Public Engagement at Bath

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Fake news and alternative facts

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Tess Legg is a postgraduate researcher in the Department for Health. She received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, she reflects on a panel discussion at the conference entitled 'Fake news and alternative facts: making the case for nature'.

The 2017 Communicate conference, ‘Navigating Change’ was a great couple of days. I really valued meeting and talking with people outside of academia, and hearing about people’s experiences of communicating environmental messages. On day two I particularly welcomed the discussion on ‘Fake news and alternative facts: making the case for nature’, where a panel (Steve Lewandowsky – University of Bristol, Adam Joinson - University of Bath, Dan Metcalfe – Wellcome Trust, Amy Mount – Greener UK) got together to discuss this post-truth era in which we find ourselves.

Speakers outlined ways in which misinformation (around environmental and non-environmental issues alike) is often disseminated through media channels. It was argued that media landscapes are becoming ever more riddled with misinformation, presented as balanced views. This makes it challenging for the public, and other interested stakeholders, to differentiate between something communicated as an attempt to push hidden agendas, and something communicated as a genuine attempt to contribute to shared knowledge.

Speakers on the panel outlined certain barriers that can inhibit the ability of those working on environmental and other issues to communicate their messages clearly, without obfuscation from others. These included social media issues such as Twitterbots, and fake grassroots accounts on Facebook, created to cause friction between different pockets of society.

As environmental communicators it is important to look at exactly what evidence is being disseminated, and by whom. And as both Steve and Adam outlined during the panel discussion, once misinformation has been taken into public consciousness, it can be difficult and complex to reduce its impact or to reverse or update public opinion (Cook and Lewandowsky, 2015).

When considering the ways in which multi-national corporations attempt to influence public opinion and policymaking, rhetoric from big business - which can seriously threaten environmental concerns – also feeds into public consciousness through means other than social media. One of the most well-known incidents of ways in which corporations have attempted to affect public opinion in order to prevent policymaking, is the fossil fuels industry’s denial of climate change (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). This has consisted of many different tactics designed to create scientific uncertainty, such as funding research and ensuring that results are favourable to industry, disseminating research indirectly through front groups to increase its perceived credibility, co-opting experts to communicate industry-friendly rhetoric, and attacking unfavourable research created by environmental scientists (and often the scientists themselves) (ibid).

Similar tactics to influence science have been uncovered within other industries that affect the environment. One example is the copper and gold mining companies attempting to obscure environmental damage caused by mining practices, by producing research that denies any harm is being done (Kirsch, 2014). Another is the cover-up of evidence concerning the potential of pesticide ‘Round Up’ to harm populations and environments, by agro-chemical company Monsanto (Gillam, 2017).

I am interested in these (and other) ways in which corporations contribute to a post-truth world through their attempts to influence science. My PhD research is about corporate influence on science and the use of science in policymaking, across different sectors (such as alcohol, fast food, tobacco, and industries contributing to pollution and climate change). I am particularly interested in conflicts of interest in research and how different groups understand them.

From this conference panel on post-truth, I came away feeling that it is really important to keep questioning what constitutes good scientific evidence, and who can be trusted to provide this. On day one of the conference, Tim Silman from Ipsos MORI showed us figures illustrating public trust in different professions. Scientists came out on top, with 80% of the public trusting them (journalists 24% and politicians only 15%).

Though this appears to be good news for science, it also means that for those attempting to co-opt experts, in order to disseminate pro-industry rhetoric around environmental issues, things perhaps become easier, as their messages may seem more trustworthy. I believe it to be critically important, now more than ever, that we view science (and the news articles and social media posts this science becomes) through a critical eye; always asking questions such as who has funded this research, and for what purpose.

Thank you so much all organisers behind Communicate 2017 for a thought-provoking conference, I look forward to more next year!

• Cook, J. and Lewandowsky, S. (2015) The Debunking Handbook.
• Gillam C. (2017) Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science. Washington, DC: Island Press.
• Kirsch, S. (2014) Mining Capitalism. The Relationship between Corporations and their Critics. Oakland, California: University of California Press
• Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. (2010) Merchants of Doubt. London. Bloomsbury Press; 2010.

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