Documentary or Propaganda?

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The “health” film problem

I love documentaries, especially health and fitness ones. I love the science, learning new things, watching people’s stories unfold and seeing it all culminate in hope and triumph at the end. There’s something reassuring about sitting on the couch, relaxing and watching someone else achieve something and you gaining insight and motivation from it. They used to be so hard to come by but now you can get them easily on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Stan.

Originally I wanted to write something about the best health and fitness documentaries on Netflix but I came across a problem when scrolling though the list of recommended titles. Some of them are bullshit and people can say just about anything in them to push an agenda whether its disingenuous or not.

I don’t mean this in the sense that the documentaries include fictional people and fictional events, but I mean in the way events, studies, facts or statistics can be misrepresented by someone who’s only out to make their movie and become a hero in their own community. They can be more akin to propaganda than to a documentary. For example, in the United States Amazon recently took down 5 documentaries created by the Anti-Vax movement from its Prime Video streaming service after pressure from Congressman Adam Schiff in the form of a letter to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, stating “…Amazon is surfacing and recommending products and content that discourage parents from vaccinating their children…” labelling it “…a direct threat to public health”.

As he rightly states in his Tweet announcing that the letter has been sent it is clear that there is deliberate misinformation being spread via streaming services. All you have to do is call it a documentary, put in a few interviews and all of a sudden it’s reputable. It can be backed by or star any idiot who speaks as confidently as a used car salesman and erratically jumps to new, unconnected points in an effort to convince you they’re the expert in this field. See David Avocado Wolfe who believes chocolate is an octave of the sun energy and a few other whacky things, such as the earth being flat.

In the midst of an obesity crisis of epidemic proportions shouldn’t giving bad or misleading health advice under the guise of a “documentary” also be considered a direct threat to public health?

Some of the worst offenders in this space are the vegan and alternative health communities. One such movie which illustrates my point is Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret The co-directors of this film have good intentions. You can tell from hearing them speak about their points on factory farming. Factory farming is horrible, feeding cows heavily subsidised corn because its cheap isn’t good for us or them and we know it changes the fat profile of the meat produced. But it’s a mask for another agenda.

Their solution to global warming is that we should just eat a plant based diet because of the harmful effects of methane produced by the cattle. No middle ground, just be plant based. This in spite of the well documented nutrient deficiencies many vegans have in not getting enough Vitamin B12 and being creatine deficient as well. Well it turns out now you can actually mix in seaweed to the feed and reduce the cow’s emissions by around 99% – but I bet you won’t see that updated on the movies facts page. There’s also a complete dismissal of raising any livestock because of the emissions and environmental impact associated with farming in general, which is complete crap.

Speaking of things that aren’t included in the facts page of the website – When the films concerned citizen finds out that it apparently takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef it goes unexplained. They just seem to pluck it out of thin air. Plucking numbers out of the air seems to be the style of the film as well – They recently reassessed their claim that animal agriculture was responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions and tweeted it was 18%.

The narrative of the film is even disingenuous. The story of one man’s journey of “discovery” about the nature of factory farming and its impact on the environment. Spoiler alert – he’s the co-director of the film. It’s not objective, it’s a misdirection made by people who have a hidden agenda.

You may have seen or heard about another film called Food Inc. In this film they make the point that you should care what goes in to your food, how it’s produced and what the impact is around the production, but they still misrepresent facts like the sizes of chickens in the 1950’s as opposed to now. They also attribute that incorrectly as well.

Why has the humble chicken gotten so much bigger? Is it hormones? Is it other drugs? No actually, selective breeding – you know, like how we selectively bred dogs to be domestic pets, then interbred them to make cuter pets or for specific purposes such as guarding our houses?

It gets worse with another film called Fed Up. This film is aimed squarely at the Big Food and Sugar industry. They attribute the obesity epidemic to sugar and junk food. They go on to say that it’s not anyone’s fault except the food companies engineering food to be so palatable and full of sugar that it causes young kids to be morbidly obese. In the film they barely touch on the topic of what energy balance is or how that relates to the every day person over consuming calories. Surely the young girl featured in the movie isn’t buying herself all the junk food that’s stored now as fat around her body. They also blame sugar as if it were some conspiracy to make us fat and even compare it’s reward signal in the brain with cocaine in an attempt to say it were as addictive as cocaine. If it were that addictive, which is how they represent it, then we’d have people walking in from the streets to café’s and stealing their sugar sachets off the tables for a hit of that sweet, sweet goodness.

If junk food was the thing that really made you fat you wouldn’t be able to lose weight eating just junk food for a month like this guy and this guy did. So where does that leave us after watching Fed Up?

It’s clear to me that the obesity epidemic isn’t so much the fault of one thing, but a combination of things resulting in cheap junk food being more easily accessible than healthier alternatives couples with people not actually knowing what constitutes a healthy diet. Plus a little bit of laziness…

There’s another movie you’ve probably heard about recently as well – What The Health – which it turns out was made by those same co-directors from Cowspiracy. This ends up being a movie where science and reason are thrown out the window in an effort to again, push a vegan agenda (surprise surprise).

The film essentially reports that eating animal products contributes to disease and the solution to all our problems is… you guessed it: veganism.

In this round of propaganda, the film makers report such things as:

  • Eating a single egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes per day
  • Eating a single serve of processed meat per day increases the chance of developing type-2 diabetes by 51%
  • Eating processed meat increases colon cancer risk by 18%
  • Milk consumption is linked to cancer
  • Eggs are type 1 carcinogens
  • Higher instances of cardiovascular disease is linked directly with higher animal product consumption
  • Toxins stiffen arteries

All sounds pretty outlandish doesn’t it? But wait, there’s statistics! Let’s take the processed meat ones and unpack how they arrived at the 18% risk increase of colon cancer. Firstly, there is a risk of colon cancer of about 5% over your life in general. Now, if you eat processed meat the risk of developing colorectal cancer does increase, but not to 23% where you’d think based on how the data is reported to you. It actually increases to 6%, that’s right, just a 1% increase in risk over the course of your lifetime of eating processed meat.

How do they arrive at 18%? Well, I’m going to throw some numbers at you, so bear with me and get ready.

Percentages are measured out of 100 right. 1 percent of 100 is 1 percent. Well, when you’re talking about 5 percentage points it turns out that 1 percentage point is actually 18% of 5 percentage points, so instead of saying “Processed meat increases your risk of colon cancer by 1% over the course of your life” they chose to report it as an 18% increase of an already established percentage.

If you think that eating an egg each day at breakfast is anywhere even remotely close to being as bad for you as 5 cigarettes a day, a type 1 carcinogen, then sorry but that’s just plain wrong too. There is no evidence to back that up except flawed science from the 90’s when fat was the enemy.

The selection from above is just a small representation from those available across streaming services and in each of them they knowingly misrepresent the data and it seems it’s all par for the course when you’re making a propaganda film.

They aren’t the only ones, there are countless others about juicing, vitamin therapy, earthing, sugar, veganism, pot or any number of alternative health therapies and how they cured people of their obesity, diabetes and made them the healthiest and happiest they’ve ever been. You’ve got to take these with a grain of salt and ask yourself what the agenda is behind it before you hand over your trust to a filmmaker just because they’re on the TV.

There’s a big difference between a documentary and propaganda. Documentaries are objective – think David Attenborough observing and reporting on the activities of higher primates, lizards or the ecosystem of the jungle and compare that to how some of these “Documentaries” portray their own subject matter in an effort to gain your trust and push an agenda.

Remember that when you settle in for your next binge.

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