Social media may generate false controversy over food/health topics

October 9, 2012

KDPaine & Partners LLC, a social media and communications measurement firm, has announced the findings of a study examining debates of controversial health subjects on social media sites. The company analyzed 301,497 posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and various blogs and forums on these issues from October 2010 to October 2011 and found that more than one-third of all comments may actually be generated from suspect sources such as “pay-per-click” sites, “content farms,” “robot” responders, and others with a financial interest in the debate.

“Dissecting Buzz—It’s not what you think it is: A Detailed Analysis of Social Media Conversation Around Controversial Topics” examined online debates for two food/health issues that have recently generated controversy: the development of genetically modified foods (GMOs) and the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It was predicted that a small number of posters create a disproportionate amount of conversation. The study confirmed that hypothesis and found that while these topics may be receiving a high volume of posts/comments, this does not necessarily translate to a high level of interest among valid, independent consumers.

“The media often gauge the level of interest a topic has by the amount of discussion that topic generates, so they focus on places like Facebook and Twitter in the false belief that is where the main debates are taking place,” said Katie Delahaye Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners. “Unfortunately, less than ethical marketers and pay-for-post operators have beaten them to it artificially raising the volume on certain issues like the ones we tested. The real conversations are taking place in smaller, focused online communities.”

The study found more than a third of all posts on GMOs and HFCS are created by just 10% of all posters and just 1% of posters are responsible for 15% of all posts—many of whom are not authentic commentators. The study also found these high volume commentators, like “pay-for-post” marketers, had strong negative opinions on these topics, much like low-volume posters, but the frequency and level of engagement varied between those audiences. Mid-volume posters—who tended to be more authentic and engaged—trended more positive than other groups.

The study, commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association, concluded that the most active posters on all three issues were in fact marketers of health products and alternative therapies that had a vested interest in promoting controversies and were using the discussion platforms to market their products.

Press release