Impact Of Social Media Campaigns On The Animal Movement
Social media platforms have become a place for the governance of issues related to agriculture and food sustainability including food quality, environmental impact, social justice, and farmed animal welfare due to their ability to bring together all stakeholders. On social media platforms, advocates can organize, share information to a large audience, and push for change. Similarly, food corporations can use social media as a place to fight back against criticism, monitor opposition, and understand how to rebrand themselves to better align with consumer expectations.
In this study, the author suggests that there are three “pathways” of social media influence on agriculture: the first is that social media allows for the rapid spread of information to a large audience that encomposes all stakeholders; the second is that social media enables advocates to connect and organize based on common concerns or beliefs; and the third pathway is that social media data can be harnessed to monitor the activities of consumers and advocates, market food products, and shape consumption trends.
The goal of this paper was to understand the impact of social media governance on agriculture and food sustainability through it’s analysis of the Twitter hashtag campaign “Februdairy,” which launched in February 2018 by Dr. Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability researcher and expert in agricultural communication. The campaign was likely a response to the success of initiatives like Veganuary, a yearly campaign that takes place in January and promotes trying a vegan diet for the month.
Capper announced the campaign by tweeting: “Let’s make #Februdairy happen this year. 28 days, 28 positive #dairy posts. From cute calves and #cheese on crumpets, to belligerent bulls and juicy #beef #burgers—who’s in?” on January 19, 2018. The goal of the campaign was to promote the British dairy industry, counter negative publicity created by the vegan movement, regain the support and trust of consumers, and boost sales in light of the increasing market share of plant-based products. However, the hashtag was taken over by animal advocates who, instead, created a conversation around farmed animal protection.
Looking at 200 online publications about Februdairy, including articles in traditional and online press, blog posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts, this study identified 59 items from 62 agriculture sources which were in support of the dairy industry, 62 items from 49 advocates’ sources which were advocating for veganism, and 23 items from 23 general media outlets that were neither farming nor advocate sources. The animal protection advocates consisted of users who support the vegan cause from the U.K. and other English speaking countries, as well as France and Germany. The main argument from the advocates was that individuals must reject dairy agriculture based on the ethical grounds that animals are sentient beings.
Through their posts using the #Februdairy hashtag, advocates suggested that there is a moral equivalence between humans and animals, and that animals used in the dairy industry experience more prolonged suffering than animals in the meat industry. The advocates described practices used in the dairy industry using terms such as “rape,” “sexual assault,” “inhumane,” “explotiation,” and “murder.” Some also made the argument that dairy is bad for health and the environment and presented plant-based agriculture as a solution.
The author of this study suggests the ultimate goal of the advocates was not to call out particular organizations or incidents, or to discuss opportunities for welfare improvements, but to undermine the very practice of dairy farming. This led some industry participants to criticize the advocates’ arguments for being inaccurate or inauthentic. Most advocates framed Februdairy as a sign of the industry’s desperation, and some mocked industry participants for low social media campaign literacy. Additionally, some advocates argued that the industry’s message could not be trusted due to its representatives having a financial stake in dairy production.
From the dairy industry’s side, the campaign was led by Dr. Capper, who tapped into online professional and personal networks of farmers and other industry representatives, mostly processors and businesses that provide inputs and services to dairy farmers. In addition to the previously mentioned goals, the industry also looked to “debunk myths” about dairy farming spread by advocates by being transparent about the industry’s practices. Interestingly, many of the practices described by advocates in order to shed light on animal suffering, actually do occur in the dairy industry.
Capper advised industry participants to not engage with “emotional content,” such as comparisons between humans and animals, as the industry holds the belief that the use of animals by humans is justified. Some industry participants argued the dairy industry includes both social and environmental benefits and suggested that the destruction of the British dairy industry would lead to the importation of cheap meat and dairy from unregulated markets.
Ultimately, the study was limited in scope to one campaign; still the author argues that, while hashtag hijacking may be useful for creating social change through market disruption, it’s an ineffective method for solving the treatment of farmed animals through government regulation. Market disruption is great, but it often means that businesses will simultaneously continue animal farming and creating new vegan products to sell to ethical consumers. Further, the author concludes that the disruptive marketing mechanism did not offer food producers a feasible way to transition to plant-based products. People who do online advocacy for animals should understand the limits of such campaigns, and use them as one aspect of a varied approach to pushing for change.