Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tweet Responsibly: Tips for being an effective food activist (or any other kind) on Twitter

First of all, I am no Twitter expert. But after about 6 months I've noticed a few things that drive me nuts. Because 140 characters is insufficient to explain, I'm airing my concerns in this longer format. I've been writing about the food industry, food policy, and the politics of food for about 14 years now, and as a lawyer, I take pride in being accurate about policy, as well as industry practices. While I am used to writing in long format, I also appreciate the fun of saying things quickly and succinctly.

What I love most about Twitter is sharing with, and learning from, my fellow food activists, writers, experts, parents, and just anyone who cares about the politics of what's on our plate. I love the up-to-the-minute news, blog posts, action alerts, and even the waxing sentimental about whatever local food is in season.

But what I don't like is the sloppiness that typing up to 140 characters at lightning speed can sometimes foster. Lately I have felt the urge to correct a few things being posted to Twitter. Now I realize it may be annoying when I hit reply and wag my finger, but I think accuracy is important. So if it can't be said correctly in 140 characters, than either be very vague, just give the url, or leave it alone. And here are few more rules for how to be an effective activist on Twitter:

Do make sure the source material in the link actually backs up the content of the tweet.
There is really no excuse for not checking your links, one to be sure it goes to the right place, and two, if you are re-tweeting someone else, to ensure the other person got it right. Which leads me to....

Do not point to a story or blog post, etc, if you have not read the story, etc, yourself.
Now I realize some stories are long and we are all in a hurry to get to the next tweet, but if you are telling me to read something then I expect that you have at least verified that it's worth the read. Yes, a quick skim is OK, I do that myself at times, just enough to vouch for it.

Do not perpetuate lazy newspaper headlines that may be incomplete or inaccurate.
This is especially important when referencing newspapers. (My poster child is USA Today.) In my book (warning, shameless promotion) Appetite for Profit, I described the importance of not taking as gospel any newspaper headline about food industry practices or food policy. Now in the age of 140 characters or less, people are tweeting newspaper headlines without knowing if they are accurate. Most newspaper headline writers do not understand the nitty gritty of policy details, but that is no excuse to help dumb headlines go viral. A typical example (paraphrasing): "PepsiCo no longer selling soda in schools," when in fact, the company just has voluntary nutrition standards. If you see a headline like that, which sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so don't tweet it. You only help Big Food's PR machine.

Just like in the real world, consider your source. Also, trust but verify.
I follow many food industry accounts on Twitter, so I can see how they market in that medium and call them out at times. But if an industry source tweets a news story, my BS radar goes up and I read especially carefully to see if what they are pointing to supports their claims. It usually doesn't. On the flip side, there are lots of great activists on Twitter, and some I trust more than others, but just because someone has lots of followers or covers the White House, that doesn't mean you should take their word as gospel.

Do not tweet sweeping statements when details are needed to explain nuanced law and policy.
This one I can best explain by example and as a lawyer, has me most frustrated. Pending in Congress right now is the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which is the legislation that funds critical programs such as school meals. Since the Senate passed its version of the bill last month, I've seen numerous inaccurate headlines and tweets exaggerating what the bill would accomplish if enacted. They are all along the lines of, "new bill would rid schools of junk food."

This is far from the case. Instead, the measure at long last gives USDA the much-needed authority to regulate foods sold outside of school meals, so-called "competitive foods." And while the language of the bill does suggest that subsequent regulations should adhere to sound nutrition standards, the regulatory process is inevitably fraught with its own politics. In other words, the fight to get unhealthy foods and beverages out of schools is far from over. That the food industry did not put up much of a fight over this aspect of the bill is a pretty good indicator that they don't feel threatened by its language.

So please, I am begging you, do not tweet that this bill gets junk food out of schools, especially once the bill finally does get signed by President Obama, because the celebrating is premature at best.

Now I realize that we can't all be lawyers (please no jokes) and I don't expect everyone on Twitter to spend hours pouring over boring legislative language (I hate it too) but my point is, if you're not sure of what you're saying, please don't say it, or ask an expert to clarify. As an advocate, I know how important credibility is. It's often all we have, given the enormous power of industry. While Big Food may have endless resources, we have the truth on our side. So we shouldn't mess with it.

If you have questions, email me or, you can always find me on Twitter.

1 comment:

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