The world’s oldest independent scientific academy, the Royal Society, dedicated to promoting excellence in science, has published a new report on the challenge of scientific misinformation: how can we foster a healthier online information environment? We spoke with chair of the report Frank Kelly, Emeritus Professor of the Mathematics of Systems at the University of Cambridge.
In the report, you state that governments and social media platforms should not rely on content removal as a solution to online scientific misinformation. What approach would be a more effective one to prioritise instead, and why?
Scientific misinformation can cause harm, so one can see the rationale for people thinking that removing it would do good. But evidence shows that this is not very effective; we saw this with the pandemic. What we need instead, is an approach that encourages people to follow the advice of trustworthy bodies, such as the public health authorities, and simply banning content makes this hard to achieve, and encourages conspiracy theories.
There isn’t a silver bullet here, but I believe that there is a whole range of things that would help build a healthy and trusted online environment, such as lessening the prominence of misinformation on news feeds, adding information labels to fact-checked content, prioritising authoritative sources, using technology to understand where information comes from and how it has been edited along the way, or demonetising misinformation content through advertising policies.
Do you think that elevating content from trustworthy news outlets could help reduce exposure to misinformation content?
Increasing visibility and access to information from trustworthy actors is an effective method to deal with misinformation, a sort of inoculation against it. But this should not be limited to news outlets; increasing the value and the visibility of statements of public authorities is equally relevant. As for news outlets though, it’s important to balance this against the need to maintain a healthy pluralistic media ecosystem.
On the other hand, it is quite difficult for media companies to compare and rate the trustworthiness of information, so it’s more a collective effort, and scientific bodies and academies have an important role to play. Historically, misinformation has always been present; people informing each other or misinforming each other is part of human history. But the technology has changed, and the internet has allowed misinformation to spread more quickly and on a much wider scale. Therefore, the mechanisms that combat misinformation must similarly adapt to the evolving technology. Furthermore, in order to successfully tackle misinformation, it’s the whole information ecosystem that has to be involved, in a way where each actor reinforces the benefits of the actions of the other ones.
Could you tell us more about how we can build resilience against misinformation?
Ensuring that citizens can safely navigate the online information environment while empowering them to have greater critical analysis skills, will require significant investment in digital information literacy. People should be able to evaluate online content effectively.
For instance, they can learn how to assess URLs, conduct reverse image search, or identify deep fakes. But the way in which one can evaluate online content will change as soon as the technology changes. As the nature of online information evolves, it’s important to consider digital information literacy as a life skill, as a lifelong training necessity. While of course this is important, it is only one component. It can only be truly effective if platforms and governments take their responsibility to do their part in building a trustworthy information environment.
How can the scientific community help with fact-checking information?
Trustworthy institutions with expertise in evidence synthesis have a role to play in actively engaging with fact-checking organisations to help provide clarity on complex scientific misinformation content. Using the scientific community to effectively synthesise the state of a given field is increasingly important.
But it’s wrong to expect too much from fact-checkers. They can highlight areas of growing scepticism or dispute that require deep consideration, but if one thinks about what is involved in checking a scientific paper, for example, it becomes clear that there is no snap judgement that can be quickly made.
Society as a whole has to recognise this aspect of science. Often people have an impression of science as a fixed authoritative body of information that can be just looked up, but this is so inaccurate. Science stands on the edge of error. Research scientists are working at the frontier of knowledge, and the science debate is an incredibly vibrant place with all sorts of points of view being put across.
That’s the nature of science. Scientists live with uncertainties. This is why we have to be careful about communicating, and communicating uncertainties, or contention. The difficulties come when science interacts with subjects which are of huge political and social interest, and that happened for instance with the pandemic. But I think that now is a good time to try to make the point that in the process leading to acquiring new knowledge, you need to accept uncertainties and contention.
We live in an attention economy which incentivises the spread of sensational stories at the expense of sound understanding. This is why in the report you state that institutions will need to consider how they could best compete in such a scenario, whilst at the same time generating trust across society. Do you have any suggestions for institutions, and more in general for science communicators?
Institutions can only earn trust through trustworthy behaviour. A trustworthy institution may get something wrong, but it would be competent and reliable enough for that not to happen too often, while being honest enough to acknowledge it. Institutions have to strive to be trustworthy.
As for researchers and communicators, they need to understand and recognise the objectives they are pursuing. They can either simply act as informers representing the current state of knowledge in their particular field, or as persuaders trying to actively change the audience’s thought or behaviour. It’s important to distinguish between these attitudes because suspicion that actual motivation is being hidden is often cited as the leading reason for loss of trust. There is a spectrum between inform and persuade, and you have to be honest about your own motivation, and honest with your audience.
In general, effective communication does not simply require more facts. Instead, it requires a kind of emphasis on engaging with people’s concerns about complex scientific topics, and on honestly communicating uncertainty.