Social Media Giants Trip on Fake News, Agriculture Not Immune

The weather in SW Ontario has been a little bit fickle this past week, as rain showers have slowed harvest. I managed to get started at my corn harvest, but it was mainly dodging raindrops while loading trucks. Another 6/10 of an inch of rain the other night will shut me down for a few days. It seems like I have not seen the sun for over a week now. Sometimes corn harvest can be like that, cloudy and wet every day, but you can keep going.

Part of my harvest repertoire is listening to my Sirius satellite radio. Of course, as many of you know that means keeping track of my basketball teams on the NBA channel. Of course, I also get to keep track of much agricultural news on the Rural Radio channel. Needless to say, when I drive my combine I tend to be the most informed person in the world. It is so different than times past where farmers froze to death driving the combine into the night.

One of the most interesting stories that I heard over the last week had nothing to do with agriculture. However, it might have indirect effects on the information we value in helping us make good decisions on our farms. I’m talking about the increased scrutiny social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google got last week in the United States. Last week, executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google were questioned by members of Congress in the United States in three lengthy hearings. Specifically, members of Congress were looking for how these social media platforms were used by Russia to influence the American election.

Let me first point out that I’m not particularly interested in the American politics surrounding this particular issue. I know that I have many American readers who might find that interesting. However, as a Canadian I don’t really think I have a right to comment on how our American friends vote. So I will leave that there. What I find incredibly interesting about the hearings last week was the attitudes of the three tech giants, Facebook, Twitter and Google. American legislators were obviously condemning toward them with regard to how their social media platforms were used by Russia. Their response was more incredulity, almost a naivety like they never saw it coming. With these tech giants being worth mega-billions of dollars, to me it was an extraordinary admission from the new economy. It was like they were operating outside the rules expected from any media company in the United States when national security is at risk.

I write about this because it is taking place at a time when the idea of “fake news” has actually gained traction and it has gained traction with me. I never ever believed in the idea of fake news before the election of President Trump. However, after the election I could see how the US media was divided and in some cases had got it completely wrong. The idea that there might be something “fake” about the news in the United States became very real to me. Living in Canadian society on the border with United States made that revelation much more salient to me.

Simply put, it has shaken my confidence in information at hand. Where one time I may have not questioned some of the information that I was being presented with on a day-to-day basis, I no longer find it that way. Of course social media creates much of this and there are not too many farmers bigger on social media than I am. So when I look out into the agricultural landscape and I access information that I always felt solid, it gives me pause. If Facebook, Twitter and Google are before an American congressional committee and cry ignorance, it’s a terrible commentary on the new media and the new economy. Combined, they are worth zillions of dollars and have a huge impact on our economy.

At one point last week during the congressional inquisition, Sen. Al Franken actually was seen in a face palm (social media emoji) in front of the Facebook, Twitter and Google executives. It was in response to a Google executive not comprehending that being paid in rubles by a Moscow based payment provider for political ads might be a bad thing for the US. It got me thinking. Minus Facebook, I use Twitter and Google everyday. Maybe everything that glitters isn’t gold.

It reminds me 25 years ago when I first went to Bangladesh my colleague would buy five newspapers every day. I asked him why he bought so many newspapers. He responded by telling me that each newspaper has a different bias and he only wanted to try to find out what the truth was. I put my head into a face palm, never suspecting for a moment that someday I would have to do that back in Canada.

So as the sun comes out this week and it will come out I will look forward to garnering much more information like I always do. Of course, that means writing a column and writing my market commentary taking things from many, many sources trying to get it right. However, my filter is even bigger now in 2017. With Facebook, Twitter and Google tripping up, there surely is some work to do. Real understanding of the issues, will surely take greater and greater diligence.