By Adolfo Antón Bravo, David Arroyo and Sara Degli Esposti, CSIC The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the risks of online misinformation. Are the vaccines safe? Should we keep wearing masks? On such questions, social media has become a minefield of wrong, misleading or false information – with real-world consequences. Surely there’s a way that we, when online, can more easily check the trustworthiness of a post? That’s the aim of Ms.W, the Misinformation Widget being developed by the EU-funded TRESCA project. It is a bit of software, that can run as a phone app, to help judge whether what you are reading is reliable or not. In short, it’s an online vaccine against today’s online “infodemic.” An infodemic, according to the World Health Organisation, is “”an overabundance of information —some accurate and some not— that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”. It can include misinformation: postings that are wrong, perhaps by accident, for many reasons. In posts about science, the technical vocabulary can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The source’s expertise, reputation or reliability aren’t always easy to check. And misinformation frequently overlaps with disinformation – deliberately false or misleading information posted for political or economic gain. There are plenty of examples. In early 2020, an online hoax about the benefits of bleach-based alcohol for use against COVID-19 led to the hospitalisation of hundreds. The challenge of separating fact from “faction” gets even harder when dealing, not just with text, but also with “memes.” Though the term originated in evolutionary biology, most commonly today a meme is an image, video, or piece of text that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations. They are often funny; they catch your attention, and you forward them to your friends. A classic example: memes about next-generation 5G mobile phone systems – some harmless, some harmful. The latter, see figure 1 for an example, helped spread unfounded fears that 5G transmission towers were somehow connected with COVID-19. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t.) Figure 1: A typical online meme – in this case, making fun of false claims that 5G mobile phone towers somehow spread COVID-19. (Surprise: they don’t.) Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/meirl/comments/fxszo6/meirl/ Another problem: Images or text can be easily taken out of context online. According to Newtrals.com, a fact-checking news site, a WhatsApp text circulated widely claiming that in India only people who are vaccinated were getting COVID. It was based on an interview with a doctor in New Delhi – but taken entirely out of context. Why? To spread panic? Attract attention? Or was it part of something more nefarious? How to deal with this? The answer isn’t simple. Detecting, fact-checking and taking down dodgy content is harder than it might seem. There are already many online services that offer fact-checking help, in one way or another. But there are not always clear-cut lines separating good-faith information, opinions, fake news, disinformation, and incomplete or misleading information. Thus, there is a need for trustworthy oversight mechanisms that incorporate algorithmic fairness and accountability principles. The Misinformation Widget, or Ms.W, is a science-communication tool being developed by TRESCA, a Horizon 2020 project on scientific disinformation. Ms.W is both a methodology and a toolkit. It is a methodology in the sense that it indicates how to use a variety of online resources. It integrates a number of existing services that help users perform different tasks associated with content verification: news gathering, fact checking, blacklisting of fake sites, reverse image search, and more. It will also include new algorithms coming from current research about the application of machine learning to guide information curation and combat disinformation. It will help users track online news and their authors, and will help them evaluate the accuracy, credibility and trustworthiness of written and visual content. Ms.W can be used as a web service or a mobile app. Ms.W will be available in early 2022, as part of TRESCA’s free online course about scientific disinformation. Now in production, the TRESCA course, to be available on Coursera, will be a seven-week set of lectures and supporting documents, aimed at researchers, communicators and journalists, and exploring how to communicate trustworthy knowledge in the digital world. Stay tuned to join us there online – and stay away from COVID towers.
Evidence from the TRESCA Citizen Science Communication Workshops, an experiment on pre- and post-audio perception of video mediated scientific communication. By Chiara Lovati and Giuseppe Pellegrini, Observa Science in Society Citizens find it increasingly difficult to choose between the growing number of science communication sources and discern trustworthy and reliable information from fake news. But there are some elements that science communicators can pay attention to and ensure that their message gets across as effectively as possible.In a series of science communication workshops organised by TRESCA in December 2020 in Austria, Italy and the Netherlands, researchers were able to test the perceptions of regular citizens on scientific communication. Their methodological design made it possible to explore the effects of visual and audio elements on news trustworthiness and emotional response and identify strategies that can improve and make science communication more effective in these times of uncertainty. Figure 1: A segment of TRESCA workshop participants from Italy The workshops preparation included steps such as the definition of an engagement strategy for citizens, the training of the moderators, and the selection of the two videos to be shown to participants. In this last step, two very different videos were chosen. The first one was a very fast paced, chaotic, YouTube style video with the aim to debunk Covid-19 related conspiracy theories, while the second video was a journalistic report on ex-Covid-19 patients stories, with a newscast style. The session began with an introductory speech about the TRESCA project and the activity of the day, partakers were then invited to join breakout rooms to continue the meeting in small groups. Citizens here viewed the two videos without audio and had a first discussion round on their impressions and emotional response. Following, after a small break, everyone watched the two videos again with the original audio and subtitles in the respective languages. Participants debated the credibility of the information communicated, the roles and responsibilities of the different people appearing in the videos and the impact of their emotions on how the message was being received. The comparison between participants’ reactions to the videos with and without sound helped the TRESCA team focus on the impact of images and words on participants’ perceptions of the science communication videos. Figure 2: TRESCA workshop design Researchers were able to draw some interesting conclusions from the experiment. Firstly, it is important to develop a communication style that is suitable to different types of audiences and use emotional language with caution. Science communicators should avoid extreme or contradictory positions when presenting topics, or excessive simplifications, to prevent viewers from distrusting the communicator or communication channel, and therefore rejecting the content. Secondly, to create successful forms of engagement with the public, it is better to avoid