Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / February 4, 2021

Trust is the key to understanding the Infodemic

The debate about sound and evidence-based science communication, effective in engaging the public and countering mis- and disinformation, was already quite lively long before the Covid‑19 pandemic hit.

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Written by Vitalba Crivello,

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The debate about sound and evidence-based science communication, effective in engaging the public and countering mis- and disinformation, was already quite lively long before the Covid‑19 pandemic hit. The coronavirus outbreak has caused a high level of uncertainty in the public health sphere and enabled a flow of inaccurate news and rumours about different aspects of the crisis: the ‘infodemic’. The European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) sees this as both a challenge and an opportunity for resolute and effective action.

The ESMH was created three years ago by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), as a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the Parliament, the scientific community and the media.

The ESMH project ‘Tackling the infodemic’

Aware of the need to help the public navigate the massive information flow and find answers to their questions in knowledge-based science news, the ESMH responded to the coronavirus crisis by turning to the ‘guardians of the expertise’ – the scientists – with the ‘

Listening to the experts, interviews with scientists on coronavirus’ project. The ESMH also publishes articles on aspects of the health crisis, including treatments for Covid‑19 and vaccines.

However, providing sound communication on Covid‑19 to tackle the infodemic is only one of the pieces of a bigger puzzle that need to be put together. Eager to better understand the inner dynamics of the infodemic, the ESMH developed a specific project to tackle mis- and disinformation. Drawing up a list of initiatives tackling the enormous spread of false information on various aspects of the health crisis, the ESMH began publishing a series of interviews with experts on dis- and misinformation, together with thematic news articles. The experts share their opinions on aspects of the infodemic, offering take-away messages for reflection.

Trust is crucial – Cary Funk: ‘We need to address lower levels of trust among some segments of the public’

Indeed, the findings of a global report conducted by the PEW Research Centre (‘Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Publics’), show that ‘people’s ideology and education do have an impact on their trust in scientists’, explains Cary Funk, PEW Director of Science and Society Research.

What drives public trust?‘ is also the question that the new EU-funded TRESCA project tries to answer. It does make a difference if the relation between political actors, health authorities and the experts is based on trust, or not. In the words of Stephan Lewandowsky, cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol, ‘the more the culture of a country is condoning the dismissal of expertise and evidence, the easier it is for conspiracy theories to find a foothold, there is no question about that’.

Along similar lines, Renée di Resta, Technical Research Manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, notes that ‘the media sources that people choose to follow are so integral to this particular problem, because, depending on who they trust, they’re either going to get good information or bad information’ and ‘a high degree of trust in the media is usually accompanied by a high degree of trust in the government’.

Trust in the media – Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: ‘Journalistic standards work successfully in the crisis’

Moving on to the role of the media, the crisis shows the importance of independent fact-checkers and science journalists, who collect and critically evaluate a huge amount of information and make sure that the public receive trustworthy news.

In one of the first interviews conducted by the ESMH, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, pointed out that ‘a classic finding from media and communications research is that essentially a rumour is a form of improvised news. When there is an information vacuum it tends to be filled by improvisation’.

Nielsen also spoke at the first ESMH webinar ‘Corona: is misinformation more contagious than the virus?‘. The event offered some interesting take-away messages. Traditional media play an important role in providing people with reliable health information during the pandemic. At the same time, vulnerable sections of society may be more likely to turn to media platforms to look for news than to traditional media – when social media are actually seen as the main source of misinformation.

Research carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute on social media platforms shows that ‘people who seek junk content, because they find it entertaining or are simply curious, will always find it, as long as they know how to look for it’. (Nahema Marchal).

It is indeed true that ‘in a setting of uncertainty and high stakes, people tend to trust the ‘old’ media’ – as Michael Hameleers of the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) argues – and that ‘the distinction between mis- and disinformation perceptions is mainly a matter of trust in the honesty and transparency of the press’. Media literacy interventions could play a key role in empowering citizens to develop those critical skills they need to recognise mis- and disinformation themselves.

In his interview with the ESMH, Philipp Schmid of the University of Erfurt, pointed out that weight-of-evidence reporting is a good example of how psychologists and journalists can work together to tackle critical challenges such as climate change and health issues. Journalists can effectively reduce the negative impact of messages of science denialism by simply warning the public about the impact of the ‘balancing of viewpoints’, which are highly important for democratic discussions of different opinions, but potentially misleading in discussions about scientific facts.

The ‘Age of misinformation’ conference

In the attempt to tackle the infodemic, various initiatives have been launched, especially workshops and conferences – gathering experts from different scientific fields, media representatives and policy-makers – to look at the phenomenon, offering a ‘trans-disciplinary’ perspective, and possibly some ‘recommendations’.

One of these was the online conference on the ‘Age of misinformation: an interdisciplinary look at fake news‘ This event took place on Thursday, 17 December 2020, and was organised by the Centro per l’Eccellenza e gli Studi Transdisciplinary (CEST) – a network of researchers from Italian universities, created in 2013 to strengthen the relationship between academia and civil society. The webinar obtained the patronage of the European Parliament and STOA/ESMH were actively involved.

Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, Spain), Vice-Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, and member of the STOA Panel, opened the conference with a heartfelt intervention on the key role played by public trust in the current political context, strictly interconnected with the health crisis. She highlighted the European institutions’ increasing engagement in countering disinformation via targeted initiatives and specific action. She also introduced the ESMH as an emerging institutional actor in countering scientific disinformation.

Vitalba Crivello presented the ESMH ‘infodemic’ project during the session ‘Countering online disinformation: roots and causes’, organised by the Horizon 2020 Provenance project, and chaired by Eileen Culloty from Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism. The panel’s speakers represented experts active in countering mis- and disinformation. Stephan Lewandowsky, Thomas Zerback, Rachel Hermitage and Stella Giuffreda brought in the scholars’ point of view, while Thomas Grandjouan spoke about the experience of the EU Disinfo Lab just before the ESMH closing intervention.

Further developments

As part of the ‘Tackling the infodemic’ project, the ESMH is also producing – with the help with external provider Athens Technology Center (ATC) – monthly reports, collecting the main deceptive narratives on Covid‑19 trending on selected social media.

The ESMH is further developing complementary activities in this direction, confident that trust and an open dialogue between scientists, media producers and policy-makers is the key to success in effectively countering disinformation, especially in times of emergency.

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