We live in a world in which critical, investigatory content is being squeezed into an increasingly narrow sideline. What constitutes a ‘worthwhile’ piece of content in 2016 is no longer what it adds to public discourse, but rather how many ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ it garners. It is in this quest for digital engagement that social movements and ideologies can be perverted to the point that they are almost unrecognisable.
Even topics with deeply philosophical underpinnings aren’t immune to superficial treatment in the media tailored to increase digital exposure. Feminism can be reduced to a meme, the civil rights movement can be scorned in an infographic no taller than a postcard, and you can take an online quiz to find out just how “vegan” you are.
In fact, veganism is one clear example of the how ideologies can be cheapened in the race for views and likes. Founded on the philosophical belief that animals are not commodities, veganism is a movement that has been severely misrepresented online in recent years – and most alarming is that it is often animal rights ‘activists’ – the ones who should be safeguarding the movement – who are the ones most guilty of belying it.
The Rise of (Digital) Veganism.
Veganism is going through something of a renaissance period at present – booming in popularity over the last 12 months. Google search data is as good a source as any to highlight its growing popularity, with the volume of online searches for the term ‘vegan’ currently at an all time high, with a sharp upward trend since 2015.
Less recently, a 2012 study from Harris Interactive found that 2.5% of the US population identify as vegan, up from 1% in 2009. This might not seem much – but considering the term was first coined in 1944 – it represents a big leap.
While it’s hard to attribute this upsurge to any one source, the health and fitness communities have certainly made a significant contribution. Dieticians, health fanatics and gym junkies have all co-opted the movement in recent years – extolling the benefits of a vegan diet in achieving optimal health, physique and happiness. The four most popular Youtube accounts for the term ‘vegan’ in 2016 all focus on these arguably superficial aspects of veganism:
Further exposure for veganism has been gained through kingpins of online content such as Buzzfeed, with some of its most shared stories about veganism in 2015 including: “What percentage vegan are you?” and “this food test will determine if you’re a real vegan”. Both include interactive questionnaires you can take to determine just how ‘vegan’ you are.
Want full marks? The true vegan will apparently know to opt for a lunch date with (current vegan) Jared Leto over (ex-vegan) Angelina Jolie.
Somewhere along the way here, what began as an animal rights movement has been given a facile glossing over.
We can scoff and scorn, but health and dietary bloggers are simply doing what they know best – using diets as a tool to promote fitness and health. Similarly, Buzzfeed is just being buzzfeed – compressing ideas into neatly consumable, interactive packages. We can almost forgive them both. What is harder to overlook is the activity of some self-professed animal rights ‘activists ‘who also misrepresent the movement online.
Animal Advocacy Or Clickbait?
Type ‘vegan activism’ into Youtube in 2016 and you are met with the fresh, young faces of animal rights ‘activism’ in the digital age. ‘The Vegan Activist’ (TVA) and ‘The Friendly Activist’(TFA) are two such vloggers using the channel to advance animal advocacy.
Both are men in their early 20s; both have over 30,000 followers on the platform; and both regularly employ sensationalism and package their videos into bite-sized factoids designed to increase traffic.
The most viewed video on The Vegan Activist’s channel is titled ‘Youtubers that PROMOTE eating disorders’ – an ‘expose’ on weight loss vloggers. It has accrued over 230,000 views. Other more shouty titles can be found on The Friendly Activist’s channel; and include ‘WHOA DID YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT MEAT?!’ and ‘CARA DELEVIGNE’S HYPOCRISY CAUSES CANCER’’.
The latter draws a tenuous link between the supposed selective morality of a celebrity choosing to criticise the fur industry while enjoying steak dinners, and a statement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that meat is a carcinogen. This is all performed on camera while criticising articles covering the WHO announcement, such as the BBC’s, for having “controversial” titles and “misdirecting” people. The irony here is plain to see. While the BBC’s headline may be misleading, TFA’s is clickbait, plain and simple. The video’s title serves one purpose, and one purpose only – to lure viewers and drive traffic.
