“Inoculating people against being manipulated will be crucial”

What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation? And how do the fact-checking methods applied by social media platforms affect the actual spread of conspiracy myths? Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol and member of the ALLEA scientific committee Fact or Fake?, gives an insight into current research on trust in science and why it is essential to foster deliberative communication formats.

Question: Mr. Lewandowsky, conspiracy myths and misinformation are not really a new thing. However, they are currently making headlines again. Are we really experiencing a rise in misinformation during the pandemic?

S. L.: I don’t know of an evidence-based answer to this question as I do not have data on the quantity of misinformation and conspiracy myths. What we do know is that people’s trust in science and research has increased in response to the corona pandemic. On that we do have data from different European countries like Germany or the U.K. as well as the US. In Germany for example the science barometer by Wissenschaft im Dialog (Science in Dialogue) showed a dramatic increase in trust to over 70 per cent in April. That has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements. I think these are the developments we have, based on the data.

We also see that the media is paying a lot of attention to conspiracy myths and misinformation and while it is important to do so, at the same time, by talking about it a lot, you are enhancing the prevalence of misinformation as well. So that is something to watch.

“(A rise of trust in science) has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements.”

Q.: Why are pandemics a good breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: Pandemics are always a trigger for conspiracy myths and that has been true throughout history. People are frightened, their sense of control over their lives is disrupted and whenever that happens, people are drawn towards conspiracies. Psychologically, people seek comfort in the assumption that evil people are responsible for bad things that are happening because there is potential for the world to be better. If you have an enemy that is responsible for bad things, you can pretend that things would be better if they were not there. Accepting that a virus is responsible is something that is out of control. That is frightening and that is why these times are breeding times for conspiracy myths.

Q.: In Germany we are currently seeing protests against measures the government has taken. In how far are they due to uncertainty when introducing measures, especially with regards to the introduction of masks?

S. L.: Most Germans actually think that the government is doing a good job with the measures. So once again we should not pay too much attention to the minority of protesters. Corresponding to that we see a decline in support for the AfD because they do not offer any solutions for the problems at hand. I think we have to be careful not to exaggerate the uncertainties that existed. Social distancing for example was never doubted as an effective measure against the pandemic and even though there was uncertainty about masks, a lot of scientific advice was actually quite consistent. Of course it would have been nice, if the science on masks had been available more quickly but I do not think uncertainty was a trigger for conspiracy myths in this case.

Q.: If trust is rising, why should we still care about fighting conspiracy myths? 

S. L.: The mere exposure to conspiracy myths can potentially reduce people’s trust in official institutions and is inducing people to become disengaged with politics. So the mere exposure has adverse consequences and that’s not talking about the people who believe in them. Secondly, we have data showing that the people who believe in conspiracy myths are less likely to comply with social distancing measures. So there is an association between not doing what you are supposed to do and believing in conspiracy myths. We do not know if there is a causal relationship but we know there is an association. The final thing is that ultimately conspiracy theorists are more prone to violence than others and are more likely to endorse violence as a means to resolve conflicts. So there are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about them and why we need to tackle the problem at hand.

“We do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread.” 

Q.: What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation?

S. L.: First of all we do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread. Ideally what could have been done right in the beginning of the pandemic would have been to communicate up front not only what we know about the virus but also what might happen during the pandemic with regards to conspiracy myths developing. There is evidence that shows that telling people how they will be misled is actually beneficial to building up resistance. On a societal level the moment to do so has passed, but we can still do it with new disinformation that may come along.

The second thing is, that you can correct things and you can get through to people who are spreading conspiracal narratives and it has been shown that not all people are completely resistant to correction. Sometimes the narratives are just used as a rhetorical device and for that group of people corrections can work and are a good device. For hard core conspiracy theorists where the myths have become part of their identity, that is not the case and talking them out of them is very difficult.

If (scientists) communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.”  

Q.: What can scientists themselves do to combat fake news?

S. L.: A lot. Scientists are among the most trusted people in most societies including Germany. If they communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.

“Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.” 

Q.: Some of the social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have started introducing fact checking. What is your opinion on those?

