There is an abundance of misinformation, from a variety of sources, that influences how we think about non-human animals. Here, i consider misinformation in this context, through three categories – (1) Individuals/Consumers, (2) Corporations/Organisations, and (3) Media. As will become apparent, these categories overlap and interact with one another. Aside from a basic consideration of the facts-of-the-matter, I am not interrogating the falsity of these examples, as my intention is not to debate the accuracy of the claims themselves. Rather, I am highlighting these examples to show the scope of misinformation in this context. As such, it should be taken that the misinformation I identify and refer to here is just that – false and misleading information, not supported by evidence.
There are many common misconceptions about non-human animals as a food-source that are spread by individual agents, often without malicious intent. However, this form of misinformation can still be damaging, regardless of the communicator’s intention. Our beliefs are formed socially, so what might seem to be innocent sharing of information can still have dire consequences for non-human animals. Further, many of the folk ideas concerning non-human animals are then promoted in the form of disinformation by corporations and organisations, often then also being communicated through the media, in turn influencing more individuals.
Some misinformation might directly challenge the perspective that animals deserve greater moral consideration (for example, if someone was to claim that animals don’t deserve moral consideration). However, this type of misinformation is not widespread, as most people are not directly considering the moral status of non-human animals. Instead, these views are often implied in other arguments, some more directly than others. For example, the commonplace belief that fish do not feel pain does not directly question moral status, but instead, considers the existence (or presumed lack of) of a capacity that is a basis for moral consideration.
A study carried out by Jarred Piazza and colleagues in 2015, building on Melanie Joy’s Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows (2010), provides some all-too-common false beliefs about non-human animals. This study focused on how people rationalized meat consumption, categorizing the justifications that participants used in terms of Joy’s ‘3Ns’ – ‘natural’, ‘necessary’, and ‘normal’, whilst also adding a 4th category – ‘nice’. Rather than viewing these only as rationalizations, a shift in perspective sees them as false beliefs that provide a basis for misinformation. I will now give a brief overview of these four categories.
Misinformation that appeals to biology to draw attention to the ‘naturalness’ of eating meat may take the form of statements such as It is natural for humans to eat meat, Humans are omnivores, Evolutionarily hominids have always eaten meat, Organisms consuming each other is something that is prevalent in nature, or humans were meant to have dominion over animals (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116). As noted above, I will not interrogate these claims here, however, they fall short in three key ways. First, they are often scientifically inaccurate, that is, not supported by empirical evidence. Second, they rest on the idea that something that is natural is, broadly speaking, ‘good’, and something non-natural is ‘bad’. Although this might be a good rule of thumb, it is not always the case that natural equates to good, therefore it is a fallacious argumentative approach (1). Similarly, it is questionable whether these claims, if accurate, should even be considered morally relevant. That is to say, what is determined to be biologically good or bad does not equate to morally permissible or impermissible.
Misinformation that fits the category of ‘normal’ appeals to societal norms and behaviours, both present and historic. Piazza et. al. give the following statements as examples: Society says it’s okay, I was raised eating meat, Meat is culturally accepted, and A lot of other people eat meat (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116). At first glance, these examples do not seem to be making clearly truth-evaluative claims, and as such, might not strictly fall under the banner of misinformation, however upon further interrogation, it becomes clear that these examples contain false and misleading information. For example, the claims Society says it’s okay, or Meat is culturally accepted, are not factually accurate, as a significant portion of society suggests consumption of animals is not acceptable. For example, approximately 10% of the Australian population consumes a vegetarian diet (Roy Morgan, 2019). As I have noted with regard to naturalness, the moral relevance of normality is also questionable. Many practices throughout history that have been seen as normal, for example, human slavery or child abuse, are clearly not morally permissible. In other words, normality does not imply morality.