By launching ad hominem attacks on celebrities and using sensationalist and misleading titles – along with a raft of other cheap tactics – both publishers are intentionally dumbing down their content to garner more clicks and engagement.
While we can applaud content creators for amassing the page views and endorsements they have worked hard to acquire, there is an inherent danger in this methodology that begins when these metrics become the framework around which all content is based. The publisher quickly begins to lose credibility when the validation of their creation – in the form of views and likes – spurs them on to become a repetitive machine, churning out content for the sake of content. As we will see – this is often done at the expense of accuracy, reliability and insight.
Shallow Metrics = Shallow Content.
The dearth of quality, well-researched and insightful content is evident across both TVA and TFA’s channels. “The dangers of meat in 60 seconds,” a video from The Vegan Activist, manages to steer clear of discussing celebrities and compresses the health arguments against the consumption of meat into just under a minute. One of the many dubious claims made in the video is a flippant statement from the narrator that “animal protein is far too acidic for the human body and has been linked to….osteoporosis”. This statement alone warrants a more thorough investigation than it is given. Even quickly prodding about on the internet reveals that this isn’t even an accepted truth in the scientific community. As one French study concluded: “Although HP [high protein] diets induce an increase in net acid and urinary calcium excretion, they do not seem to be linked to impaired calcium balance and no clinical data support the hypothesis of a detrimental effect of HP diet on bone health”. This is further supported by a 2009 meta-analysis that acid production (measured by acid compounds in the urine) was not associated with calcium balance or with bone loss.
At the very least there is no clear and accepted link between eating hoards of animal flesh and weak bones and vegans should steer clear of claiming otherwise.
Compressing the health implications of eating animal protein into 60 seconds means a scientifically accurate explanation of the relationship between animal protein and human health is impossible to achieve. Consequently, over 23,000 people have been fed inaccurate information – a damaging statistic for any movement.
More potentially damaging misinformation can be found in videos from The Friendly Activist. “CURE CANCER WITH DIET AND LIFESTYLE CHANGES! + Industry Lies” is one video that does just this. Formed as a response to a KFC fundraiser for breast cancer research, the video is a flimsy opinion piece dressed up as an educational resource, citing “medical research” purporting that high protein diets induce cancer; with veganism suggested as the magical cure. The research put to the viewer turns out to be a rather bizarre statement from an anonymous individual at the 7:20 mark that an undisclosed experiment in the 1960s in India found that “In 100% of the cases, increasing the consumption of animal protein caused cancer”. This statement alone is worrying, but beyond that there is no explanation as to who the individual in the video making this damning statement actually is. Research reveals that the man is Mike Anderson, whose documentary “Curing cancer from the inside out”, is where the video snippet was lifted from. Whether or not TFA knew of the original source, or just cherry picked a video snippet to support his own line of enquiry is unclear. Perhaps TFA didn’t want to disclose his source in case his viewers decided to research the claims made by Anderson. Well I did, and it turns out they are bogus and completely taken out of context.
The video would have you believe that the study Anderson is referring to was conducted on humans. As it turns out it wasn’t. It was conducted on rats. As we know, rodents aren’t humans, they are biologically and physiologically distinctly different from you and I, and in this case were an inbred strain called Sprague-Dawley rats, bred to easily develop cancer. Despite the scientific inaccuracy of lumping humans in with rats, one might wonder why a self-professed ethical vegan who speaks out against animal testing would want to cite a study that essentially gave cancer causing chemicals known as Aflatoxins to rats – all in order to study the supposed ill effects of high protein diets.
