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Knowing how to address contentious agriculture issues is a must in the age of social media

Casey Kinler for Progressive Dairy Published on 22 April 2022

Imagine you post a photo of a Holstein cow on your Facebook page and then hundreds of negative comments start pouring in. You had included how the cow received antibiotics for pneumonia and is now on the mend, but several comments claim there are antibiotics in milk and promote milk alternatives.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common for dairy farmers and veterinarians advocating for animal agriculture on social media. Negative comments have the potential to steer the conversation down an unproductive path. However, if you know how to handle contentious issues online, then you can help people understand the animal agriculture community’s commitment to responsible antibiotic use, animal care, sustainability and other values.

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Listening to respond

Before deciding how (and if) to respond to comments, take a deep breath and ask yourself a few key questions:

1. Is the comment relevant or is it completely off topic?

2. Who made the comments? Is the person genuinely curious or a known extreme animal rights activist?

3. Consider, “Is it possible he or she has a different perspective?” or “Is there something that could have shaped this person’s opinion?”

4. Will responding to the comment help other people who will read your response?

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If the person has left a completely irrelevant comment, don’t feel obligated to respond. If the comment included derogatory remarks and offensive language, feel confident in hiding the comment or blocking the person from commenting again. Remember, your social media page is your space, and you can set community guidelines.

Depending on who left the comment, you can determine how to respond. By clicking on the commentor’s profile, you can quickly learn if it is a mom concerned about feeding her children the most nutrient-dense foods, a foodie genuinely interested in how food is produced or potentially an animal rights extremist with no intention of having a conversation or changing his or her mind about animal agriculture. Next, asking yourself what might be shaping the person’s opinion gets you further into the mindset of listening and trying to understand the commentor before moving forward. It is easy to overlook the importance of listening when we are eager to share our thoughts; however, listening to someone’s point of view is the first step in building credibility.

If you conclude that the commentor is likely not open to a having a dialogue, ask yourself if responding to the comment will help others understand your perspective. Social media is a very public space and there are many more people reading your posts and comment sections than just those actually engaging. Think about comments and conversation as they align with your content, goals and strategy.

Responding to criticism

Once you have asked yourself these questions and have decided that responding is your next step, look for common ground on a related topic, such as food safety and family health. Before jumping into the safety and animal welfare benefits of using antibiotics, validate their concerns and offer empathy. Then, ask permission to share your personal experience with using antibiotics on the dairy farm. If the conversation is going well, follow up with the science and offer resources or other people to follow on social media if they are interested in learning more.

Keep in mind, it's just as important to know when and how to respond as it is to know when to stop responding. Sometimes the conversation will not go as planned and start to turn sour. This is when you can apply the two-responses rule. If you’ve responded twice and the commentor is clearly not open to having a dialogue, it’s time to reevaluate. Spend your time where it counts and remember you won’t be able to sway everyone’s opinion. The majority of the population is open to learning more about animal agriculture and food production – don’t spend your time trying to convince the ones who have their mind made up.

Lastly, sometimes there are too many comments to respond to in a day – remember you can always ask for help. Bring in your friends who also have experience in responding to contentious issues, or message your local checkoff or the Animal Agriculture Alliance to help you moderate.  

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Animal Ag Alliance has a program called Animal Ag Allies which empowers farmers, ranchers and practicing veterinarians to be outspoken advocates for agriculture online and within their communities. To sign up, click here and fill out the interest form.  end mark

Casey Kinler is the director of membership and marketing at Animal Agriculture Alliance. Email Casey Kinler.

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