Researcher Network member, Rebecca Gregson, explores the social psychology and ideology of anti-vegan online groups.
In new research published in Appetite, doctoral student Rebecca Gregson, Dr Jared Piazza and Dr Ryan Boyd investigate the social psychology and ideology of anti-vegans; people who oppose veganism and share their position publicly on Reddit.
They provide a detailed summary of their new paper below. For further reading, please visit the Science Direct website to read the full version of their open-access paper.
Anti-veganism: A prejudice?
At present, it is estimated that just 3% of the global population follow a vegan diet. As such, vegans represent a minority who deviate from the social norm which is to consume animals. Such deviation has come to be associated with a great deal of negative expression; sometimes referred to as vegaphobia - the aversion to or dislike of vegetarians and vegans.
Today, scholars and legal bodies recognise vegaphobia as a prejudice, and “ethical veganism” as a protected characteristic. A move which came after research found that negative expression towards vegans is often more commonly expressed and widely accepted than other forms of out-group prejudice. And following the court case of Costa v the League Against Cruel Sports where it was found that Jordi Casamitjana had been discriminated against in hiring decisions because of their veganism.
The form and content of vegaphobia
Vegaphobia has been linked with a number of perceptions including the view that vegans are militant, hostile, hypocritical, annoying, self-righteous, opinionated, judgmental and oversensitive (to list a few).
While non-vegan members of the public can hold positive views of vegans, for example, the view that vegans are moral individuals, these positive attributes often double down as negative opinions, for example, viewing vegans as highly moralistic. Paired with this is the perception that veganism itself is a fad, nutritionally inadequate, and impossible to maintain.
A new direction in anti-vegan research
Research conducted to date has been invaluable in advancing our understanding of vegaphobia. However, much of what we know about vegaphobia has come from studies that directly ask people what they think of vegans, rather than naturally observing these behaviours in situ.
In the modern technological world, like many things, vegaphobia has found a home on the internet. Over the past two decades, anti-vegan communities have begun to spring up on social media sites like Facebook and Reddit, with anti-vegan discourse extending across platforms like YouTube and Twitter.
The introduction of computational techniques in the social sciences has begun to change the nature of psychological research, which is preoccupied with measuring observable behaviours. The proliferation of the internet and other digital technologies has thus provided new opportunities and methods to study anti-vegan sentiment.
Studying anti-vegan sentiment online
My colleagues and I sought to utilise computational techniques to study anti-veganism online. The aim of this study was to unpack the social psychological and ideological underpinnings of a self-identifying “anti-vegan” community. The group we identified was the r/AntiVegan community on the popular social media platform, Reddit. This group of approximately 20k members present themselves as ‘against the cult of veganism’.
We built a dataset containing the language content of 48,900 posts, from 3,800 r/AntiVegan users. This dataset also contained information on each r/AntiVegan user’s wider Reddit activity, specifically, the frequency in which they had posted into other subreddits. The investigation was guided by three orienting questions:
- How do r/AntiVegan users differ from the general population on Reddit?
- What does the r/AntiVegan community talk about?
- Does r/AntiVegan membership precipitate social psychological change?
How do r/AntiVegan users differ from the general population on Reddit?
The first question was addressed by looking at the frequency in which r/AntiVegan users posted into other subreddits and the nature of those subreddits. This was compared against the behaviour of a control group - a sample of r/askreddit users (N=9,500).
From this, an effect size metric known as %DIFF could be computed and used to indicate the proportion (%) of the difference in subreddit activity across the two samples. This analysis produced a list of the subreddits in which r/AntiVegan users were more likely to post into, relative to r/askreddit users.
First, it was found that r/AntiVegan users were more likely to post in spaces like r/DebateAVegan and r/carnivore, which suggests that anti-veganism is a prominent concern of these individuals.
It was also found that r/AntiVegan users are likely to engage in dark humour – a form of comedy that finds humour in human suffering and topics which are typically considered taboo, for example, racism (i.e., r/AccidentalRacism), suicide (i.e., r/suicidebywords), and sexism (e.g., r/darkjokes).
What does the r/AntiVegan community talk about?
