By Pamela Bartar and Gabor Szudi, ZSI
The European Commission has called fighting misinformation and disinformation one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. This has become even more obvious since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: a new wave of misinformation, fake news and hoaxes about the pandemic has generated a dangerous infodemic.
But there are solutions available to us – and our research in the TRESCA project, discussed recently at the SCIENCE & YOU conference in Metz, France, underscores the importance of developing long-term strategies for handling the problem. Crises like COVID-19 can be an opportunity to reframe conversations around politics, research funding and governance. Promoting robust and transparent scientific and transdisciplinary methods, supported by an independent research environment, can prove a valuable strategy so that consensual, sustainable policies informed by science can bring public value.
A few clear conclusions stand out:
- During recent months, the need for strong strategies to increase people’s awareness of the appropriate use of media sources and fact-checking became visible.
- Public attitudes to science and technology are complex; therefore, it is necessary to open spaces for listening and dialogue.
- When talking about digital science communications, we need to create new environments for new strategies.
- One potential moment to overcome these challenges are the encounters between scientists and policy makers.
Here, we elaborate on these points, which were aired at the SCIENCE & YOU conference. There, one of the panel discussions featured TRESCA project partners from Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Sara Degli Esposti), Observa Science in Society (Giuseppe Pellegrini), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Marina Tulin) and the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna (Gabor Szudi, Pamela Bartar).
At the end of this blog, we ask you to contribute to our upcoming policy brief. Please read on to see how you can share your perspective of what can and needs to be done.
1. Digital science communication: New environment calls for new strategies
Continuing digitalisation has made information on any topic widely accessible. In this new environment, the responsibility of choosing what or whom to trust is increasingly in the hands of the audience.
On the dark side, the large amount of user-generated content makes it difficult to filter out errors or lies. While traditional mediators of information, such as journalists, are reaffirming their roles as gatekeepers, it is clear that the digital sphere presents challenges that are difficult to overcome. Even after a source of misinformation has been debunked or removed, the content continues to spread via re-posts and other types of online engagement.
On the bright side of this development, the participatory web has provided platforms for numerous excellent science communication practises. A case in point is the animation studio “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell”, which has established itself as one of the biggest science channels on YouTube, with more than 15 million subscribers all over the world. But not everybody can make a good YouTube channel: the production quality of successful YouTube videos tends to be cutting-edge and constantly increasing, requiring collaborations across technical and academic disciplines.
2. Listening to citizens on public communication of science and technology
Public attitudes to science are complex. One recent survey of Americans found 44% expressed “great confidence in science”, and another 47% had “some” confidence – both, little changed since the 1990s. The EU-funded CONCISE project on public attitudes to science showed that, in the case of health issues, the information channels preferred by many citizens are traditional news media and television, as well as word of mouth. This means that public communication strategies must be carefully evaluated and the role of the various actors, such as decision makers, experts and communicators, must be balanced to avoid confusing people.
It is therefore necessary to open spaces for listening and dialogue. The CONCISE project offered this opportunity by involving 500 European citizens in a public consultation. This made it possible to identify some elements of trust and attitudes towards information channels that were also analysed during the TRESCA project.
As part of TRESCA, three workshops were organised to involve citizens in an evaluation of videos in the context of COVID-19. Through comparison of the videos with and without audio, three groups of citizens from different cultural and social backgrounds were able to express their opinion on the quality of the materials, on the messages transmitted and on the methods of communication. This experiment made it possible to identify factors that influence public perception and can fuel trust in scientific communication.
One factor emerging was the importance of emotions in assessing the type of images used, the role of the protagonist’s characters and the relationships shown in the videos. Participants stressed that adequate scientific communication should not depict extreme emotions or too strong contrasts; they should also avoid excessive spectacle. Another conclusion: experts and scientists, if easily recognisable, are indeed credible witnesses, at least when providing data and tools to understand phenomena, as opposed to trying to impose scientific truths.
3. Potential strategies to increase people’s awareness
The pandemic and associated infodemic have made evident the dangerous impact that digital mass media manipulation of scientific facts can have on individual and collective behaviour and, thus, on public health. Digital platforms such as Facebook had to rush into adopting solutions to patrol political micro-targeting, hate speech, disinformation spreaders and fake accounts.
Among the factors influencing people’s ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate information is a person’s worldview. We know that individuals are more likely to accept or reject misinformation based on whether it is consistent with their pre-existing partisan and ideological beliefs. Previous research, such as a 2010 study on Facebook of US voter attitudes, found that showing people familiar faces in online posts could dramatically improve the effectiveness of political micro-targeting. If people saw on Facebook that close friends had voted, they were four times more likely to get others to vote – indeed, that social factor was more important than the voting message, itself. The study found Facebook social messaging had increased voter turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for 340,000 additional votes. That represents about 0.14% of the US voting age population of about 236 million in 2010.
Thus, familiarity has an effect on people’s views and political decisions. The TRESCA project examines that, plus the role that fact-checking websites can play in debunking misinformation. It also looks at potential strategies to increase people’s awareness of their ideological biases and degree of vulnerability to misinformation.
4. Policymakers and scientists
Appropriate and tailor-made scientific advice gains in importance in the design and implementation of sound public policy. However, the uptake of scientific evidence is undermined by a communications gap between scientists and policy makers. Using the specific characteristics of policy makers as a starting point, TRESCA researchers carried out primary and secondary research to better understand the consumption patterns of science communication by policy makers and how their values and interests influence their decisions.
The research found that an increased institutionalisation of scientific advice in legislative and regulatory decision-making processes is well in progress at EU and national level. This involves a stronger engagement between experts and decision-makers through various national and supra-national institutional mechanisms fostering two-way dialogue.
This new participatory model requires a more open, accessible and reliable science communication, which should contribute to trust-building between scientists and policy makers. A deeper understanding of how the other side in the science-policy nexus operates is essential for this trust-building. Trust is further enhanced by strengthening open science and access initiatives, the new innovative platforms of science-policy collaboration, the use of more digital and visual solutions, and the set-up or upgrading of ‘fact-checking’ websites.
Contribute to the TRESCA policy brief!
Clearly, we need to get more people fluent in the language of both science and policy. To accomplish that, as part of our TRESCA POLICY BRIEF, we are soliciting your views on what needs to be done.
The policy brief aims to provide EU policy units with concrete and practical advice on how to better engage with experts and leverage scientific findings in their decision-making. The document is based on the results of TRESCA’s work package ‘Science Communication in Context’, in particular, a study on the science communication behaviour of policymakers, and an overview analysis of the (dis)incentives for scientists to engage in science communication.
Based on TRESCA‘s findings so far, the policy brief recommends the following actions:
- Prepare short but comprehensive science communication guidelines
- Create training opportunities and tailor-made learning resources for scientists and policymakers
- Elaborate financial incentives for early-stage researchers to participate in science communication with policymakers
- Strengthen the EC’s Open Science Policy
- Leverage the use of digital media to create interactive two-way dialogue options between scientists and policymakers
- Promote the use of fact-checking websites and tools
Stakeholders from all related disciplines, policy makers and policy influencers are invited to share their opinion. The consultation process ends on 31st of January 2022. Please follow the link – the survey will only take a few minutes of your time: https://survey.zsi.at/index.php/289265?lang=en