Other common forms of misinformation claim, in one way or another, that consumption of animals is ‘necessary’. This sort of statement usually appeals to an individual’s health, suggesting that one cannot have a healthy diet without eating meat. Again, this is not the place to review these claims in depth, however it must be noted that a number of studies have been undertaken to determine the credibility of health-based objections to a vegetarian diet, suggesting that consuming a vegetarian diet is in no way detrimental to health (Sheratt, 2007, pp.429, & Piazza et. al., 2015, p.115). Examples of this sort of misinformation include the beliefs that humans need meat to survive, Meat provides good nutrients, or Protein is a necessary part of our diets. These claims are not limited to health appeals however, and might also appeal to population control or economic stability, for example, the view that if we didn’t (eat meat), there would be an overabundance of certain animals (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116).
While the above ‘3N’s’ are originally attributable to Melanie Joy (2010), a 4th category was identified, specific to consumption of animals, and added to Piazza et. al.’s 2015 study – ‘nice’. According to Piazza and colleagues, “Several lines of evidence suggest that the enjoyment people derive from eating meat is a major barrier to reducing meat consumption and/or adopting a vegetarian diet” (Piazza et. al. 2015. p.115-116). In a basic sense, an individual agent claiming that they derive pleasure from eating meat does not constitute misinformation, as instead, it is simply a subjective value-judgement (for example; it’s delicious). However, this sort of claim appeals to hedonistic pleasure, and as such, Piazza et. al. imply that it includes the ‘feel-good’ attitude that one gets when they believe they are eating ‘humane’ meat. This is an important point, as narratives about ‘happy’ or ‘humane’ meat are often promoted by corporations and organisations that are invested in the ongoing exploitation of animals. But, put simply, there is no such thing as happy meat.
At this point, I depart from the individual and move on to explore the disinformation and propaganda, advanced by animal-agricultural corporations and associated industry bodies, as an attempt to justify their practices and reinforce the status of some animals as food.
In the chapter Humane Hypocrisies – Making Killing Acceptable, from Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy (2020), John Sorenson provides an overview of the various methods used by ‘pro-meat’ corporations and organisations to maintain the domination and exploitation of non-human animals. While Sorenson does not specifically refer to misinformation, he highlights a number of methods used by these groups, including rhetorical techniques, euphemisms, and the creation of inaccurate narratives to reinforce the status of animals as food. Many of these techniques fall under the banner of misinformation, more specifically, disinformation, as they are communicating deliberately false and misleading information with the intention of manipulating people to believe that certain non-human animals do not deserve moral consideration and instead should merely be seen as food. Disinformation is also produced to undermine the credibility of those who call for better treatment of non-human animals.
Sorenson highlights the cruelty, violence, and unethical behaviour that is involved with the commodification of non-human animals, and goes on to suggest that those within this industry face the task of making these things “seem acceptable, normal, and desirable”(Sorenson, 2020, p.212). To overcome criticism, these industries have “crafted extensive advertising and propaganda campaigns” so that “violence is normalized and presented as acceptable” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212). He uses bacon as an example, which he more-accurately describes as “strips of flesh cut from the corpses of pigs” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212). Sorenson notes that advertisers must create a fetishized narrative that masks the negative health consequences of this product, whilst also concealing what he calls the “relations of production” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212), that is, the violence and suffering experienced by pigs in the creation of this product.
In this example, there are two aspects of disinformation. First, there is the narrative that obscures negative health outcomes associated with this product, such as increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and more. As noted earlier with respect to individuals, a common justification for consuming animals is the idea that it is necessary to do so; for example, that meat is needed for a healthy diet. However, as individuals are more likely to accept information that fits with their existing beliefs, and dismiss information that conflicts, negative health outcomes get little attention (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.115).
Second, a disinformation campaign is created to hide the violent and unethical treatment of theanimals used to produce this product, more precisely, the narrative of ‘humane meat’ (2) (Sorenson, 2020, p.214). Although there are some minor improvements in humane practices when compared to conventional practices (for example, larger cages), these animals are ultimately still subjected to unnecessary harm, as it is not necessary for humans in highly industrialized cultures to consume animal products. In addition, this form of disinformation allows consumers to see themselves as people who love animals (or at least, some animals), and more importantly, as not as being complicit in the exploitation of animals (Sorenson, 2020, p.215). Other rhetorical devices designed by corporations and organisations to make exploitation and killing seem palatable, perhaps even praiseworthy, include the terms ‘humane slaughter’ and ‘ethical butchering’.