To explore the discourse of the r/Antivegan community we quantified their posts through topic modelling. Specifically, we used the Meaning Extraction Method to quantify the language contained in posts that had a word count of ≥100 (N=3,253). This analysis revealed five distinct components or discussion themes: health, rationalism, animal death, experiential and morality.
The first component included a nuanced discussion of the negative health consequences of a vegan diet. r/AntiVegan users saw veganism as nutritionally inadequate, a disguise for disordered eating (e.g., anorexia nervosa), and unnatural due to the need to supplement key vitamins like B12. Within this discussion space, a large population of ex-vegans were present, who were both sharing and seeking advice about their former diet.
The second component, rationalism, was an argument style that drew on scientific research to argue against veganism and criticised scientific research that affirmed the nutritional benefits of plant-based diets.
The discussion that underpinned component three, took a very matter-of-fact approach to animal death. Here, r/AntiVegan users argued that regardless of an individual’s dietary choice, animal suffering and death is inevitable. Despite this position, r/AntiVegan users share the view that humans have a duty to do what they can to prevent animal suffering and, so, denounce the wanton suffering that occurs in factory farms.
The fourth component relates to the experiential, anecdotal evidence that r/AntiVegan users draw on when discussing their motivations for identifying as anti-vegan. Here, r/AntiVegan users share stories of their personal encounters with vegans which range from personal relationships to interactions with the general public, all of which tend to be negative.
Finally, the morality theme was a rejection of the absolutist moral claims that can underpin veganism. Many r/AntiVegans saw vegans as being dogmatic in their condemnation of animal-product consumption. They also expressed contempt for vegan arguments that compare or equate humans and non-human animals. Importantly, these observations foster the perception of vegans as militant, misanthropic, and cult-like.
Does r/AntiVegan membership precipitate social psychological change?
We observed meaningful changes in the behaviour of r/AntiVegan users as a function of their ongoing group participation. We employed Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC for short) to analyse the posts made within r/AntiVegan. LIWC is a software program that calculates the percentage of words in a piece of text, classified into 82 categories. These categories include common content (e.g., health, power, family) and function words (e.g., pronouns, conjunctions, articles).
We observed a significant increase in the use of group-focused language (i.e., the collective pronoun ‘we’) and a significant reduction in self-focused language (i.e., ‘I') over time. These findings suggest that r/AntiVegan users became less focused on the self and more focused on the group as they increase their participation.
There was also a significant increase in the LIWC variable “Clout”, a linguistic marker of confidence, and a decrease in cognitive processing, suggesting that r/AntiVegan users become more certain of their anti-vegan stance over time, and shift from examining their position to affirming it.
Implications for vegan non-vegan relations
Our findings have several important implications for vegan-non-vegan relations and vegan advocacy.
First, the finding that r/AntiVegan users engage in dark humour online suggests that anti-vegan sentiments may be linked with more generalised prejudice. Previous research shows that generalised ethnic prejudice, speciesist attitudes, and antipathy towards vegetarians and vegans share ideological roots. That is, these ideas tend to be highly correlated. Thus, to combat anti-veganism and animal use, the vegan movement will benefit from efforts to fight against other “isms”.
Second, and perhaps surprising to some readers, anti-vegans share a concern for animal well-being, climate change, and biodiversity loss. However, unlike vegans, this group viewed factory farming as the primary culprit and rejected the broader condemnation of animal agriculture. Rather than endorsing moral absolutes, anti-vegans call for a “do the best you can” approach, which has some continuity with pragmatic approaches to vegan advocacy.
Third, the presence of ex-vegans amongst the r/AntiVegan community suggest that nutrition education and issues with maintaining vegan diets are a key barrier to success. Their presence also warns of the potential consequences of exiting veganism, namely, the spread of resentment and polarisation.
Our application of computational techniques to the study of anti-veganism revealed a number of insights that both align with previous work and advance what we know about vegaphobia. The work highlights key attributes and topics of discourse among those who oppose veganism as a movement. More importantly, it suggests several promising points of contact between vegans and non-vegans which could provide a foundation for more effective vegan advocacy.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.