Navigating fake news as a scientist

Fake news has become of global concern, and we as scientists have an important role to play, delivering the right information in the right way. Discover some useful tips to deal with it.


Navigating fake news as a scientist

Science communication is quite similar to the children’s game ‘telephone’, wherein one person whispers a message down a line of people, and the last person announces the final message. While the original message can be more or less intact by the end of the game, it very often becomes substantially distorted or even unrecognizable. Unlike the harmless children’s game, miscommunicating science can be very dangerous, particularly in the context of a crisis like the current global pandemic. To help address this challenging topic, we will discuss best practices for effective communication, and for identifying misinformation in the context of the current global crisis. We hope this article will provide a useful framework for science communication during times of crisis and peace alike.

For the first time in history, society can witness the scientific process play out in “real-time”, due to easy access to COVID-19-related messages on social media and network news. The unprecedented access to COVID-19 news has created a unique problem: non-scientists are free to interpret emerging research that may not yet be peer-reviewed, and may also be listening to news about the pandemic that is presented with a certain political slant. In fact, the COVID-19 Pandemic Pulse Tool from the University of Notre Dame shows in initial studies published on the preprint server arXiv, that the bulk of news related to COVID-19 comes from politically extreme sources, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. (Of note, findings have been published on a preprint server, and have thus not gone through peer review yet).  As scientists, we know that it is our job and responsibility to state the facts about the virus in order to inform the public, but we have observed that conspiracy theories have emerged over the course of the pandemic, and false information has spread just as fast as, or arguably even faster than the emerging science itself.

We have observed that conspiracy theories have emerged over the course of the pandemic, and false information has spread just as fast as, or arguably even faster than the emerging science itself

The last six months have seen an explosion in fake news. Many people have exploited the uncertainty and confusion related to the pandemic and have filled social network platforms with news of dubious credibility, spreading misinformation about the virus. These kinds of messages - for instance that masks can make you sick - are generally not directly intended to cause harm, but often serve political or even profit-making purposes. Fake news has become of global concern, and some social network platforms like Facebook are starting to screen the information that is shared and penalizing users who spread misinformation.

But how can you determine if the message you just read is true or not?

Here are some quick tips :

  • Don't just read the headline, make sure to read the entire article.
  • If the news uses strong, emotional language or striking images, you should be suspicious. Made-up news tries to appeal to emotions to manipulate public opinion.
  • In terms of content, news can be hard to believe, or instead, it can perfectly match what you thought. In the first case, it is logical that you distrust it and seek second opinions. But in the second case, you will probably agree and believe it quickly. However, the algorithms of social network platforms are set to show you things you want to see, so you should maintain caution and continue with the next few steps.
  • Look up the headline, and compare the article you just read with coverage of this piece of information by other media. Similarly, there are reputable fact-checking organizations like Snopes and FactCheck where you can directly check the information.
  • Finally, identify the source of the information that your article is based on. Be wary of social network threads, audios, or videos without context. When a piece of news is true, it is more likely to rely on direct sources or even academic papers and you should be able to find this supporting data. Ideally, the message you just read should contain a reference to the supporting data. If not, see if you can track it down yourself via online searches.

What is one to do when they see their family, friends, or other loved ones sharing misinformation? The first gut reaction may be one of anger or frustration - how can they be sharing something that is misinformed?! In this case, it is important to remember that most people who are sharing inaccuracies do so because they don’t know better! Research shows that false information can spread quickly in this digital era, and many people do not have the knowledge or the time to be able to distinguish good and bad sources. Those who are anxious and feel powerless are often drawn to conspiracy theories. It is important to remember this context when interacting with them. The pandemic is scary and it is out of everyone’s control. Some people will try to find solace in misinformation because it provides them with something else to focus on, or alleviates their sense of helplessness by providing something, or someone else to blame. Keeping this in mind will help us employ a communication technique known as compassionate communication. This technique incorporates empathy in our interactions with others by breaking communication down into four components: 1) Recap. 2) Feeling. 3) Needs/values & 4) Request. For example, imagine your cousin saying “I don’t want to wear a mask because masks do more harm than good by reducing your oxygen intake.”  Our first instincts may be defensive, wanting to share various resources disputing this misinformation. Instead, it would be more productive to reframe our response and use empathy. For example: “I understand you’re worried about the safety of masks because you want to do the best for your family and keep them healthy and safe. Would you tell me what would make you feel better about wearing one?” In this example, we are using compassionate communication by reframing their statement in the context of their feeling and need: worry and the desire to keep their friends and family safe. You then make a request for more information that will hopefully help you identify the best way to proceed in the conversation. By doing this, and remembering that your cousin is likely afraid and confused, you can have conversations about their worries rather than lecturing them. While it may feel important to spew facts and references, listening to their concerns will help identify what information or resources you can share that could help ease her worries.

We try to share correct information with the public from reputable sources because we want to be safe and we also want our loved ones to be safe from the virus and prevent them from spreading it.

What if that friend-of-a-friend posts a link to a blog post describing the false connection of 5G technology to the COVID-19 pandemic? Or the myth that Bill Gates is planning mass microchip implantation through the future COVID-19 vaccine?  If you’re not close to this person, you might wonder if it's worth speaking up. It can still be productive to address the spread of misinformation through compassionate communication. Maybe try sparking a conversation via private message to understand where their fears come from. In addition, consider reporting the post to prevent the spread of misinformation. You can also choose to promote your own pro-science content and share relatable resources such as tips on making your reusable masks more comfortable during our hot summer days.

In the end, we try to share correct information with the public from reputable sources because we want to be safe and we also want our loved ones to be safe from the virus and prevent them from spreading it. We must acknowledge and accept that we can only do our best to help, given our expertise as scientists and communicators.  Not everybody will be willing to discuss respectfully with us, however, our efforts can still reach many people. While we may not directly see the positive impact of our efforts, accurate science communication is critical for us to overcome this pandemic and to better manage future ones.


About the authors:

Adelita D. Mendoza is a Postdoctoral Associate at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri who studies zinc homeostasis and trafficking. She is also enthusiastic about science journalism and engages in advocacy efforts for people in the BIPOC community in STEM. E-mail: adelitadmendoza@wustl.edu, Connect with Adelita via email, or on Twitter.

Carla Bautista studies evolutionary biology at Laval University and has a great interest in scientific outreach. Connect with Carla via email, or on Twitter.

Elisabeth A Marnik is an Assistant Professor of Molecular Biochemistry at Husson University who studies how germ cells remain pluripotent. She also is dedicated to helping undergraduates and the general public understand science. Connect with Elisabeth via email, or on Twitter.

Caitlin MA Simopoulos is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Ottawa who studies the gut microbiome through computational biology. She also aspires to make science accessible to everyone. Connect with Caitlin via email, or on Twitter.

Jacob L. Steenwyk studies evolutionary genomics at Vanderbilt University and is passionate about matters of diversity and inclusion.Connect with Jacob via email, or on Twitter.

All authors are members of the Genetics Society of America Early Career Leadership Program Communications and Outreach Subcommittee.


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