Science & misinformation: the first pandemic in the digital age

Organised by the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) in the Panel for the future of Science and Technology (STOA) in cooperation with the European Parliament Liaison Office in Lisbon


Monday 22 March 2021, 10.00 – 11.30 Lisbon time/11:00-12:30 Brussels time

How do we protect ourselves from conspiracy theories and disinformation? What is the role of journalism, in particular specialized journalism? What is the role of health professionals, either in their clinical activity, or as authorities communicating with the wider public? What is the role of technology, and how can we amplify its advantages and mitigate risks?

The first pandemic of the digital age has brought new challenges to science. If, on the one hand, it has been possible to have scientists from all over the world collaborating and communicating directly with the media and the general public, on the other hand we also witness an avalanche of misinformation and conspiracy theories, especially on social networks, which hampered the action of health professionals and governments.

In this debate on science communication, a health professional, a researcher in social networks’ dynamics, a journalist and a science communicator talk about the challenges, lessons and opportunities on which the pandemic has put the light on.

The debate touched upon some key questions:

  • The first pandemic of the digital age has brought some positive news, such as the set- up of collaborative networks of scientists or the possibility of having scientists speaking up about scientific papers coming out every day directly on the social networks. But it has also brought negative news, such as the rapid spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories and a tendency to see comments from experts, ordinary citizens or real digital agitators with equal prominence. What lessons should we learn from here, for life in digital societies in general and for science communication in particular?
  • Before the pandemic, there was already a debate about the public role of journalism and the importance of science reporting. If this became clearer, it was also clear the enormous effort required, and often in newsrooms without journalists specializing in science communication. What are the main difficulties in communicating science in this pandemics? How can we evaluate the science communication effort made by the media?
  • Focusing on the issue of science communication in times of a pandemic, it was also clear in several episodes that science was poorly explained or poorly communicated, – the episode of the masks being paradigmatic – but also the ways of transmitting the virus, the relative risks of various activities. What explains this situation? Lack of basic scientific literacy? Supremacy of speed over the quality of communication?
  • Due to uncertainty regarding Covid-19 and the fact that science is being communicated at almost the same time as it is being done, there have been cases where experts have made statements in the past that contradict the statements they make now. This was used on social networks not only to spread misinformation, but also to give an idea that those responsible were not competent. How can we better communicate about uncertainty and explain that it is normal for opinions to change when facts change?
  • What solutions do we have to improve communication in the future?
  • Health professionals have long tried to communicate about the possibility of disease X, but this abstract risk has always been difficult to be credited. On the other hand, the few events that ‘anticipated’ this pandemic were used to discredit reliable sources and substantiate conspiracy theories. How can we talk better about the future risk of certain diseases and the need to prepare and invest before we are affected by them?
  • A year later, what tools do doctors have to acquire to better communicate with users, in their doubts about the pandemic and other diseases in general? Is there a greater need for clarity and data?
  • The scientific community has tools and instruments that could be quickly adapted to the new reality. How was it possible to reallocate resources, people and means, to look at the pandemic without neglecting the remaining functions that could not be left unattended?


11:00 – 11:05 Welcome by MEP Maria Leitão Marques (SD, Portugal)

11:05 – 11:50 Panelists’ debate

  • Bernardo Mateiro Gomes, Public Health Doctor, regular appearances on TV and press to communicate about COVID-19
  • Joana Gonçalves de Sá, Invited Associate Professor at the Physics Department of Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa and the leader of the Social Physics and Complexity (SPAC) research group at LIP
  • Vera Novais, science journalist at Observador

Moderator: Joana Lobo Antunes, Head of Communication at Instituto Superior Técnico and Invited Professor in Science Communication at Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

12:00 – 12:25 – Q&A session

12:25 – 12:30 – Closing remarks

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