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
By Elisabeth Steib and Marc Zwiechowski, KURZ
Kurzgesagt is an animation studio and YouTube channel that specializes in explaining complex scientific topics in illustrated and animated videos. For the TRESCA project, we created a video about science communication and the challenges experts and science communicators face.
Initially, we wanted to talk about a completely different topic. But after working with the TRESCA team, who did some experiments on one of our videos to analyze which aspects influence their trustworthy impression, we realized that the overall subject of the TRESCA project should be our video topic instead:
Why do we need science communication in the first place? What can it and can it not do? And what is it we, as science communicators, struggle with when creating our content: how do we condense complex topics down to the perfect detail level – not too much so it is overwhelming, not so little that we are oversimplifying things? How do we deal with balancing the opinions of experts who do not agree on certain aspects?
The video we created gives some insight into the evolution of our research and our motivation to inspire people to get excited about science and wanting to dig deeper by themselves. See for yourself and check out the video below! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFqn3uy238E
By Sara Degli Esposti and Turkay Nefes, CSIC If you believe that powerful people intentionally produced the coronavirus epidemic[i] you are not alone: in fact some surveys suggest one in four people in the US think the same. Many Americans also agree with those who think 5G technology is responsible for the spreading of SARS-Cov-2, that Stella Immanuel, who said that hydroxychloroquine is the cure to Covid19, is more credible than Dr Anthony Fauci and the American Medical Association, and that the US government is partly run by non-human reptilians. After all, believing in that a bunch of powerful people (the conspirators) are acting in secret for their own benefit against the interest of the people, people like you, is such a reasonable and powerful explanation and there is significant evidence confirming it! Increasingly, these conspiracy-based views are evident across Europe and more globally as well. Conspiracy theories are powerful because they offer a very vague and, thus, flexible and adaptable causal explanation that can work well in many circumstances. For example, it fits well when we try to explain global warfare and geopolitical dynamics we know nothing about. Conspiracy theories are flexible in nature because the role of the conspirator can always be assigned to the group we dislike the most. For example, when key people in the United States government accuse the Chinese government of attempting to hack the research groups working on Covid-19 (BBC 2020)[ii], it can be used to say that the Chinese government is conspiring against the world, or it can equally be said that the American government is making up this story to cover other things they don’t want you to know. People can interpret the same message in opposite ways depending on their previous beliefs. We have a general tendency to seek out, favourably evaluate, and preferentially remember information that is congruent with our existing attitudes and beliefs, while being distrustful of evidence that runs counter to one’s attitudes and beliefs. The observation that individuals prefer consonant cognitions, developed as part of the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957)[iii] is indicative of an important idea called “selective exposure”. Selective exposure refers to the act of choosing to read or view belief-consistent information over belief-inconsistent information (when given the choice). In simple terms, everyone has a tendency to prefer communication channels and retain information that confirms what they already know. In the digital environment this tendency is reinforced by automated recommendation systems that may push us into filter bubbles or informational cocoons. The problem with filter bubbles is that decision-making is more likely to be flawed when individuals only select and retain information that are compatible with their existing worldview. However, these can be inconsistent with (most) empirical evidence and (most) expert interpretations. The problem becomes especially acute when people are looking for information to make informed decisions. In health decision-making and in the adoption of recommended behaviours[iv], seeking and acquiring accurate information is very relevant. When conspiracy theories are applied to scientific results, people may be misguided and interpret information in the wrong way. Scientific misinformation produced as part of these wrong interpretations may have widespread and detrimental effects on the society. Previous studies on the relationship between conspiracy theories and scientific knowledge have investigated climate change (e.g., Douglas, and Sutton 2015; Lewandowsky et al., 2015)[v], AIDS (the acquired immune deficiency syndrome) (e.g. Ford et al., 2012; Hogg et al., 2015),[vi] and vaccination (e.g. Jolley, and Douglas 2014).[vii] All of them warn about the harmful impact of conspiracy theories. Jolley and Douglas (2014) found that conspiracy theories about climate change lower people’s intention to reduce carbon print.[viii] Conspiracy beliefs about AIDS seem to constitute a barrier to prevention, and are associated with increased odds for having unprotected intercourse (Bogart, and Thorburn 2005; Grebe, and Natrass 2011)[ix] and non-adherence with medical treatment (Bogart et al., 2010).[x] Moreover, Jolley and Douglas (2014) provided evidence that people show less intention to get vaccinated if they were exposed to material supporting anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.