farmers are more likely to engage in a forum that’s presented with civility.

Consumers are speaking up about agriculture. Politicians are listening. Laws are changing. It would be best if all this happened in a culture of reliable information.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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