S. L.: I do not think there is a single magical silver bullet to the problem. We instead need to add up different measures and put them together to solve the issue. Labeling – if done correctly – can be very effective. What Twitter is doing is OKish but not good enough. What Facebook has done with Covid misinformation has been much better because they put an opaque banner on them that hid the headline so that you could not see it at first glance. That is much more effective than the little button twitter put underneath the information. To be effective you have to introduce friction that prevents access to the information that is critical. Not totally of course because that is censorship, but sufficiently so that it causes friction. The Facebook manipulation cut sharing of misinformation by 95 per cent which is very good and that shows that labeling can work, if it is done right.

But even before you get there what really needs to be done and needs to be discussed are the algorithms of the platform. Nothing you see on Facebook or Twitter is there accidentally but is put there by the algorithms. Those algorithms are often guiding users to extremist content and even though the platforms knew that they did not do anything against it because they were afraid that it would cut into their revenue. We therefore have to take a close look at the information diet that is created to us and we have to make them accountable for their activities. This is not about censorship but about mandating information and about holding platforms accountable. Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.

Q.: How likely do you think it is that this will happen sooner than later?

S. L.: In the United States we are probably not going to get there any time soon. In Europe chances are much higher. The European Union will be taking action and I have written an in depth report for them and hopefully they will use some of those ideas when it comes to introducing regulations.

“Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate.”

Q.: What would a good online discourse look like?

S. L.:  Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate. That is something we are not finding online at the moment but we know it works from deliberative assemblies like those in Ireland which debated topics like abortion and gay marriage. Topics with the potential to tear a country apart but that did not happen because they were led successfully. There is evidence that this can work online as well if you design spaces in which this can work. The moment you create those spaces and make them work you move away from the terribly polluted spaces that we are currently having.

Q.: One topic people are currently worried about is vaccinations and trust in vaccines. Are you worried that this will be a huge breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: It depends on the country you are talking about. I am worried about the situation in the U.K. because the government has not exactly a good track record in managing the pandemic and thus it is very likely to be problematic. In Germany I think it is much more likely to work well. Countries like Germany, New Zealand or Australia with well-functioning governments acting in the interest of the people will be able to deal with the situation well. What is crucial is to make the vaccine easily available and to make uptake easy. I don’t think we will be facing insurmountable problems especially if you make it mandatory to be vaccinated to be able to take part in certain activities we will be fine. Once again, inoculating people against being manipulated will be crucial and we should be planning those campaigns right about now.

 

Stephan Lewandowsky is professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Bristol. His research examines people’s memory, decision making, and knowledge structures, with a particular emphasis on how people update their memories if information they believe turn out to be false. This has led him to examine the persistence of misinformation and spread of “fake news” in society, including conspiracy theories.

He will speak at the session “Disinformation, Narratives and the Manipulation of Reality“ organized by ALLEA at the International Forum on Digital and Democracy on the 10th and the 11th of December. The session will present some of the findings of the JRC Report on Technology and Democracy: Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making by Stephan Lewandowsky and Laura Smillie.

This interview was conducted by Rebecca Winkels and was first published on the Wissenschaftskommunikation’s website. Credit picture: Stephan Lewandowsky. 

Defending Truth: From Pseudo-Science to Science Disinformation

Prof. Dan Larhammar is a molecular cell biology professor at the University of Uppsala, the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as well as the Chair of ALLEA’s new project ‘Fact or Fake: Tackling Science Disinformation’. In this interview, he shares with us insights into his work on tackling pseudo-science such as homeopathy and alternative medicine, as well as how these trends work to some extent in similar ways as science disinformation efforts.

 

Key takeaways:

  • “It is important to be aware that many who use or provide alternative medicine honestly believe that it works (…). The believers must be offered an honourable retreat, so to speak, if they are to abandon ideas they may have held for many years.”
  • “Science disinformation is a term used not only for different types of distortion of scientific facts but also attacks on science in order to undermine trust, for instance by spreading contradictory information, weaving conspiracy theories, questioning expertise, spreading false rumours about science and scientists, etc.”
  • “People are often extremely reluctant to abandon ideas that they find appealing for one reason or another, or ideas they have been holding for a long period of time. Such ideas may have become part of their personality. (…) Information may even back-fire and consolidate the false beliefs instead of replacing them with scientifically well-founded information.”

 

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Disinformation and the manipulation of reality

This session will explore the ethical dilemmas around disinformation and the use of narratives and emotions in manipulating reality. An increasingly influential stream of research demonstrates the integration of cognition and emotion in political decision-making. Political cognition is emotionally shaped. The role of narratives in shaping people’s minds has become an important area of research and debate, in particular in recent years when entire societies have made choices that seem “rationally” counterintuitive.

