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Quality information given by experts is like a vaccine against falsehoods

Science media days 2021 report

This is the key message that came out of the debate on ’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, held online on 22 March.

“Certainly, censorship is not a solution, but neither can we allow disinformation to spread, especially when it poses serious threats to public health” – said MEP Maria Manuel Leitâo Marques, member of the STOA Panel, to get the debate started.

Misinformation, misguidance and deceit have probably been around for as long as humans have been communicating. “Recently, social media has made the problem far worse: information travels faster, and is not often filtered,” said Joana Gonçalves de Sá, who is studying human behaviour using the online spread of ’fake news‘ as a systems model.

But can one eradicate disinformation? The short answer is: No. One can fight it, though. We can control its spread, or even prevent it from reaching the most vulnerable — the ones that are most susceptible to believing false information.

Joana Gonçalves de Sá, Invited Associate Professor at Instituto Superior Técnico (University of Lisbon), suggests inoculation: “We think about [misinformation] the same way we think about a disease caused by a pathogen…We can work on the susceptibility of the individuals, we can work on the environment or we can work on the pathogen [misinformation]. The people that should be vaccinated first are either the ones who are very susceptible [to misinformation] or the ones who are in an environment that makes them more prone to be exposed. It’s exactly what we are doing to stop the spread of COVID-19.” – Read the full interview of Joana Gonçalves de Sá

Bernardo Mateiro Gomes, a Public Health Doctor, agreed that it is better to prevent people from getting ‘infected’ with misinformation than trying to treat them afterwards. Dr. Gomes, who is very active on Twitter, provides quality information via his account. He prefers being proactive and not engaging in discussions with people who are only looking for information that confirms what they already think.

This confirmation bias is one of the reasons why, according to a 2018 study in Science, “falsehoods diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information”. One may think that this was due to robots controlling fake accounts on social media, but the authors found that humans were selectively spreading more false news than true stories.

“We need more science literacy,” is a frequently touted golden bullet against misinformation. But the truth is that we must deal with the literacy that exists, said Bernardo Mateiro Gomes.

And Joana Gonçalves de Sá even warned that improving knowledge in people may backfire, because people who have read about or given some thought to a topic may overestimate what they really know and behave like they know more than the experts.

“What we have seen is that confidence grows faster than knowledge, except for people who know very little and people who know a lot — these people don’t overestimate their knowledge. But the people in the middle tend do to overestimate their knowledge a lot,” said Joana Gonçalves de Sá based on her research. “We think that the people who are more susceptible to false news are the ones who strongly overestimate how much they know about a subject,” she added.

But misinformation is not exclusively a social media problem. “The pandemic is really good for big egos,” said Bernardo Mateiro Gomes. With the rise of the pandemic has also risen a wave of ‘espresso experts’ who comment on each and every topic about the crisis. “Don’t trust anyone who says that [he/she] knows everything and has no doubt.”

Bernardo Mateiro Gomes, Public Health Doctor:
“Despite it not being so reassuring to have someone tell you: ‘I don’t know’, it is one of the pillars of risk communication: transparency, credibility, accountability.” – Read the full interview of Bernardo Mateiro Gomes

The doctor partially blames experts, scientists, and health professionals for allowing the spread of misinformation by not engaging enough with the media and failing to provide high quality information. “If you don’t feed the media needs, someone will”, he said. That’s why he chose to be a regular presence on the TV and other news channels. Bernardo Mateiro Gomes believes that “public institutions must have a healthy, stable relationship with the media”, and that should have been built before the pandemic.

“Public institutions in Portugal must have fully operational communication offices with the autonomy to respond to media questions,” said Gomes. “We need to handle this professionally.” Institutions need to be fast, need to anticipate, and need to fill the spot in the media before someone else does or else they will lose a chance to provide quality information.

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