Misinformation abounds in Internet age

11/08/2013 11:10:00 AM
Amelia Freidline

Amelia Freidline, Copy EditorAmelia Freidline, Copy EditorI was browsing the news online recently when one teaser headline on The Huffington Post caught my attention: “This may make you never want to eat a banana again.”

“Oh great,” I thought. “What’s it going to be — an anti-GMO screed? ‘Bananas as we know them will not exist in 20 years’? They’re a child choking hazard?”

As it turns out, it was none of those. It seems a woman in England was eating a banana when she noticed a strange white spot on the peel, which on closer examination proved to be a sac full of tiny spiders.

Her local pest control firm told her they were Brazilian wandering spiders, also known as banana spiders because they live in banana trees in South America.

According to the article, Brazilian wandering spiders are thought to be the deadliest spiders in the world.

Fortunately the woman and her family were not bitten, and the store where she purchased the fruit paid for the family’s hotel stay while their home was fumigated to prevent any possibility of banana spider infestation.

All’s well that ends well.

Or is it?

The article received, at most recent count, 716 comments. I read through the first 50 and they were a mixture of complaints about the headline and accompanying video, facts about poisonous spiders (and other deadly critters), comments from arachnophobes, comments from people who didn’t like bananas, and facts about the more unusual properties of wandering spider venom.

Then there were the people who said they’d check all their bananas carefully in the store from now on, they’d store their bananas in air-tight bags to suffocate potential spiders, they would not eat bananas again, or “Thank goodness Wal-Mart’s bananas come from China.”

Of course the Internet is full of stories that employ sensationalism or scare tactics to get people to click on them — obviously it worked for me — so it’s a waste of time and energy to get worked up over every little bit of subtle misinformation.

What this reminded me of was the explosion of Internet hysteria that used to surround the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists.

For a while it seemed like every news organization ran a story warning about “produce with the most pesticides” or “foods you should always buy organic.”

I have nothing against organic produce, of course, but I don’t appreciate the EWG’s willful perpetuation of misinformation.

This year there didn’t seem to be as much panic surrounding the EWG’s lists, however — produce industry work from the Alliance for Food and Farming and others seems to have paid off.

From curiosity, I typed phrases like “carrots are,” “spinach is” or “potatoes are” into Google to see what the auto-fill results were. The third suggestion for spinach was “spinach is bad for you.”

I thought maybe that search would bring up stories from the 2006 E. coli outbreak, but instead I found an article on The Healthy Home Economist suggesting we should never eat raw cruciferous vegetables, including arugula, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, radishes and watercress, because doing so would interfere with the proper function of the thyroid gland.

This article also said raw white mushrooms contained suspected carcinogens and that eating raw alfalfa sprouts frequently could contribute to inflammatory arthritis or lupus.

Are any of those statements scientifically sound? I have no idea, and, though I like many of those vegetables cooked, I won’t stop eating them raw, either.

But I’m concerned about consumers who glance at information like this and decide to write off certain produce items altogether for fear they’re endangering their health or that of their family.

On the Internet people can easily find information to substantiate almost any opinion or theory.

Is the correct information about your product or company positioned so consumers are more likely to find it first?

afreidline@thepacker.com

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