The plain disregard for accuracy doesn’t stop there. Further into the video and TFA relies on anecdotes from individuals with no apparent medical authority to spruik veganism as a cure for cancer. One such person is Janette-Murray Wakelin, who claims veganism and marathon running cured her aggressive carcinoma breast cancer. More insidious cancers, such as brain cancer can too be cured with veganism, at least according to cancer survivor Megan Sherow, who is also given airtime in TFA’s video. Megan was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 13, yet after six months of ignoring her doctors’ advice for chemotherapy and instead opting for a raw vegan diet as an alternative therapy, was magically cured. It COULD have disappeared thanks to a vegan diet, but Megan could have also experienced spontaneous cancer remission – a phenomenon known to scientists for hundreds of years.
The point is that we don’t know what cured Megan’s cancer. We certainly can’t confidently say it was because of raw veganism, because even armchair scientists know that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Beyond that we shouldn’t even be giving airtime to purely anecdotal accounts of how and why cancers have miraculously disappeared. Anecdotes are great when backed up by hard evidence – but TFA doesn’t include any of that, either.
The fact is that while scientists acknowledge that there are ways to aid in the prevention of cancer, even health bodies steer well clear of linking diets to causing, or indeed curing, certain cancers. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research have stated that the effects of fiber, vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, milk, and vegetable oils on breast cancer, for instance, is “limited” at best. When it comes to brain cancer neither body comes within touching distance of making any claims on diet.
Of course, if TFA was actually concerned with accuracy of information he wouldn’t rely on anecdotal testimonials and shoddy data – but the content of his videos would strongly suggest that he isn’t. He is concerned foremost with more clicks and views – a measure of his own success. The easiest way to achieve this is through simple solutions to complex problems; ones that are easy to collate, quick to digest and sensationalist.
This is more than sloppy – it is dangerous; particularly when paired with the idea that you can cure terminal cancer with a diet. It is not only dangerous for sufferers of cancer who believe TFA’s claims, but it is damaging for the reputation of the animal rights movement. This particular video has 5,000 views with positive comments from vegans praising TFA for bringing these ‘revelations’ to light. Each one of these individuals is going into the real world and potentially repeating misinformation to friends, family and colleagues. The damage this does to the animal rights movement is difficult to quantify, but nevertheless constitutes a significant concern for vegans who want themselves and their beliefs to be taken seriously.
Where To Turn?
All this is not to say that activism that uses attention-grabbing headlines – or even easily digestible informational bites – can never be effective. There are many examples of well constructed educational resources on veganism that use both of these click-drivers, but are also well-considered and researched.
The VeganRD is a blog run by a Ginny Kisch Messina, a registered dietician, who explains complex scientific ideas related to veganism without skimping on accuracy. Messina takes a critical look at nutritional and health claims made by both the omnivorous and vegan communities and explains them in laymen’s terms. It takes a matter of minutes to read Messina’s balanced explanations of complex issues – and best of all, she does so without ignoring the one thing that veganism can actually guarantee you – not supreme health or a disease free existence – but not contributing to the abuse of animals.
Beyond the nutritional arguments around veganism, there are a number of bloggers that are taking a critical look at the ethics of the movement without omitting the nuance that is needed when handling the subject. Kerry McCarpet is neither a dietician or an ethicist, yet her videos do not shy away from controversial topics, do not cherrypick data, and work through the complex ethical issues surrounding veganism in a way that is both entertaining and informative. Even Eisel Mazard, who I have criticised previously on this blog, discusses the ethics and politics of veganism in a way that is far more considered than many of his counterparts.
But any publicity is good publicity!
The counter-argument to this is all too apparent: a wider reach, particularly to a younger generation can only be a good thing, surely!
While it is clear that the likes of TVA and TFA are building a bridge between veganism and the rest of the world – it is difficult to say it is a robust bridge. If we want to truly dismantle the barriers between vegans and the rest of the world then we need to focus on the merits of accuracy and critique.
A shallow, sensationalist one-sided understanding of veganism is not going to encourage new converts or arm a new-wave of animal rights proponents with the information they need to go into the world of stubborn carnists and actually wield influence.
If we want to do that, then veganism needs to steer clear of pandering to the new digital currencies of likes and views and start instilling in individuals the virtues of critical thought and understanding.