Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.


Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.


Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.


‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but I’ve compiled some basic principles that we can apply under the acronym “CLEAR” that might help:

“C” Credibility: What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign). Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words? Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

“L” Language: Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading. Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.

“E” Endorsement: Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.

“A” Accuracy: Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates? Is the article or information current?

“R” Reliability: Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate? Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven” or “clinically proven”. Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

No long term effects of GMO consumption: a review article by Snell et al…

UPDATE: December 16, 2011

This just posted in Applied Mythology – response to the review article:


December 15, 2011

Here is a new and excellent review article by Snell et al (2011) entitled “Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials” recently published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Contrary to popular beliefs, long term studies HAVE been conducted on GMO consumption and they show NO LONG TERM effects.  The Snell et al article reviews outline several studies examining effects GM lines of maize, potato, soybean, rice and triticale.  The studies in question are of two types:

– 12 long term toxicological studies, where feeding time exceeds well over (up to 2 years) that of the 90 day studies classically used in toxicological studies applied to GMOs

 – 12 studies whose duration extended over several generations of animals.

KEY TAKEAWAY: “These studies by public research laboratories do not reveal any safety problem linked to long term consumption of GMO-derived food.” M. Kuntz  (For more interesting insights, I invite you to check out Marcel Kuntz’s website  Kuntz is a co-author on the Food and Chemical Toxicology article.) 

Article reference:

C. Snell, A. Bernheim, J.B. Bergé, M. Kuntz, G. Pascal, A. Paris, & A.E. Ricroch (2011) Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology

Other good sources related to this topic:

Flachowsky, G., Halle, I., & Aulrich, K. (2005)
    Long term feeding of Bt-corn – a ten-generation study with quails. Archives of Animal Nutrition, 59, 6, pp  449-451
    <Go to ISI>://000233641600008 AND

Flachowsky, G. & Wenk, C. (2010)
    The role of animal feeding trials for the nutritional and safety assessment of feeds from genetically modified plants – Present stage and future challenges. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, 19, 2, pp  149-170
    <Go to ISI>://WOS:000278973200001 AND

Castaldini, M., Turrini, A., Sbrana, C., Benedetti, A., Marchionni, M., Mocali, S., Fabiani, A., Landi, S., Santomassimo, F., Pietrangeli, B., Nuti, M.P., Miclaus, N., & Giovannetti, M. (2005)
    Impact of Bt corn on rhizospheric and on beneficial mycorrhizal symbiosis and soil eubacterial communities iosis in experimental microcosms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 71, 11, pp  6719-6729
    <Go to ISI>://000233225000033 AND

Crawley, M.J. (1995)
    Long term ecological impacts of the release of genetically modified organisms,  Strasbourg  Council of Europe Press,   Pan-European conference on the potential long-term ecological impact of genetically modified organisms, Ed.   pp 43-69

Hommel, B. & Pallutt, B. (2002)
    Evaluation of herbicide resistance against glufosinate in oilseed rape and maize in view of integrated plant protection – results of a long-term field experiment started in 1996 with a special view on field flora. Zeitschrift Fur Pflanzenkrankheiten Und Pflanzenschutz-Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection,  pp  985-994
    <Go to ISI>://000202836900128 AND

Leigh, R.A. & Johnston, A.E. (1994)
    Long Term Experiments in Agricultural and Ecological Sciences,  Rothamstead, 14-17 July 1993  CAB International,   Conference to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Rothamstead Experimental Station, Ed.   pp 428

Mattingly, G.E.G. & Johnston, A.E. (1976)
    Long-Term Rotation Experiments at Rothamsted and Saxmundham-Experimental-Stations – Effects of Treatments on Crop Yields and Soil Analyses and Recent Modifications in Purpose and Design. Annales Agronomiques, 27, 5-6, pp  743-769
    <Go to ISI>://A1976DN70300014 AND NEBIS 20111201

Rothamsted Research (2006)    
Guide to the classical and other long term experiments, dataset and sample archive Printed by Premier Printers Ltd, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. © Lawes Agricultural Trust Co. Ltd, Harpenden, Herts, AL5 2JQ, UK,  IS: ISBN 0 9514456 9 3, pp 56

Zueghart, W., Benzler, A., Berhorn, F., Sukopp, U., & Graef, F. (2008)
    Determining indicators, methods and sites for monitoring potential adverse effects of genetically modified plants to the environment: the legal and conceptional framework for implementation. Euphytica, 164, 3, pp  845-852 AND