Interview with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on Covid-19 misinformation

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
He is also Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. He was previously Director of Research at the Reuters Institute and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics. His work focuses on changes in the news media, on political communication, and the role of digital technologies in both. He has done extensive research on journalism, American politics, and various forms of activism, and a significant amount of comparative work in Western Europe and beyond.

Can you talk a bit about the Covid-19 related projects you are running at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen ESMH ScientistRasmus Kleis Nielsen: We have three different kinds of work that we do around Covid-19. One is an ongoing project called the misinformation, science and media project, where we examine how science is refracted through both social and news media. In that context we have been looking specifically at the types, sources and claims of misinformation around Covid-19. We then have a long track record of doing comparative international survey research on how people use and what they think about news media. We have deployed that approach to study how people navigate the Infodemic in different countries. Finally, we have started the UK Covid-19 news and information project, which is a project surveying a representative sample of the UK public on a regular basis, to see how their perception of and ways of navigating the crisis changes over time.

Something you alluded to in one of your reports is the fact that the ambiguity employed by public authorities created an information gap often filled by misinformation. Do you think misinformation wouldn’t have the impact it had if public authorities’ statements and guidelines were clearer?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: One of the reasons some people end up engaging with disinformation, is them seeking information, finding no credible and authoritative sources and ending up relying on things they probably should not be relying on. A classic finding from media and communications research is that essentially rumour is a form of improvised news. So when there is an information vacuum it tends to be filled by improvisation. Some of it will be malicious, but much of it will be frankly fairly good faith or just ambiguous.

In terms of the clarity of government communication and the way this is covered by the news media, the truth is I think we have to be prepared for a long crisis. Most societies will probably go through different phases and different policies. Some of these policies and measures may be quite complicated, with lots of different grey zones, as you may have seen in the UK. There’s been some at the very top of the UK government for example, who seem to have some very idiosyncratic views on what the government guidelines were when they were very clear – I thought as much as a citizen. When the government guidelines become more ambiguous because they become more complex, the situation will become far more complicated, and I foresee a lot of communication challenges around that.

A key finding of one of your factsheets was that more people stated they avoided news coming from mass media (TV, news websites) than social media. Do you find this finding concerning?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: I think that’s a really important finding and as you say it’s quite worrying in certain ways. The way I would interpret it is this is a reminder that using news is a profoundly social act shaped by the situation in which news is used. The act of turning a television on is very rarely an individual act, it’s an act you often do in the company of others. In a situation where either you individually or other people in your company may be fed up with what you may perceive to be relentless news that rarely gives you something that is actionable from your point of view as a citizen, you may end up choosing Netflix over news. Social media is very different. It is a platform experience but the consumption is largely individual. News there is often a very small part of a much wider and more diverse experience and the act of checking a social feed is very often an act of connection, however ephemeral, with people that you care about. News is part of a package rather than something that you deliberately and directly seek out. And in that sense we see a considerable incidental exposure to news as part of the social media experience.

In another study focused on US, Argentina, UK, South Korea, Germany, Spain, you found one in three people thought the news had exaggerated the pandemic. How do you explain that?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: I would offer two main interpretations. One is that in situations where we are thinking about the world beyond our personal experience, most of us rely – at least in part – on opinion leaders and prominent individuals who interpret the world on our behalf, so to speak. I think it worth remembering that in many countries there are many prominent politicians who have long argued that the crisis is much less severe than medical experts, including the World Health Organization and others, have found it to be. In those countries in particular, it’s not really surprising if a large part of the public having however misplaced confidence in those politicians, feel the news media have exaggerated the pandemic. Essentially one side of this issue is about elites. As long as there is elite disagreement on the severity of the pandemic, we should expect there to be public disagreement as well.

The other aspect of the issue worth remembering is the fact that, with certain variations from country to country, the pandemic developed for quite a long time, before most people had any personal experience of it. I think we should be empathetic to what I consider to be the fact, that it is not an insane position to wonder about whether an invisible disease is as serious as the news suggests. I think we should be understanding about how confusing the situation can be for an individual citizen if a politician you may respect says this virus is not serious and then you read the opposite in the news.

Given the fact certain political actors have been criticising the role of experts during the last couple of years, do you think we will get out of this Infodemic crisis with more respect for real expertise?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: I believe it will have to do at least as much with politics as with disinformation. When we did the survey for navigating the Infodemic report in early April, there was still in all countries very broad-based, near-universal trust in scientists and experts. I would suspect that if we did a similar survey now, there would be much more profound political differences in countries where prominent politicians have directly attacked the credibility and expertise of scientists and health authorities, while in other countries where the politicians may be relatively unified in their respect for and appreciation of scientific and health authorities’ input, I would expect a very different situation. I think misinformation probably plays a role in this but my prediction is that it will matter a great deal more what elected officials are saying about scientists than what conspiracy theorists online do.

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