An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; 15min; AFP; Correctiv; Delfi; Demagog; DPA; EFE Verifica; Faktabaari; Faktisk; Knack; Lakmusz; Newtral; Re:Baltica; Eesti Päevaleht; The Journal – FactCheck; TjekDet; Wojownicy Klawiatury.
Insects are delicious treats for actors with an interest in spreading disinformation against the European Union. After the EU approved in January 2023 some products derived from insects for human consumption, a wave of disinformation hit many member States, mostly spreading unjustified panic and accusing Bruxelles of the vilest plots.
This cooperative investigation analyzes the main disinformation narratives conveyed by the many false news stories detected by organizations of EDMO’s fact-checking network. Moreover it analyzes how, in some EU countries, traditional media and politicians contributed to the spreading of false news and narratives.
Three main disinformation narratives conveyed by the detected false news about the EU and edible insects can be identified: the first one, and probably the most viral, maintains that EU citizens will eat insects even against their will, because insects will be hidden inside products without proper labeling; the second one, related to the first one in some conspiracy theories, is about insects being poisonous and not fit for human consumption; the third one – spread especially in the Baltic states – is linked to disinformation about to the war in Ukraine, and claims that EU citizens are forced to eat insects because they don’t have enough food, as a consequence of the war and sanctions against Russia.
- EU is forcing its citizens to eat insects, even if they don’t want to
All the fact-checking organizations that contributed to this investigation detected false news in their respective countries about the risk that the insects will be hidden inside products, and EU citizens will eat them inadvertently.
In Germany, for example, detected false news claims the absence of labeling requirements for possible allergic reactions, or labeling only using Latin names, leaving people unaware of the actual ingredients, such as “house crickets”. Similar false news were detected in France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belgium, Finland and Norway.
A widespread variation in this disinformation narrative – often combined with conspiracy theories – is that insects are already hidden inside products that are sold inside the EU. For example, the presence of proteins among the nutritional values of some products (e.g. flour) was presented as evidence of the use of insects as an ingredient. Or a false news story circulated that some additives (e.g. E120 and E904) listed among the ingredients for some products are actually names for insect derivatives.
Finally, the false news claiming that schoolchildren in the Netherlands are already forced to eat “earthworms” to fight “global warming” was detected in many EU countries.
- Insects are poisonous
The second disinformation narrative claims that insects are poisonous and not fit for human consumption. This narrative is sometimes linked to the first one in conspiracy theories about global depopulation.
The main false news stories conveying this narrative are about insects containing chitin and ecdysterone, substances presented as poisonous for humans. In reality, both elements are not dangerous and can be consumed without health risks.
Other false news, sometimes in connection with chitine, claims that eating insects can cause cancer. This allegation is baseless.
- EU is forced to resort to insects because of the dramatic consequences of the sanctions imposed to Russia / of the war in Ukraine
In the Baltic states, pro-Russia disinformation jumped on the topic of EU/insects and spread false news connecting the topic to the consequences of the war and the European sanctions.For example in Lithuania the claim circulated, in Russian, that the entire crop of agricultural products was lost in the EU, and therefore European authorities are considering insects as a new food source (Russian television discussed the issue recently, with an angle about the alleged decadence of the West). In Estonia the false news about insects hidden in food has been detected in connection with Russian propaganda showing how the EU will not survive without Russian resources.
The role of traditional media and politicians in Italy and France
According to the experience of fact-checking organizations, in the vast majority of EU member states this kind of disinformation went viral mostly on social media, among conspiracy theorists, in fringe and niches of the public opinion. Nonetheless, in at least two countries, disinformation was spread also by political actors of national relevance and by traditional media.
In Italy, many politicians from the Lega – Matteo Salvini’s nationalist euro-skeptic right-wing party, that currently supports Giorgia Meloni’s government – claimed recently (as happened also in previous years) that the EU intended to “impose” insect consumption to EU citizens, or that EU bureaucrats “insist to replace” meat with insects, or that the EU “wants us to eat insects”, or, again, that there will be “the risk to find insects in the products we buy without knowing it”.
National televisions spread similar misleading or false information about the EU “wanting us to eat insects”. This claim appeared (and was also the title of a specific segment) during an episode of the TV program “Fuori dal coro”, on the private TV network Mediaset, at the end of January 2023. Even before this episode, the misleading claim circulated on the public television RAI: in May 2021 for example, during the program “Anni 20” (min. 53.40) on RAI2, it was claimed on air – among other things – that “EU asks us to eat insects”. The program was much criticized for this episode, but Giorgia Meloni (back then a leader of an opposition party) wrote on Twitter it was “sarcasm” and those who criticized it were trying to “transform us into North Korea”.
AFP has reported that the topic has also reached the French political sphere. Politicians from the right and far-right as well as “Frexiteers” have been very critical towards the EU and the European Commission – and specifically its president Ursula Von der Leyen – about the topic of edible insects, spreading occasionally some of the false claims listed above.
When disinformation pours out of the social media bubbles of conspiracy theorists and well-known disinformers, and becomes a topic for polarization in the political landscape with echoes in the traditional media, its consequences are much bigger, as reported by EDMO investigations during the pandemic.
The EU decision to approve some products derived from insects for human consumption, in January 2023, caused a wave of disinformation all over the Union. In many member states, false news appeared about insects hidden in food, or about insects being dangerous for human consumption. In some Eastern European countries, Russian propaganda exploited the ongoing disinformation to establish a link to an existing narrative that exaggerates the negative consequences of the war in Ukraine and of sanctions on European lifestyle.
In some EU countries, disinformation about the EU and insects was also spread by politicians, as was the case in France and Italy. In the latter, it was reported that some traditional media, such as national television channels, both private and public, spread disinformation on the topic.