The furore over the fish-eating vegan influencer is a warning to us all | Arwa Mahdawi

Its easy to see why the story about the YouTuber Yovana Mendoza went viral. But Fishgate highlights the dangers of looking to online personalities for dietary advice

Nobody was supposed to see Yovana Mendoza eating the fish. The 28-year-old influencer, also known as Rawvana, has amassed more than 3 million followers across YouTube and Instagram by extolling the life-changing properties of a raw vegan diet. She has built a lucrative brand around veganism. But a couple of weeks ago, Mendoza was recorded eating seafood in a video posted by another vlogger. Realising she was being filmed, she tried to hide the fish, but the jig was up. It was one of the worst days of my life, Mendoza told the Daily Beast, recounting the ensuing vicious backlash from vegan YouTube. I felt like someone had died. Well, mate, someone did die. The fish. Thats why the vegans were angry.

Happily, the fish died for a noble cause. As the controversy escalated, Mendoza posted a 33-minute video titled This Is What Is Happening, where she admitted she had stopped being a vegan for health reasons. Her periods had become irregular, and she had been having digestive problems, so she had started eating animal products to see if that helped. In a perfect universe, Mendozas digestion would have been of no interest to anybody but herself. But we live in hell; her video has been watched more than 850,000 times, and the postlapsarian drama (dubbed Fishgate) has made international news, covered by everyone from the Washington Post to the South China Morning Post.

Its not difficult to unpack this storys virality: people love laughing at vegans. But there is a more serious side. Most obviously, it highlights the artifice of the internet: everybody filters their life to some extent, selling a more aspirational version of themselves.

Fishgate is also a worrying reminder that people are increasingly getting health advice from unqualified online influencers. The registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert told the Telegraph that she had seen a rise in clients coming to her clinic with symptoms resulting from poor nutrition and, in severe cases, with eating disorders, having taken the advice of social media stars.

Not only was Mendoza promoting a restrictive diet that was making her sick, she was extolling dangerous practices, such as 25-day water fasts, to her millions of followers. And she is far from the only influencer promoting extreme eating. Jordan Peterson, a prominent psychologist, has been outspoken about his all-beef diet, claiming it cured his depression and his gum disease. (Unfortunately, it hasnt cured his pseudo-intellectual prattling.)

The internet seems to have ushered in an unhealthy age of food fundamentalism. There are, for example, bitcoin carnivores: a small but intense community of cryptocurrency enthusiasts who believe that you should only eat meat and only use bitcoin. The internets ad-centric infrastructure has accelerated this march towards food fundamentalism.

Last year, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote a piece for the New York Times headlined YouTube, the Great Radicalizer, which argued that the video platform was pushing people towards more extreme content because it helped generate clicks. Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons, she wrote. It seems as if you are never hardcore enough for YouTubes recommendation algorithm.

You are what you eat, has never been so true as it is in the digital era. Whether we are vegan or carnivores, it seems that a lot of us are hungry for community, and will go to extreme lengths to find it. Fishgate may seem funny on the surface, but its a tiny part of a much larger problem.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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