[xi] So, who is more vulnerable to conspiracy theories? It seems that people who tend to adopt conspiratorial thinking show psychological traits such as delusional ideation (Dagnall et al 2015)[xii], boredom proneness (Brotherton, and Eser 2015)[xiii], and stress (Swami et al 2016)[xiv]. Uscinski and co-authors (2020)[xv] reported that general conspiratorial thinking, along with the psychological predisposition to reject authoritative information (denialism) and partisan motivations, are the most significant predictors of conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19. These findings are consistent to those of other studies, which show partisanship and ideological motivations along with conspiracy theories are statistically significant factors explaining climate science denial (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac 2013; Uscinski, and Olivella 2017).[xvi] Lobato and co-authors (2014)[xvii] present evidence of a significant overlap among university students between believing in paranormal, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience claims in their study on the association of epistemically unwarranted beliefs. Some scholars even deem the spreading of conspiracy theories as a cultural phenomenon. In their view, conspiracy beliefs respond to a need. The need to make sense of and react to a complex social and political reality when searching of explanations[xviii]. Other scholars see conspiracy theories more as irrational accounts, which signal social or political pathologies of marginal groups and the prevention of these groups from understanding the nature of events[xix]. Endorsing conspiratorial views is associated with political and institutional mistrust and, thus, with social instability[xx]. Other academic studies foreground additional negative effects such as: lower levels of prosocial behaviour (van der Linden 2015)[xxi] and depoliticisation (Butler, Koopman, and Zimbardo 1995; Fenster 1999);[xxii] justification of intergroup hatred (Cohn 2005)[xxiii] and damages to internal organisational dynamics and co-workers’ cooperation (Van Prooijen, and De Vries 2016);[xxiv] and lower levels of trust in science and in the government (Bogart, and Thorburn 2015; Einstein, and Glick 2015)[xxv]. However, there are a few studies that identified positive consequences of conspiracy theories (e.g. Newheiser, Farias, and Tausch 2011).[xxvi] One of which is Roisman (2006)[xxvii], who argues that a rhetoric of conspiracy helped Athenians in Ancient Greece through the externalisation of their enemies.; Typically, it is not very good sign for a State to have a large proportion of its citizens believing that a bunch of powerful conspirators is acting against their interest – whether they are reptilians or not! Considering the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of conspiracy theories around it (Pinsker 2020),[xxviii] it is important to recognise and understand the mechanics of conspiratorial thinking in order to limit its spreading. Goertzel (2010, 494)[xxix] stated that conspiracy theories could lead to tragic consequences for society by undermining the credibility of sciences, as they “can be used as a rhetorical device to appeal to the emotions of a significant public.” He recommended that scientists should avoid discussions with conspiracy theorists and be aware of best practices in fighting misinformation. When correcting inaccurate scientific beliefs, it is important to provide factual alternatives to the inaccurate information we want retracted. More good advice is to avoid repeating the content of inaccurate messages to minimise detrimental memory and retrieval effects. A good counter-misinformation strategy is to offer factual alternatives to misinformation, especially alternative causal explanations of the event to fill the gap left by the misinformation. Additionally, fostering scepticism and leading people towards self-affirming corrections by means of educational tools for refuting misinformation are good strategies. Warnings at the time of the initial exposure to misinformation is also useful (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook. 2012).[xxx] Scepticism can reduce misinformation effects, as it leads to more cognitive resources being allocated to the task of weighing up the veracity of both the misinformation and the correction. The alternative explanation must be plausible, account for the important causal qualities in the initial report, and, ideally, explain why the misinformation was thought to be correct in the first place. These are the starting points to reducing conspiratorial tendencies and help reinforce potentials for a well-informed public. Footnotes [i]https://www.journalism.org/2020/06/29/most-americans-have-heard-of-the-conspiracy-theory-that-the-covid-19-outbreak-was-planned-and-about-one-third-of-those-aware-of-it-say-it-might-be-true/ [ii] “Coronavirus: US Accuses China of Hacking Coronavirus Research.” BBC, May 14, 2020. [iii] Festinger, Leon. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Vol. 2. Stanford university press, 1957. [iv] Lee, M., Ju, Y., & You, M. (2019). “The Effects of Social Determinants on Public Health Emergency Preparedness Mediated by Health Communication: The 2015 MERS Outbreak in South Korea”. Health communication, 1-11. [v] Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton. “Climate Change: Why the Conspiracy Theories are Dangerous.