What to monitor
It is important to monitor not only 'what is being said' but also 'who is saying it'!
What is being said?
Social media users are playing a fundamental role as disseminators of food risk and benefit information. Monitoring of these online conversations can provide insight into consumers’ perceptions of food issues and allows detection and tracking of impending issues and on-going debates on topics such as genetic modification and animal cloning. It also can be used to evaluate the online conversations following communication on a specific topic (e.g. a press release issued by a national food safety authority). 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 which is incorrect or misleading. Armed with this knowledge, food risk and benefit communicators can respond to address any misunderstandings or mis-leading information circulating in social media.
Findings from the FoodRisC project show that social media responds very quickly to a food crisis (i.e. new postings/tweets appear very quickly following announcement of the crisis). Furthermore, social media loses interest very quickly in a crisis (i.e. the number of new postings/tweets/blogs decrease as the crisis progresses). Thus, because of the speed of reporting, the ease of onward transmission (e.g. re-tweets) and the short attention span of social media, it is essential that any mis-leading or incorrect information is corrected as soon as possible. This is particularly important considering the length of time information remains prominent in social media. This is known as the ‘Echo-chamber Effect’.
Who is saying it?
Social media has given everyone the opportunity to write and disseminate news on food related topics (including food risks and food benefits) in the knowledge that at least a small audience might get to read what they have to say. In other words, social media has democratised the process of information generation and communication – giving everyone the chance to influence others.
A good example is that of a nine-year old Scottish school girl called Martha Payne who began a blog (30 April 2012) called ‘Never Seconds’ (http://neverseconds.blogspot.be/) about her school dinners. She gives each dinner a 'food-o-meter' and health rating, and counts the number of mouthfuls it takes to eat it. In a very short time, the blog received attention from all over the world. Stories of her blogs were picked up by local and national media; however, in June, Argyll and Bute council banned Martha from continuing her blog stating it led to "unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service … which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs". The council backed down following international outrage at Martha's treatment and charity donations funnelled through her blog began to increase. Before the ban, she had raised £2,000 for charity but after a week the total had reached £100,000. As of November 2012 her blog had more than 8 million viewers.
Identification of people involved in discussions and content creation can be particularly important as it can lead to better understanding of the flow of information. Furthermore, the findings can be used to build relationships (e.g. by following them and building on their networks). Performing a social networking analysis can be technically challenging but, as a principle, people are as important as the content they produce.