Dublin, Ireland, and Ghent, Belgium – Researchers behind a scientific report on social media say food safety professionals cannot dismiss social media as a communications tool.
For one thing, say the authors, approximately two billion people worldwide have access to the Internet today and a large and increasing percentage of them are using social media.
The researchers – from Ghent University in Belgium, the University College Dublin in Ireland and a communications company in the U.K. – released the report titled, The use of social in food risk and benefit communication.
It was also published in the journal, Trends in Food Science and Technology.
The report is part of the FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication) project, which is funded by the European Commission.
Social media users
The authors say that social media users are playing a fundamental role as disseminators of food risk and benefit information.
Monitoring these online conversations can provide scientists with insight into consumers’ perceptions of food issues and allow scientists and food safety professionals to detect and track impending issues and on-going debates on topics, such as genetic modification and animal cloning.
Whether inadvertently misconstrued or intentionally altered as a result of vested interests, the broad social media landscape can oftentimes be a minefield of widely disseminated information that is incorrect or misleading.
Food risk communicators need to be present and pro-active on social media to increase visibility for the general public and key opinion formers (i.e. popular bloggers and journalists), to establish themselves as credible interactive sources of information and to enable timely communication with the public.
A social media presence is key to rapidly address and correct developments containing inaccuracies and misinformation, thus ensuring a momentum does not build up.
This is particularly true in food crisis situations where social media can lend itself to the escalation of a full-blown food crisis, and create potentially unwarranted panic and hysteria.
Active involvement with social media, in particular the constant monitoring and correcting of inaccurate information is likely to require considerable effort, resources and long-term expense (the time and cost effectiveness of different popular social media tools are graded low, medium or high in the paper).
Need to harness the resource
Professor Patrick Wall, coordinator of the FoodRisC Research project, says: “There is an increasing trend of private businesses investing in social media. Other risk and benefit communicators, such as food safety authorities, have been slow to use social media and there is a real need to harness this resource, so that it becomes a productive tool for communicating on food risks and benefits.”
The distribution of information is not the only task for food risk communicators in times of crisis. An organization that takes responsibility or expresses sympathy with the consumer or those affected by the crisis, is regarded as more honourable and understanding.
Social media applications are especially useful in this area due to the opportunity of direct communication and interaction with the audience.
The researchers concluded that social media as a communication tool is not without its pitfalls and challenges and these require further attention and investigation to better enable, food marketers, food policy makers and public health authorities in their communication on food risks and benefits.