Written by Eszter Fay.
Fake news? Disinformation? Misinformation?
Misinformation is always troubling, not least in science. Scientists feel distress when public understanding diverges from facts. Intentional disinformation (fake news) is not, however, the only source of misinformation. Citizens living in modern democratic societies frequently face the dilemma of whether to consider true or false – and accept or reject – information they receive concerning climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified agricultural products, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or Covid‑19.
Misinformation is not new – but the information ecosystem within which it is now spreading is. The public sphere has evolved into a completely new phase, where information filtering mechanisms are often ineffective. The producers of messages disseminated through social media can broadcast news unchecked by any scientific or editorial authority. We have entered a world of public communication where facts play a limited role in substantiating the content of the statements.
Political misinformation and disinformation have always existed. What is different today is that contemporary lies by populist actors often have no apparent purpose, but create a climate of shocks and chaos. Although misinformation is a topical issue, there is little consensus concerning the different types of misinformation, however. McCright and Dunlap have recognised the need to differentiate between types of misinformation in order to know how to deal with them. Yet, their types – ‘truthiness, bullshit, systemic lies, and shock-and-chaos’ – are mostly connected with political misinformation and disinformation.
Disinformation is a hot topic today and is of course a global phenomenon, but may also have a correlation with how new and older democratic societies present and teach scientific achievements and innovation in their education systems. The topic of fake news has been extensively studied in political science, but surprisingly enough, no study has dealt with fake science news. As mentioned above, misinformation that contains intentionally false information is known as disinformation, and fake science news usually falls into this category.
Part of the mission of the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), operating under the political responsibility of the EP’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), is to identify and disseminate trustworthy information sources in the field of science. During a health emergency, it is essential to explore how science information circulates and how people get their news and knowledge about science and new technology. In this context, the ESMH supported a project to conduct a survey examining the spread of disinformation among young people in some countries of Central Europe and in Italy, to explore the public understanding of scientific topics and address the damaging impact of disinformation and junk science.
The survey outcomes were presented to the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) at its meeting on 19 April 2021. The recording is available here.
Gullibility of false science news in central European countries
The ESMH/STOA study ‘Disinformation and Science – A survey of the gullibility of students with regard to false scientific news’ resulting from the above ESMH project discusses the disinformation phenomenon, its causes related to social trust and types of media consumption among university students in Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Hungary, northern Italy and Slovakia. The survey was coordinated by Professor György Csepeli from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest.
How to tackle the infodemic?
In the midst of the research, Europe was hit by the coronavirus pandemic that highlighted the radically new features of our information ecosystem by magnifying the most controversial aspects of the public sphere. Falsehood has literally become a lethal problem on an unprecedented scale. Pandemics affecting our health will come and go, but the pandemic of misinformation (known as the ‘infodemic’) will stay. The lesson to be drawn from the survey’s results is that, to tackle the infodemic, there is a need to enhance the level of public trust in science. Consumers and producers of social media should be motivated and trained to use fact-checking mechanisms enabling them to distinguish between true and false information. Furthermore, misinformation consumed by credulous persons should be distinguished from disinformation that is manufactured intentionally to cause havoc.
Myths are no doubt inherent parts of the human mind-set. However, myths cannot serve as the only means of constructing reality. Real knowledge, in contrast, lies in recognising information and thoughts produced by trustworthy sources. Science communication alone, however, does not guarantee against inaccuracies and errors. Real wisdom is the art of doubting: this is a lesson Europeans can draw from this experience.
The EuroScience Open Forum 2020 Roundtable
The ESMH/STOA study findings were also presented at an earlier ESOF2020 roundtable discussion on 4 September 2020. The EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) is a biennial, pan-European, general science conference dedicated to scientific research. The 2020 event brought together over 4 500 leading thinkers, innovators, policy-makers, journalists and educators from more than 90 countries, to discuss current and future breakthroughs in contemporary science.
The ESOF roundtable ‘Perspectives on science-related fake news among young people in Central-Eastern Europe and Italy’ was opened by Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), STOA Chair. The project team members presented the results of the survey. Keynote speaker Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol addressed the questions of science, misinformation and conspiracy theories in the age of Covid‑19. The ESMH and its activities during the corona crisis were presented at another ESOF2020 panel session devoted to science communication in times of crisis.
Your opinion matters! If you read our study or watched the presentation, let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 A. M. McCright and R. E. Dunlap, Combatting Misinformation Requires Recognizing Its Types and the Factors That Facilitate Its Spread and Resonance, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2017, 6(4) 389-396.