Fact or fake? New ALLEA project on tackling science disinformation

ALLEA is pleased to announce the launch of a new project, “Fact or Fake”, aimed at tackling science disinformation. The initiative will identify and discuss the root causes leading to science-averse attitudes in European countries, particularly focusing on disinformation campaigns on Covid-19, climate change, and vaccinations.

The project is led by a scientific committee composed of a multidisciplinary group of experts from across Europe. Its chair is Dan Larhammar, President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The scientific committee will:

  • Promote exchanges and linkages among research, policy, science and communications and media communities on practices and approaches to tackling science disinformation.
  • Develop strategies to address the loss of confidence and trust in scientific evidence.
  • Provide guidance to scientists, science communicators, journalists and policymakers in appropriate ways to navigate and address the issue of science disinformation.

The outcome of the project is aimed to address both the recipients and the creators of science disinformation, examining the problem through a multi-disciplinary lens. Target audiences include researchers and research institutions, science communication practitioners and journalists, as well as policymakers at the national and European levels. 

The project is supported by  Compagnia di San Paolo and builds upon ALLEA-related activities such as ALLEA Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise  and the Horizon 2020 project PERITIA, which explores the conditions under which people trust expertise used for shaping public policy.

World Science Forum 2019 – Budapest

Through the ALLEA Permanent Working Group Science and Ethics, as well as its recent publication “The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity”, ALLEA has reaffirmed its commitment to work on research integrity and ethics. To that end, we would like to highlight this year’s World Science Forum that takes place under the theme “Science, Ethics and Responsibility”.

Connecting Science and Society – 25th Anniversary of ALLEA

 

What role do European academies play in building bridges between the production of knowledge and its diffusion to society? How can they contribute to anchoring the values of the Enlightenment upon which scientific progress is based? ALLEA celebrated its 25th anniversary addressing those key questions through a two-day commemorative and scientific programme hosted by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences in Bern on 8-9 May.

Representatives of ALLEA Member Academies after the business meeting of the 2019 ALLEA General Assembly hosted by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. Credit: Eric Schmid

The event was part of the ALLEA General Assembly, the annual meeting of European Academies that brings together representatives of more than 50 academies from over 40 countries in Europe. This year, the programme was opened at the University of Bern with a session commemorating a quarter of a century of ALLEA on 8 May.

In his speech, ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno recalled the beginnings of ALLEA by the end of the Cold War when academies across Europe joined forces to build a new platform for interaction on the European level.

“ALLEA emerged 25 years ago in the wake of profound political changes. Changes that were taking place in Europe after 1989 and after the era of partition between the East and the West. Science became more globally interconnected and international collaboration of European academies more visible and indeed necessary,” Loprieno recalled.

As part of the anniversary session, the European Commission’s Director-General for Research and Innovation Jean-Eric Paquet delivered a congratulatory speech which reflected on the past and future of European science and the role of European academies in shaping the conditions for science and in providing science advice for the European Commission via SAPEA.

“25 amazing and exciting years when Europe and science changed tremendously, but also when science and Europe were challenged deeply and ALLEA was both witness and key actor of this remarkable period”, he remarked in his speech.


Honouring Mariana Mazzucato, 2019 Madame de Staël Prize laureate

The celebration was dedicated to memory and remembering ALLEA’s 25 years, but also to honouring forward-looking and innovative science. After the anniversary session, the 2019 All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize was handed over by Swiss Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin to Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in Economics of Innovation and Public Value at the University College London (UCL), and Founder and Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP).

The award ceremony was introduced by the President of Compagnia di San Paolo Francesco Profumo and included a laudatory speech by Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council.

Bourguignon praised Mazzucato’s work on the relation between innovation and economic growth, as well as her focus on challenging common misconceptions on the functioning of markets and the role of the state in innovation. He also remarked that Mazzucato is considered as one of the “scariest economists” of today, as many have labelled her.

In her acceptance speech, Mazzucato expressed her gratitude and honour to be awarded a prize named after Madame de Staël, who “contested the status quo” of her time and challenged those who called themselves revolutionaries such as Napoleon.

In a similar spirit, she challenged in her speech those in the innovation, science and technology community who are defining sometimes uncritically what innovation means for the economy and society at large.

“What are markets? What are values? What is public value? We need to redefine how public and private come together and really question who is at the table”, she remarked.