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71, no. 2 (2015): 98–106; Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Scott Brophy, Elisabeth Lloyd, and Michael Marriott. “Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3, no.1 (2015): 142–78. [vi] Chandra Ford, Steven Wallace, Peter Newman, Sung-Jae Lee, and William Cunningham. “Belief in AIDS-Related Conspiracy Theories and Mistrust in the Government: Relationship with HIV Testing among at-risk Older Adults.” The Gerontologist 53, no. 6 (2013): 973–84; Robert Hogg, Bosisiwe Nkala, Janan Dietrich, Alexandra Collins, Kalysha Closson, Zishan Cui, Steve Kanters, Jason Chia, Bernard Barhafuma, Alexis Palmer, Angela Kaida, Glenda Gray and Carrie Miller. “Conspiracy Beliefs and Knowledge about HIV Origins among Adolescents in Soweto. South Africa.” PLOS ONE 12, no. 2 (2017), e0165087. [vii] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Effects of Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 2 (2014), e89177. [viii] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Social Consequences of Conspiracism: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories Decreases Intentions to Engage in Politics and to Reduce One’s Carbon Footprint.” British Journal of Psychology 105, no. 1 (2014): 35–56. [ix] Laura Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn. “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005): 213–8; Eduard Grebe, and Nicoli Nattrass. “AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs and Unsafe Sex in Cape Town.” AIDS and Behavior 16, no. (2012): 761–73. [x] Laura Bogart, Glenn Wagner, Frank Galvan, and Denedria Banks. “Conspiracy Beliefs about HIV are Related to Antiretroviral Treatment Nonadherence among African American Men with HIV.” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 53, no. 5 (2010), 648–55. [xi] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Effects of Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 2 (2014), e89177. [xii] Neil Dagnall, Kenneth Drinkwater, Andrew Parker, Andrew Denovan, and Megan Parton. “Conspiracy Theory and Cognitive Style: A Worldview.” Frontiers in Psychology 6, (February 2015): 1-9. [xiii] Rob Brotherton and Silan Eser. “Bored to Fears: Boredom Proneness, Paranoia, and Conspiracy Theories.” Personality and Individual Differences 80, no. (July 2015): 1–5. [xiv] Viren Swami, Adrian Furnham, Nina Smyth, Laura Weis, Alixe Lay, Angela Clow. “Putting the Stress on Conspiracy Theories: Examining Associations between Psychological Stress, Anxiety, and Belief in Conspiracy Theories.” Personality and Individual Differences 99, (September 2016): 72–76. [xv] Joseph Uscinski, Adam Enders, Casey Klofstad, Michelle Seelig, John Funchion, Caleb Everett, Stephan Wuchty, Kamal Premaratne, and Manohar Purthi. (2020) “Why Do People Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories?” The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review 1, (2020). [xvi] Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles Gignac, and Klaus Oberauer. “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 10 (2013), e75637; Joseph Uscinski, and Santiago Olivella. (2017). “The Conditional Effect of Conspiracy Thinking on Attitudes toward Climate Change.” Research & Politics (2017): 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053168017743105 [xvii] Emilio Lobato, Jorge Mendoza, Valerie Sims, and Matthew. “Examining the Relationship Between Conspiracy Theories, Paranormal Beliefs, and Pseudoscience Acceptance Among a University Population.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28, no. 5 (2014): 617–25. [xviii] Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files (London: Routledge, 2000). [xix] Jovan Byford, Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Rob Brotherton, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (London: Bloomsbury, 2015 [xx] Turkay Salim Nefes. “The Impacts of the Turkish Government’s Conspiratorial Framing about the Gezi Park Protests.” Social Movement Studies 16, no. 5 (2017): 610-22; Turkay Salim Nefes. ‘Scrutinizing impacts of conspiracy theories on readers’ political views: a rational choice perspective on anti-Semitic rhetoric in Turkey’, British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 3 (2015): 557-75; Turkay Salim Nefes. “Rationale of Conspiracy Theorizing: Who Shot the President Chen Shui-bian?” Rationality and Society 26, no. 3 (2014): 373-94. [xxi] Sander van der Linden S “The Conspiracy-effect: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories (about Global Warming) Decreases Pro-social Behavior and Science Acceptance.” Personality and Individual Differences 87, (2015): 171–3. [xxii] Lisa Butler, Cheryl Koopman, and Philip Zimbardo. “The Psychological Impact of Viewing the Film “JFK”: Emotions, Beliefs, and Political Behavioural Intentions.” Political Psychology 16, no. 2 (1995): 237-57; Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). [xxiii] Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of Elders of Zion (London: Serif, 2005). [xxiv] Jan-Willem van Prooijen, and Reinout de Vries. “Organizational Conspiracy Beliefs: Implications for Leadership Styles and Employee Outcomes.” Journal of Business and Psychology 31, (2016): 479-91. [xxv] Laura Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn. “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005): 213–8; Katherine Einstein KL and David Glick. “Do I think BLS Data are BS? The Consequences of Conspiracy Theories.” Political Behaviour 37, no. 3 (2015): 679–701. [xxvi] Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, Miguel Farias, Nicole Tausch. “The Functional Nature of Conspiracy Beliefs: Examining the Underpinnings of Belief in the Da Vinci Code Conspiracy.” Personality and Individual Differences 51, (2011): 1007–11. [xxvii] Joseph Roisman, The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). [xxviii] Joe Pinsker. “If Someone Shares the ‘Plandemic’ Video, How Should You Respond?” The Atlantic, May 9, 2020. [xxix] Ted Goertzel. “Conspiracy Theories in Science.” EMBO Reports 11, no .7 (2010): 493–9. [xxx] Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich KH Ecker, Colleen M Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook. 2012. ‘Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing’, Psychological science in the public interest, 13: 106-31.
By Sara Fattori, Observa Science in Society