polarisations and disputes where possible. Workshops data also suggests the public is able to judge and evaluate information, therefore, science communicators should not appear to have an attitude of superiority and arrogance, and to avoid a ‘deficit model’ approach when explaining scientific findings to citizens. Figure 3: PCMAG.com, “No, 5G is not causing Coronavirus (or anything else), still from Workshop video #1 Trust in science and scientific institutions is not as straightforward as one may think. Trust is actually the result of a process rooted in previous experiences and attitudes and it cannot be changed very easily. It is crucial to create spaces for people to freely build their own knowledge and opinions. Furthermore, context varies greatly across languages and cultures, causing at times some unintended references and issues to arise in some communications, this should also be kept in mind when transmitting scientific news. Figure 4: Photo by Matheus Bertelli, from Pexels There are no easy solutions to avoiding disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. However, a powerful tool in the fight against misinformation could be fact checking apps and platforms. Nevertheless, these do not seem to be popular amongst the public: sometimes because of an accessibility issue, perhaps cultural or social, other times because they are just ignored. Indeed, for the time being, these tools are not particularly practical, but more research is being conducted – especially in the TRESCA project – to surpass these issues. Figure 5: Photo by Pixabay, via Pexels Effective scientific communication requires a time-consuming group effort by researchers, scientists, and communicators to consolidate best practices and shared knowledge. Nonetheless, effective scientific communication can certainly be mastered. Summarising, data from the workshops highlighted how important it is to avoid extremisms when discussing scientific findings, especially highly emotional language, excessive simplifications or contradictory positions. Furthermore, these workshops demonstrated the importance of maintaining contact with the public in order to detect a very useful point of view for the development of better communication. It is also crucial to steer clear of patronizing language or an attitude of superiority, while always trying to create spaces for the members of the public to freely build their knowledge and opinions.
By Giuseppe Pellegrini, Observa Science in Society Since the beginning and the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the world, it has been clear how a wave of misinformation has spread fake news and hoaxes proven difficult to fight. One of the numerous problems has regarded media and newspapers in particular, unable to communicate in the most comprehensible and concise way fundamental contents to readers. The kind of content that could have led people through fear and uncertainty of the present: uncountable photos, video and articles reported on the media without a proper fact checking have contributed creating a distrust attitude among people. Is this the way journalists and communicators are meant to deal with, in what is probably the most difficult time after since World War II? As pointed out by M. Bucchi, a good emergency and risk communication practice can help society address the “new coronavirus” crisis. Citizens must be able to (easily) find the most important and necessary information updated on official communication channels in an easy (and efficiently) manner (institutional websites of the Ministry of Health and Education or of the Regions, social media platforms etc.) Whose task is this, who has the responsibility to manage the communication at an institutional level? This should / could be emergency and risk communication professionals rather than marketers or press officers. The chosen media doesn’t have to be a personal Facebook page or a twitter account: always go official, institutional. (or: the chosen media to run communication through should not be FB or Twitter, but rather and always through official and institutional platforms) An open eye on what happens in different countries Assessing the current situation: several countries around the world are investigating the perception of public opinion about pandemic communication. What is happening in Sweden is demonstrated through an ongoing VA survey about the public confidence in researchers and public figures. “The ongoing pandemic presents major challenges for society. Communication is a crucial factor in the response to these challenges. Individuals, organisations and countries are all faced with making many decisions based on a limited but growing evidence base.” Fig. 1: VA (Public & Science) is conducting a real-time study, in collaboration with researchers at the Karolinska Institute and Södertörn University to understand how people receive and interpret information about the current pandemic. According to Secretary General of VA (Public and Science), Cissi Askwall “the public has had a great deal of confidence in health care professionals and researchers, and a much lower confidence in politicians and journalists. In Sweden, we also have great confidence in our authorities and public institutions, especially universities and university colleges. […] The ongoing crisis shows that good science communication can make a big difference. I hope this means that communication will be higher on the agenda in the research world in the long term.” A recent survey (April 2020) from Pew Research Center shows how the percentage of Americans who say journalists have exaggerated the risks of the outbreak has decreased notably. Fig. 2: Pew Research Center – Share of Americans saying media have exaggerated the risks of COVID-19 declined from March to April. Italian citizens and COVID-19 information communication Fig. 3: Italian citizens and three attitudes towards COVID-19 communication Thanks to a cluster analysis made on data collected in April by Observa – Science in Society, it is possible to identify and divide in three groups Italian citizens and their actual trust towards information sources: Institutional optimist (43%) – the one that trusts and informs himself/herself mainly through television news and institutional web channels. Considers positively both the communication work of the principal institutions and the role of scientific experts; thinks that effective solutions will soon come from science.Confused (35%) – isn’t able to express an opinion neither on the work nor on the quality of communication by the institutions. Searches for news on the media, from family and friends; the variety of experts drives him/her confused and has no high expectations when it comes to finding pandemic solutions.Social Pessimist (22%) – his/her position about actions and communication by the institutions is mainly negative. He/she relies more on people and social media news about the pandemic and criticizes the way scientists communicate and is pessimistic about a solution against coronavirus in a short time. Concluding, communication surrounding COVID-19 is met with challenges. Bill Hanage and Marc Lipsitch highlight the responsibility of scientists and journalists: “Emergencies like this one lead to extreme pressure on both scientists and journalists to be the first with news. We have a common responsibility to protect public health. The virus does not read news articles and doesn’t care about Twitter.”
When did you realise that your life had changed completely because of SARS-CoV-2? Was it in March 2020? Or perhaps April? We found that for most people it depends a lot on where they were based.