Not only does the humane myth attempt to cement the consumption of non-human animals as normal and acceptable, but it is also employed to undermine the credibility of animal rights activists, in addition to making veganism seem, as Sorenson puts it, “extreme and utopian” (Sorenson, 2020, p.215). Propaganda that paints animal rights activists as villains is ultimately created to draw attention away from the terrible acts taking place in the commodification of non-human animals. In addition, this narrative portrays farmers as victims of the activists, diverting attention away from non-human animals.
A recently released report by environmental investigations outlet Desmog has drawn attention to tactics used by the global meat industry, including both producers and industry groups, to downplay the industry’s role in climate change. These tactics, known as ‘climate-washing’, include the propagation of disinformation in an attempt to dismiss a causal connection between global-warming and livestock farming, while also downplaying plant-based alternatives to meat as a potential solution (Christian, 2021).
The Desmog report gives examples of false and misleading statements used by corporations and industry bodies in an attempt to dismiss scientific evidence that threatens their operations. For example, Dutch corporation Vion Food Group publicly claims that“eating less meat will not necessarily contribute to more sustainability”(Christian, 2021). Similarly, America’s Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) and French industry group International Meat Secretariat (IMS) consistently publicly attack research that suggests meat reduction is beneficial for both the environment and human health. In addition to attacking research that conflicts with their interests, they also draw on dubious research to suggest that their activities are a possible solution to the climate crisis, through regenerative agriculture. The report also highlights how these organisations promote themselves as ‘climate-friendly’, in a similar way to the ‘humane’ meat movement, but with a focus on downplaying environmental impact rather than the treatment of animals themselves. For example, multinational Danish Crown recently pledged “a new direction towards a more sustainable future”and ran a large-scale advertising campaign suggesting that its pig-farming operations were “climate-friendly” (Christian, 2021).
All of the examples of disinformation that I have highlighted here have the potential to become normalized, that is, adopted by consumers, allowing the cycle to continue in the form of misinformation. However, there is one additional arena that assists with this process: the communication of misinformation by mass media.
Media outlets play a substantial role in the spread of misinformation, including those organisations that might otherwise be described as ‘progressive’. While there are some media outlets that intend to spread false and misleading information, my focus here is the communication of misinformation, that could be described as innocent (but might be better described as careless). To highlight the role that media outlets play in the communication of misinformation, I will consider one recent example. Recall in the previous section, I briefly gave the example of regenerative farming as being a ‘problem-solver’ for climate change. Regenerative agriculture (also known as regenerative farming or regenerative ranching) seeks to restore natural habitats and reverse climate change by restoring soil health and improving its ability to store carbon. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this approach, particularly with respect to the extent that it claims to provide a solution. As Christian notes, recent research at the University of Oxford has found that grass-fed cows release more greenhouse gas than they are able to offset though boosting soil carbon levels, therefore still being a net contributor to the climate crisis (Christian, 2021).
In August, 2021, ‘The Guardian – Food’ released an article titled It’s not the cow, it’s the how’: why a long-time vegetarian became beef’s biggest champion (Barkham, 2021). As the title suggests, this article serves as an attempt to downplay the view that cattle farming is bad for the environment if regenerative practices are adopted. I am not concerned with debating the epistemic accuracy of regenerative farming here, however, the key claim being made here is a fallacious one – that regenerative farming is good for the environment.
