Scott Brennen : “We live in a kind of post-truth age where science facts are doubted”

Scott Brennen from the Oxford Martin Programme on Misinformation, Science, and Media investigates how changing media structures and technologies are shaping the scientific information and scientific misinformation.

How has misinformation in science increased?

Scott Brennen: It’s pretty clear that science misinformation has increased. We can see some clustered categories where this is the case, for example, in Climate Change or with GMO, genetically modified organisms. Our studies show, that each misinformation is different, each cluster has a different dynamics and different textures.

Who is behind that misinformation?

Scott Brennen: Many different stakeholders put a lot of information in the world, these are think tanks, policy actors, lobby groups, religious groups, industries but also groups of scientists. Their interactions are very different, we therefore cannot speak generally of one misinformation. The best question about “who’s behind” is always the best indicator to track sources and potential interests of informations.

Has it been the changes of the media landscape or the change in the political landscape that led to the boost of “junk news” ?

Scott Brennen: This is still part of our studies underway. First results allow already to see some coordinated efforts by using both – the changes to a widely open media landscape which mobilizes policy actors and populist actors to make use of these opportunities. We also see more frequently policy makers picking up attacks on media.

What are the main sources people are getting their information on science today?

Scott Brennen: Mainstream media still play a significant role in the initial scientific information. There is no clear picture yet what role digital or social media for basic information processes in science have.

Surveys among recipients indicate that scientists are still one of the most credible sources to spread knowledge. Should they be encouraged to do reach-out more to the audiences?

Scott Brennan: Indeed, scientists rank still higher in credibility. And for many of them, it`s still quite common “not to waste time talking to journalists”. In contrary, the thinking in the scientific community prevails that reputation suffers while becoming famous with the media.

Do you see a growing expert adversary among the public?

Scott Brennan: It`s not among the doctors, for 90 % of them there is consensus about existing Climate Change or of with 99 % they agree about vaccines to be safe. Sure, there are changing lines about the necessary public responses to solve issues. Whereas, when talking about people versus experts, we see a growing distrust toward elites and this plays also a role in the media echo: Populist ideas circulate widely, there is also increasing distrust in institutions. And we see a kind of post-truth landscape coming along with cultural changes. It’s actually a “crisis of trust”.

Are there models to teach more media savviness?

Scott Brennan: There definitely is no silver bullet. Schools should start to educate and empower the media consumers. But, to not put the burden of correct information only on them, there should be coordinated efforts such as fact checking platforms or studies to show the social dynamics which certain claims are playing out. The Science-media hub is certainly an important initiative. We should have more of that.


On the Oxford Martin Programme Misinformation, Science, and Media

Could you explain us, please, what has prompted the Oxford Martin Programme to start?

Scott Brennen: Nowadays scientists demonstrate in the streets just to get governments to base policy on scientific evidence and not to undermine the reputation of science and information by misinformation. It’s just six months that researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with this programme have started to look closer to the interplay and the roles of media, politics and science in misinformation.

Who will benefit from this research ?

Scott Brennen: Its insights will benefit to policymakers, journalists and the public to better understand misinformations and to respond to that.

Could you give us some examples of what you are studying, please?

Scott Brennen: A co-fellow of mine is looking deeper into the dynamics of Climate Change news, which is pretty complex. I myself have presented a systematic content analysis on the coverage of six UK-news outlets to the themes of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the UK. The finding was that the topic in British media is covered in a way that news content was indexed to industry. People who appeared in the media to AI were basically CEO’s, industry spokespeople or industry researchers.

What’s the problem about that?

Scott Brennen: The industry did not misinform, but they are self-interested actors. The biased reporting in the UK missed obviously the emerging public conversation on AI. There is a need to better contextualize the information to avoid and detect misinformation. Questions about who is framing the discussion might better reveal interests behind some news and may allow to better understand and determine the scope of misinformation.

Isn’t tech journalism mostly business-oriented?

Scott Brennan: Indeed it is. Whereas Artificial Intelligence is a much more multi-faceted complex issue. Media should have had also interviewed social scientists and other disciplines to bring more diverse perspectives than only the industry-related. Other AI-coverage was on concrete industry products, economics and geopolitics or the best UK-position to become a global AI-hub. Only some left-leaning media talked about the ethical challenges of AI.

Selected Publications: Dec 2018 – An Industry-Led Debate: How UK Media Cover Artificial Intelligence

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