“Is the market the same as the private sector? The market itself is an outcome of how public and private, and third sector, or civil society organisations, come together, but also how they are individually governed”, Mazzucato pointed out.

Science and Society in Present-day Europe

The discussions continued on 9 May in the scientific symposium ‘Science and Society in Present-day Europe’ dedicated to exploring the interaction between science and society from different angles and actors. Speakers remarked on the “enhanced role” of scientific actors in today’s digital society as Bourguignon highlighted in his keynote speech.

Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Director of the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, focused on the need to promote interdisciplinary knowledge and the role of social sciences and humanities in the building of new visions and narratives for the future of society.

The Global Young Academy analysed the potential for a (Re-)Enlightenment to bridge the gaps between society and science, and to address new challenges such as mistrust in science or digitalisation.

In the next session, Science et Cité introduced an interactive session on how big scientific breakthroughs such as the moon landing shape the public perception of science.

SAPEA, the consortium of European academy networks providing scientific advice to policy as part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism, concluded the debates with a panel session on the role of science advice in tackling microplastics pollution.

 

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Call for contributions: Open Consultation on FAIR data in the Humanities

 

Working with data in the humanities? Consider contributing to the ALLEA e-Humanities draft recommendations.

 

At the General Assembly on 8th May 2019, the ALLEA E-Humanities Working Group launched on open consultation on draft recommendations for humanities researchers working with data. The goal is to gather broad feedback from active humanities researchers and tailor the recommendations to community needs.

A link to the draft recommendations and instructions for contributing are available on the E-Humanities Working Group homepage, or can be accessed directly here: http://bit.ly/ALLEADH

 

Open consultation

The consultation is open to all researchers and practitioners working in disciplines within the humanities, policymakers and representatives of all public and private organisations working in the field. We are particularly keen to hear from humanities researchers in ALLEA academies.

The consultation is open until 15th July 2019.

 

On FAIR data

The drive to promote and support Open Science is a global phenomenon propelled by the belief that the scientific process, and the range of outputs from that process, usually supported by public funds, should be open and transparent. Open Access to publications is one aspect of this agenda. Another is that access should be made available to the data and other research outputs that emerge from research, as outlined by the FAIR principles and the research practices they enable. The context for FAIR data and research data management is rapidly evolving, and currently coalescing around FAIR data.

About the ALLEA e-Humanities Working Group

The E-Humanities working group, composed of experts from across European academies, is committed to identifying and raising awareness for priorities and concerns of the humanities, with particular attention to current and emerging developments in digital practice. Currently, the Open Science agenda figures highly in research policy and research funder requirements, and is driving changes in research practice. To address this agenda, and facilitate the adoption of Open Science across the humanities, the working group has turned its attention to supporting humanities researchers in their research data management practices.

Download the flyer on the Open Consultation

Mariana Mazzucato receives the 2019 Madame de Staël Prize

Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at the University College London (UCL), honoured with the 2019 All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values in Bern.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato was awarded the 2019 All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values in Bern yesterday to honour her wide-ranging and stimulating work in the field of political economy and particularly her original contributions to understanding the role of the state in innovation. The Prize, endowed with €20,000, is supported by the foundation Compagnia di San Paolo.

Mazzucato is the sixth scholar to receive this prize, which was established in 2014 to commemorate a deep-rooted understanding of European culture as connected by an inherent diversity supported by a dynamic and vigorous intellectualism.

From left to right, Francesco Profumo (Compagnia di San Paolo), Antonio Loprieno (ALLEA), Mariana Mazzucato (University College London), Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (European Research Council), Guy Parlemin (Federal Councillor).

Antonio Loprieno, ALLEA President and chairman of the Prize jury, praised the distinctive career of Mazzucato. “Her scholarly work is characterised by both ingenuity and vision. With a thorough and incisive analysis, she has dug into the understanding of innovation, shedding light on the interplay between the state, business and research in our modern economy. Reminiscent of the critical mind shown by Madame de Staël, the jury honours Mazzucato as an outstanding scholar who is both helping to shape new narratives for Europe while strengthening our common values.

The award ceremony took place on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, during a solemn session hosted by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Humanities at the University of Bern. Mazzucato received the prize from the hands of Swiss Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin. The ceremony was introduced by Francesco Profumo, President of the Compagnia di San Paolo, and Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council, who delivered the laudatory speech.