In this example, The Guardian is communicating misinformation in the form of a ‘puff-piece’, designed to make the reader feel good, without interrogating the factual accuracy of the claims. This is sometimes done in attempt to appear impartial. It is unlikely that this media outlet has the intention of spreading misinformation, but rather, provides an outlet for both sides of the coin(The Guardian is also known to publish articles that criticise animal agriculture). Rather than arguments being accepted (published) or dismissed (not-published) based on their accuracy, factually inaccurate ‘bad’ arguments are allowed to persist, ripe for consumption by the uncritical consumer and serving as a foundation for the further spread of misinformation. In addition, when the reader is presented with what appears to be two equally valid positions, even if they do think critically, they can arrive at a state of disorientation. But as political economist Jan Dutkiewicz suggests,“If you have virtual consensus on one side and a few people over here, many of whom received funding from the meat industry … It shouldn’t be seen as two equal interlocutors presenting equally valid opposing opinions” (Christian, 2021).
It may seem that the above story is a relatively innocent example of misinformation, enabled by the circumstances outlined above, in which media outlets attempt to appear impartial or report ‘both sides of the story’. However, if one were to dig deeper, it becomes clear that this story has been created by a corporation invested in the continuing exploitation of cattle, an organization called Defending Beef. This organization is owned by Perdue Farms, one of the largest animal agricultural operations in America. In addition, the title used by The Guardian, it’s not the cow, it’s the how, is a false and misleading statement; rhetoric employed by the same organization to divert attention away from the true environmental impact of cattle farming. Articles like this are received by individual agents, taken at face value and perpetuated in the form of agent-to-agent misinformation which enables the spread of false beliefs.
I must reiterate that the examples that I have given here are not exhaustive. There are countless other instances of misinformation in the context of non-human animals. However, what I have attempted to do here is give the reader an understanding of misinformation, both as a concept, and also how it can take shape in the context of non-human animals. I hope that it is also clear that the three categories I have focused on here are deeply intertwined with one another, forming a cycle of misinformation that enables the spread of false beliefs, and in this case, ultimately inhibits adequate moral consideration of non-human animals by reinforcing the status of some animals as food.
However, as O’Connor and Weatherall suggest in their book ‘The Misinformation Age’ (2020), a mere introduction to misinformation does not explain its widespread acceptance. Further consideration of the underlying mechanisms that assist with the formation and spread of false beliefs is needed.
*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.
(1) This is most commonly referred to as the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy. As some things that are natural are bad (e.g. Polio), and some things that are not natural are good (e.g. penicillin), appeal to naturalness is a moot point. Instead, things (both natural and non-natural) should be assessed on their own merits.
(2) ‘Humane meat’ is also sometimes referred to as ‘happy meat’, but increasingly, ‘happy meat’ is being used to refer to cultured (lab-grown) meat.
Barkham, P. (2021, August 30). It’s not the cow, it’s the how’: why a long-time vegetarian became beef’s biggest champion. The Guardian – Food. Retrieved August 30th 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/aug/30/its-not-the-cow-its-the-how-why-a-long-time-vegetarian-became-beefs-biggest-champion
Christian, C. (2021, July 18). Investigation: How the Meat Industry is Climate-Washing its Polluting Business Model. Desmog. Retrieved July 18th 2021, from https://www.desmog.com/2021/07/18/investigation-meat-industry-greenwash-climatewash/
Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows. An introduction to carnism. San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser.
O’Connor, C., & Weatherall, J. O. (2019). The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. London, UK: Yale University Press.
Piazza, J., Ruby, M. B., Loughnan, S., Luong, M., Kulik, J., Hanne M. Watkins, H. M., & Seigerman, M. (2015). Rationalizing meat consumption. The 4Ns. Appetite, 91: 114-128.
Roy Morgan. (2019, April 12th). Rise in vegetarianism not halting the march of obesity. [Press release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7944-vegetarianism-in-2018-april-2018-201904120608
Sherratt, A. (2007). Vegetarians and their Children. Journal of Applied Philosophy, (24)4: 425-434.
Sorenson, J. (2020) “Humane Hypocrisies. Making Killing Acceptable”. In K. Dhont & G. Hodson (eds.), Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy. New York, NY: Routledge.