To answer these questions, the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), hosted the panel “Telling stories on climate change: has the corona crisis changed the debate?”. The workshop was organised in cooperation with European Parliament’s Directorate General for Communication in the context of the two-day European Generation Media Lab event, taking place as part of the EYE2021 youth conference. Elena Pompei, a journalist working with the pan-European ENTR Project, moderated the panel discussion.
Tiemo Wölken, Member of the European Parliament and STOA Panel Member, started the discussion by highlighting the value of using information based on evidence, identifying trustworthy sources, and effectively communicating scientific information during a crisis. Although Covid-19 and climate change require very different solutions, they are both global challenges that have become politicised and require input from the scientific community.
Alok Jha, Science and Technology Correspondent at The Economist, explained, “Covid-19 has essentially been a hyper fast version of climate change in terms of the warnings we’ve received from scientists, the ways in which policymakers and the public have reacted, and how we now perceive solutions.” – Read the full interview
The growing role of online platforms in communicating science
The pace at which the world has been forced to deal with Covid-19 has demonstrated how quickly information can be shared as well as the different ways in which it can be disseminated.
Simon Clark, Climate Scientist and YouTube Content Creator, described how he thinks this has changed throughout the pandemic, “I think one trend that we’re starting to see is that people are increasingly getting their information from individuals on social media rather than from institutionalised sources like Nature, the BBC, or The Economist.” – Read the full interview
Wölken also outlined the increasingly important role that those on social media and video platforms have: “During the 2021 German election campaign, we noticed that young scientists and journalists were increasingly using their own channels on platforms like YouTube to communicate.”
Joachim Allgaier, Professor of Communication and Digital Society at Fulda University of Applied Science, partially attributed the growing success of science-focused YouTubers to their ability to communicate complex topics clearly. Allgaier gave the example of the German YouTuber Rezo, who has over 1.7 million subscribers: “He doesn’t talk about anything new,” Allgaier pointed out, “but he summarises science in a way that people can understand. His talent is formatting the information using colloquial and approachable language that taps into people’s emotions.” – Read the full interview
A two-way dialogue – that can be facilitated through live-streaming platforms such as Twitch – also allows the public to have their questions answered by experts and policymakers in real time, helping to build public trust. “I am interacting with the chat so that I can answer their questions. I can try to avoid difficult questions but if I do this, they will be asked again and again. I think the viewers really value that I’m trying to answer like a human being.” explained Wölken.
The misinformation challenge
While online platforms can help share research results and promote scientific discussion, there are drawbacks. One of these, highlighted by the panel, is the speed at which misinformation can be spread.
“Up until now, I’ve never really understood how dangerous or how many people can be killed by misinformation.” commented Alok Jha, “And the impact that vaccine misinformation has is just a fraction of the impact that climate misinformation will have. We’ve been dealing with climate misinformation for years and mostly just dismissing it, but it is actually really serious and overtime it will kill more people than vaccine misinformation.”
Allgaier explained why stopping misinformation is a complicated task that requires nuances: “Various risks need to be addressed including the issue of censorship. Who gets to decide what is sanctioned and what the consequences for spreading misinformation should be? And how do we prevent misinformation from simply migrating to different platforms that are even more difficult to regulate?”
Wölken agreed and highlighted that many of these issues are being considered in the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) that is currently being discussed by the European Parliament. Ideally, he would like to see the DSA create an independent dispute settlement body to support the removal of “content that is obviously illegal, but not harmful” across all platforms. He went onto explain, “Harmful content is subjective and if we decide to do this, we will end up in the discussion of censorship.”
Wölken also suggested that the DSA addresses the issue of the use of algorithms by the big tech companies. These algorithms are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible to maximise their commercial interests. And because polarising content is likely to have a high level of engagement, it is often prioritised by algorithms, potentially leading to the spread of misinformation. A solution would be that the DSA encourages online platforms to just show content in a chronological order, according to the MEP.
Simon Clark also emphasised the need for content creators to reduce the spread of misinformation on their own channels where possible.
“If a video is watched a million times, the comment section is also seen a million times. It is just as visible and it has just as much influence over a viewer.” Clark went on to describe his personal experience, “I have recently been more active in terms of moderation and I now shadowban commentators who are spreading misinformation. This means that their comments will no longer be seen by other viewers and they are essentially shouting into a void. It is also important to get into the comment section early and set the tone by pinning a comment and liking others. If you do that within the first couple of hours of uploading a video, it becomes much easier as moderator going forward.”
• Simon Clark: “Scientists need to clarify the audience that they’re trying to reach and identify the sub-genre of YouTube video that they want to use.”
• Joachim Allgaier: “There are advantages and disadvantages to communicating with an online video format”