Internet and social media: can science compete against the spreading of false information?

Louis Mazurkiewicz.

Today, a huge portion of the world’s population has access to many different online news providers which enable them to be informed on pretty much everything that is happening on Earth. Amongst that huge portion, most have close to complete freedom on what they can read and write. However, this huge liberty that many have fought for in the past, or are still fighting for today, is facing a tough battle against false information. The consequence of such freedom is that, currently, anything can be written and said over the internet with little possibility of source verification. The latest possible victim of this issue is paradoxically, and amusingly for some, Donald Trump*.

Monitoring everything that is written over the internet is practically impossible. Even if it were achievable, the implementation of a high power, which would effectively have control on what could or could not be written over the internet, would clearly be against the concept of freedom of expression. Currently applied laws are helpful in drawing a line on what cannot be tolerated on the internet, such as denying the holocaust or inciting towards racial hate, but show their limitations in stopping the spreading of false news and unverifiable facts. Anybody can create a website and spread their ideas and manipulate facts just to fuel an ideologically driven way of thinking with little preoccupation about censorship. Even though the most extreme of these websites attract a restricted amount of individuals it is important to have the power to counter their claims and proliferation.

The impact of social media in the increase in false information is however more alarming than independent websites as they touch onto a larger crowd. As it could be seen during the crisis in Aleppo, both pro- and anti-Assad partisans were spreading photos which were taken out of their context and put into the crisis. The pictures of a little girl running amongst laying bodies in East Aleppo and the Syrian soldier (which actually turned out to be Iraqi) bending over to help a rescued woman off a truck were largely shared until they were shown to have nothing to do with this conflict[1]. These two examples are amongst many others and show the power that social media have in the manipulation of facts. Even though social media have moderators or people who scrutinise what is written on them to debunk any false information, it can take a non-negligible amount of time before something untrue is taken down.

This phenomenon of using false or manipulated information is unfortunately not restricted to certain websites and individuals on social media. Since the beginning of the 21st century, this issue has been spreading progressively to the world of politics. Recently, the Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns have shown that facts can be downgraded to a position of secondary importance. Similar to what is observed on social media, any argument can be made using manipulated or false facts in order to appeal emotionally to voters rather than their critical thinking. Once in power, the realisation of promises made tend to face the difficulties of reality. Only time will tell if the NHS will get 100 million pounds of funding per week once the UK leaves the EU or if Mexico will pay for “The Wall”. This new post-truth political culture surfs on the idea that anything can be said as long as it appeals emotionally to the voters. As the leader of the 5 star movement in Italy, Beppe Grillo, urged when voting in the referendum for the change in constitution back in December: “You should not vote with your head, but rather with your guts”[2].

One can ask themselves about why this new way of approaching politics and facts is becoming more and more popular. The enormous amount of information each individual is subject to plays a big role in this. More or less anything can be found over the internet (and on television) which means people tend to base their source of information on a restraint number of providers which lean towards their particular beliefs and ideals. The amount of time needed to analyse as many different sources of information in order to build up an opinion a certain subject is too consuming to be widespread amongst people in society. The major consequences of this are that there is little diversification of information for each individual and that, in order to attract as many readers or viewers as possible, more and more media resort to the use of sensationalism.

To comprehend what is happening today and how information is perceived it is interesting to look back at our past. During the last century the amount of media was much sparser than today. There would be a few television channels and the traditional newspapers. The effect of this was that the majority of society only had mainstreams sources of facts and would mostly take them for granted. The amount of work to put in to be informed would therefore be much lower and it would take an individual or politician a considerable amount of time to break down a widespread opinion on a certain information. With the increase of different sources, many divergent views started to be confronted and the strength of mainstream information was weakened.

The point is not to be nostalgic about a time where there would only be one perfect source of unbiased facts. The increase in information providers has had many advantages as it has permitted the expression of different points of view, increased the freedom of the press and decreased the hegemony of traditional media. The advent of internet and social media has particularly accelerated the loss of dominance of the mainstream media. However, at present, the amount of received information tends to show its prejudices. With so many different sources, who can we believe when being given facts? Were we manipulated in the past, and still today, by the mainstream media? Are many of the new information providers, which tend to have more extreme views than traditional providers, composed of altruistic people who want to shed light onto the reality of what is actually going on in the world? As a scientist, the ideas of truth and evidence are an enormously important concept, so who should we believe?

Not knowing who to be believe creates a particular symptom that is observed on social media which is the paranoia people have towards information. More and more people believe that they are being lied to by the mainstream media and hence tend to be attracted towards less traditional information providers. The belief that mainstream media feed propaganda which benefit the elites and the governments in place is well anchored amongst a certain amount of people in society. Although this may well be true in some (most?) cases, it shows how fragile the perception and acknowledgment of facts and information can be.

A possible explanation to why paranoia is so widely spread amongst information receivers is that, contrary to scientific research, it is in most cases impossible to have access to raw facts and make a personal opinion on them. Apart from raw video footages, which are most of the time self-explanatory, the access to information has to come through the filter of a certain information provider and how the latter interprets this information. The successful Brexit and Trump campaigns are clearly signs that there exists a non-negligible amount of people in society that have lost faith in the way information is treated by the mainstream media but even more alarmingly in the experts that are invited to express themselves on the latter. It is entirely normal, and even essential, to have a critical mind-set towards experts as it has been seen that some so-called experts have sometimes said completely false things. People in Birmingham can remember learning from Steve Emerson on Fox News that their city was a “no-go zone” for non-Muslims[3]. However, not listening to experts at all in favour of politicians should not be the new norm. This should be distressing to scientists as they too are the victims of this.

This issue of not being listened to should be well known to scientists, particularly in the case of climate change. The Consensus Project[4] state that 97% of climate scientists agree with the contribution of humans in global warming, however climate scepticism is becoming increasingly popular in society. It is distressing to see in this case that politicians are being listened to more than nearly the whole of a scientific community. If scientists don’t effectively stand up with more vehemence this will ultimately lead to the win of post-truth politics over scientific evidence. It is crucial for scientists to look outside their lab and their comfort zone to deal with political issues society faces. As a scientist, it is also a shame to observe that only three members of Theresa May’s cabinet have a scientific educational background.

The challenge that information faces should be a major concern to scientists. The quest for knowledge and resolution of problems relies on the possibility of having access to unbiased facts. This statement should not only apply for scientific research but also for everyday news and policy development. As Kathleen Higgins argues rightfully, scientists must be more concerned about this and must stand up to promote the ideals of science such as critical thinking, sustained inquiry and revision of beliefs on the basis of evidence[5]. The social mission of science, which is to provide the best information and explanation of our world and universe, has never been as important. The way forward, as when debunking climate sceptics, has to be to let people be faced with clear and unbiased facts but even more importantly: reliable sources.  Scientists should thrive to not only have unbiased scientific evidence but also correct information on topics outside of science.

*Accurate as of the 12th of January 2017.

[1] Fake images about Aleppo circulate on social media. The Observers, France24, 15/12/2016.

[2] Beppe Grillo, l’amuseur qui fait trembler le système. Andrés Allemand, Tribune de Genève, 06/01/2017.

[3] Fox News ‘Terror Expert’ says everyone in Birmingham is a Muslim. Raf Sanchez, The Telegraph, 12/01/2015.

[4] theconsensusproject.com

[5] Post-truth: a guide for the perplexed. Kathleen Higgins, Nature, Volume 540, Issue 7631, 01/12/206

Internet and social media: can science compete against the spreading of false information?

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