Scientists have growing concern about rise of misinformation online: Report

This June 16, 2017 file photo shows social media app icons on a smartphone held by an Associated Press reporter in San Francisco. Google yourself. Organize your online photos. And as one private high school advises its students: Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want your grandma to see. The AP spoke with experts about the role of social media in the college admissions process. They offered advice to students on what to post — and what not to post — if you’re trying to get into college. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

A new report shows that scientists and researchers have growing concerns about the rise of misinformation during the pandemic and the growing role they have in helping to combat disinformation on social media.

“Over the past two years, we’ve all seen a lot of public debate about the latest research on COVID-19 and who and what to trust and believe,” said Anne Gabriel, head of the US Trust Survey and senior vice president of global strategic networks at Elsevier, in a statement.

“One thing that was very evident in our study with Economist Impact was that, in addition to their regular research activities, researchers are now also working increasingly to combat false and misleading information and abuse online, and they want support for this,” she said.

The global report from Elsevier, first reported on Yahoo Finance, was conducted between December 2021 and August 2022, surveying more than 3,100 researchers, including 290 in the U.S.

It showed that 79% of US researchers believe the pandemic has increased the importance of science, while 51% believe the pandemic has shown the need for scientific information to be available more quickly – as in non-peer-reviewed studies during clinical trials of the vaccine.

That’s why leading scientific journals like The Lancet are starting to have peer reviews for preprints, adding another level of quality control to data coming out quickly, according to Anne Kitson, the publication’s senior vice president and managing director.

But more context needs to follow the preprints to have a more informed debate in the public square.

“Even though the public had a thirst and a hunger for science, it didn’t necessarily show an understanding,” Kitson said of pandemic knowledge.

“So what we’ve learned from this is that research needs to think more carefully about how they communicate their research in context,” she said.

The report reinforced a debate that had been going on before the pandemic about the role of scientists in combating misinformation and their use of social media, according to Elsevier spokeswoman Esra Erkal.

Some 27% of American researchers believe it is their role to publicly challenge misinformation, compared to just 13% who feel confident in communicating their research. And even if they are confident, the malice that has taken hold on social media platforms is another obstacle to properly communicating science.

Forty-four percent of the researchers said they or someone they knew had experienced some type of abuse or violent interactions online.

Kitson said that as the pandemic unfolded in real time, the debates had become very strong, but that sense of urgency has diminished a bit now.

“I think it’s just the crisis of the moment that caused this intensity of communication, but it’s also true that there was so much at stake in terms of reputation,” she said.

Added to which was a layer of geopolitics. American researchers were more likely to report a hostile online environment than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and China, according to the report.

That’s why The Lancet and other organizations and academic institutions will now need to think more proactively about their approach to social media, Kitson said.

Especially since researchers are used to a slower communication process – and like to stick to facts and data rather than extrapolate and engage in more general public discussions.

The researchers are “very confident in communicating their research. I think they worry a lot about the dimension of talking on social media,” Kitson said.

“We can certainly give them a lot more training than we did.”

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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