What drives public trust? Broadening the traditional scope of science communication with TRESCA

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation of our daily lives and, by now, we are all a bit more dependent on technology than we had been before. But how can we trust all the scientific information that we receive through the media? How can we have a common understanding of what is reliable when we are being exposed to massive online information flows? Do we trust the same truths? What kind of people are more susceptible to trusting conspiracy theories? Using a novel approach based on social science, the new EU-funded project TRESCA tackles these, and other, research questions.

In 2018, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that the personal data of around 87 million users had been handled inappropriately for political advertising purposes. And while Facebook had to face a backlash from the #DeleteFacebook hashtag movement on Twitter, protesting against the misuse of privacy, ultimately its use and acceptance were not negatively affected. This scandal highlighted the importance of data protection and the dangers of digital surveillance, and inspired the creation of the TRESCA project (Trustworthy, Reliable and Engaging Scientific Communication Approaches).

The aim of TRESCA is to broaden the traditional scope of science communication beyond its focus on the natural sciences.

Jason PridmoreJason Pridmore, project coordinator of TRESCA, Vice Dean of Education at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam: As social scientists interested in issues related to data protection, misinformation, privacy, consumer surveillance and, more generally, the use of technology in everyday life, we saw the call for proposals as an opportunity to broaden the traditional scope of science communication. We felt that if we could understand how to better communicate the complexities of social science-related research, particularly those connected to increasing digitalisation, then we could also begin to strengthen science communication more generally and, in particular, on topics that should really not be up for debate, such as the climate catastrophe or vaccinations.” Read the full interview

The project started in January 2020 and will last for 28 months, ending in April 2022. During this period, three main outputs will be produced: an animated science communication outreach video, a prototype of a misinformation widget working on encrypted communication channels to help identify trustworthy sources and a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) addressed to scientists, journalists and policy makers to learn how to engage in effective science communication..

A multidisciplinary project to show that ‘science is beautiful’

The outreach video will be created by the German partner Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (KURZ), a studio specialising in animated educational videos that has more than 13 million subscribers on its YouTube channel. Their aim is to make ‘science look beautiful, because it is beautiful’, as they put it Beyond the outreach purpose, they want to study the production process to understand the reasons why such format could be more effective and trustworthy

KURZ is one of the partners in the consortium formed by Erasmus University Rotterdam (the Netherlands) as coordinator, two institutes forming part of the Spanish National Research Council – CSIC (Spain), Observa Foundation (Italy), Zentrum für Soziale Innovation – ZSI (Austria) and Science|Business Publishing (Belgium). It is a multi-disciplinary project involving not only traditional research partners, but also representatives of novel but effective forms of science communication: public institutions working hand in hand with the private sector, industry and business.

TRESCA has already launched a survey that aims to obtain a better understanding of the incentives (and disincentives) for scientists to engage in science communication. In this questionnaire, researchers are asked, among other issues, about the best incentives for science communication available in their region/country, how they see the role of women in science communication and the ways in which they most frequently communicate their research and scientific results to non-expert audiences.

Jason Pridmore: We believe that most researchers are driven by intrinsic motivations related to wanting to improve society and effectively bring about change through their research. The initial results of the survey show this to be true and also suggest that scientists are not as concerned about the financial rewards or those of recognition.”

COVID-19 and internet: What was communicated? What was not?

The pandemic has modified not only the content, but also the implementation of the TRESCA project. The topic of ‘resilience in times of social isolation and digitalisation’ will be studied much more in detail, and the scheduled workshops will have to be organised online, using digital platforms, with the risk that this change could have an effect on participants’ contributions..

How does the pandemic and confinement affect people, particularly in the digital realm? It is clear that personal and professional relationships have changed, making them more dependent on technologies. The project will also evaluate how it has changed daily life. Can digital communication sustain real connections or does it make us lonelier? Are people who don’t have strong social networks more vulnerable to fake news?

TRESCA team analysed the trends in internet searches in the first half of 2020. They found that the date on which people started to realise their lives were changing depended to a great extent on where they were based. Moreover, they also found that in February only a few people knew what COVID-19 was. Most people became aware of it in March, when the disease was starting to spread rapidly in Italy and Spain. Interest in the coronavirus in Italy was very significant around 24 February, while a similar level of attention was reached around 9 March in other countries such as Spain, France and Germany. Eight European countries in total were involved in the exercise – Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands.

Why do we end up believing what we do?

Marina Tulin, Postdoctoral Researcher and the Coordination Manager of TRESCA: “In today’s increasingly digitalised and polarised world, we face a rather fundamental threat to social cohesion: Do we trust the same truths? As long as we are unsure about the answer to this question, all important markers of cohesion, such as mutual understanding, inter-group bonds and trust and solidarity, are at serious risk. Social science findings might be perceived as particularly uncertain, but social science communicators themselves can play an important role in rebuilding trust in science.”

What drives public trust? This is a key question that TRESCA will try to answer. It will be going into detail about how conspiracy theories work and studying (the work of) several authors on the specific profile of people who believe in these types of information, and how these people approach decision-making on matters related to health.

it appears that people who accept conspiracy narratives include some who may show psychological traits such as delusional ideation, while others have an inclination towards boredom and stress.

Sara Degli-EspostiSara Degli-Esposti, Research Director of the TRESCA project and PI of the CSIC team: “Conspiracy theories are powerful because they offer a very vague and therefore flexible and adaptable causal explanation that can work well in many circumstances… Fighting misinformation is not easy. Certain individuals are predisposed to refrain from changing their beliefs even in the face of good corrective evidence, and ideology and personal world views can be major obstacles to de-biasing. Skepticism can reduce misinformation effects, as it leads to more cognitive resources being allocated to the task of weighing up the veracity of both the misinformation and the correction.” Read the full interview

The Italian partner in the consortium, Observa, organised an online workshop in October with around 30 participants to evaluate, among other things, citizens’ perceptions of the quality of scientific news and their ability to distinguish between accurate and false communication. Some follow up workshops have been planned with more volunteers ready to discuss the present and future of science communication.

Useful link:
TRESCA EU project coordinated by Erasmus University Rotterdam


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