QUEST project, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Fabiana Zollo, Assistant Professor at Ca’ Foscari University and Research Fellow in the Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change.
Why did you join the Quest project, what it the value you see in it in terms of what it might help us address?
Our research group has been investigating information spreading on social media for five years now. Our studies aimed at unveiling social dynamics and cognitive determinants behind how information spreads and gets consumed by online users. We found that confirmation bias —i.e. the human tendency to look for information that is coherent with one’s system of beliefs— plays a pivotal role in these dynamics. We provided empirical evidence of the existence of echo chambers, that are polarized groups of like-minded people who share a common narratives (Del Vicario et al., 2016; Schmidt et al., 2018). Users in a same community share a common narrative and, immersed in echo chambers, select information coherent to their worldview, even when false (Bessi et al., 2015), ignoring information dissenting from their beliefs. Users from different and contrasting communities rarely interact and, when that happens, the debate degenerates, especially for longer discussions (Zollo et al., 2015). Response to debunking attempts is not that dissimilar, and results in the well-known backfire effect (Zollo et al., 2017).
What are the main challenges facing science in the social media sphere, in your view? And how might Quest address those?
To contrast misinformation, and encourage effective communication, smoothing polarisation is thus essential. To this end, the design of tailored counter-narratives and appropriate communication strategies takes on great importance. This is what we, as UNIVE, aim at doing within project QUEST, where we are working to analyse, design, test, and evaluate different strategies to improve science communication on social media, especially in the case of delicate and polarising topics that need to be addressed with care, such as climate change or vaccines (Schmidt et al., 2018).
What do you hope Quest project will achieve for science communicators and for science communication on social media? What is the state of science communication via social media in Europe? What are the key challenges and advantages of it?
We are now working to determine the state-of-the-art of science communication on social media. We are following and analysing data from more than 680 Twitter accounts, 490 Facebook pages and 390 YouTube channels that aims at communicating science in 7 countries: Germany, Estonia, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, UK. We will consider how scientific topics are presented to the public, and analyse users’ response to contents, both in terms of interactions (e.g. likes, comments, shares) and perception (e.g. sentiment). Our aim is to develop a common definition on what constitutes quality and effective science communication on social media and, thus, a series of guidelines (based on KPIs) for good communication, both in general and w.r.t. to QUEST three case studies: climate change, vaccines, artificial intelligence. Then, together with our stakeholders, we are going to test such guidelines on social media for their evaluation and possible refinement. In the end, we hope to identify the appropriate strategies to promote quality and effective science communication on social media.