Corona, Fake News and Trustworthy Science
A Column by Thorsten Beck
Everyday habits, such as shopping or going to the hairdresser's, are only possible with precautions or restrictions, the usual routines and patterns of movement are rescinded. New rules are introduced almost daily, and between disaster reports, slogans of perseverance and declarations of solidarity, the polyphony of a world population disturbed by insecurity and fear penetrates through social networks, blogs and hectically shared news. Fake news is once again the topic, as is the question of what is appropriate, sensible and reasonable in such a situation.
The virus certainly affects health and the economy – but also has a serious impact on how people process and perceive information – what we expect, what we believe in, what we hope for and what we can rely on. The factual reporting of many media is occasionally overshadowed by the constant noise from the internet and in the long term – so the assumption – the virus will further undermine confidence in the reliability of information, and scientific research can do little to change this, despite so many efforts. The trustworthiness and the integrity of science are at stake in this crisis. Regardless of whether science is idealized or criticized – its special role in this situation creates particular risks. There are a number of reasons for this.
Is the Integrity of Science at Stake?
In recent months, scientists around the world have made an important contribution to finding an adequate response to the current challenge. In some ways, the spread of fake news about current events is reminiscent of the US election campaign of 2016. Similar to that time, the topic of fake news is once again omnipresent. Indeed – countless false reports about the causes, symptoms, or treatment options of the COVID-19 virus are buzzing around the Internet, especially through social networks such as Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook. The general excitement serves as an incubator and catalyst for any news, no matter how abstruse. There is wild speculation on the internet as to whether the virus came from a Chinese laboratory, whether it was transmitted by a bat soup, whether the virus was caused by the 5G mobile phone network, or whether it could be fought by chlorine dioxide. A number of deaths are reported to have occurred in Iran because people had followed the advice to drink methanol to kill the virus. A pandemic whose causes and consequences leave so much room for speculation is the ideal breeding ground for rumors that fuel fear, and is also easy to integrate into existing world explanation patterns. "Who benefits from the current situation?" – "Where does the virus come from and who does it affect?" – "Aren't restrictions on freedom a means of controlling the masses?" – Such and similar questions usually copy the virtues of the Enlightenment, but then use propagandistic means. The line between satire, criticism and propaganda is also narrow on this subject. Hermetically closed views of the world are rarely accessible to arguments. At the same time, it must be asked to what extent the widespread belief in the independence of science once again amounts to an ideology. If scientists, such as the physician Wolfgang Wodarg even contradict the measures of the government and the opinion of other scientists, they are sure to attract widespread attention, and for the non-medically trained layperson it is sometimes not so easy to decide who to believe. Citizens must ultimately be able to rely on the voice of science and politics to assess risks, but what criteria can be used to check their integrity?
From Pandemic to Infodemic
Falsified news and rumors are not surprising at first glance, one could even claim they are ‘human’. Opinions quickly turn into facts and supposed "facts" underpin world-views, justify motives, or legitimize convictions – even if these cannot be scientifically maintained. The special situation in which many people currently find themselves favors such processes: In a time when information is shared via social networks, rumors are spreading rapidly – potentially even more so since people are forced to stay in their own homes. "Otherwise, people who might have been reading and editing their messages after work might now be sitting in their home office and reacting much faster to the messages." (https://www.bmbf.de/de/so-gehen-sie-richtig-mit-fake-news-zu-corona-um-11226.html)
The definition of what is meant by the collective term Fake News is often anything but clear. Propaganda and lies are often lumped together with jokes and satire, as if it were the same issues to criticize something satirically, to exaggerate something, or to slander, misrepresent and defame it. Joking false reports often become a problem even when they are taken out of context and mistaken for the truth.
In the meantime, however, there has also been an intensive examination of the phenomenon of fake news. Especially the possible effects of fake news on voter behavior and the resulting danger for democracy are seen as an acute problem in many places. In recent years librarians, scientists, politicians and media representatives have endeavored to deepen their knowledge of the motives behind the production of fake news, to understand its distribution and to develop and provide instruments for the detection of fake news. In doing so, the limits of what fact-checking websites, automated crap-detectors, or step-by-step tutorials can do are limited. After all, fake news and disinformation are not easy to combat precisely because their success depends not only on changing communication channels, but also because they confirm existing world-views. It sounds banal: News is believed to be true if it confirms what feels true – experts call this a "confirmation error", or "confirmation bias".
Credible Information or Perceived Truth?
Other cognitive distortions influence what people consider credible. People judge the world and situations they encounter on the basis of what they know (availability heuristics) – even if our knowledge of a subject is limited and we are not experts, we believe we are competent to judge a complex situation or question. On topics that affect many, many also have a firm opinion: the more important a topic is, the more (self-appointed) experts take the floor. Hardly anyone will readily admit not to know about something, only few are prepared to admit their own ignorance. The more people believe in something and spread a message, the more likely it is that it will be judged as true – the so-called “idler effect”. Most people in Germany, for example, are confident that they can judge the integrity of information quite well. In 2018, 47% of German citizens were confident that they could distinguish fake news from real news.
Given the extent of disinformation, one could lose confidence in humanity, but at the same time there are now numerous efforts to promote general information literacy among broad sections of the population. False news around Corona is only part of the problem. The integrity of information does not only depend on people being able to recognize fake news. Even beyond the phenomenon of fake news, the current situation is a particular challenge for science. This is partly because scientists play a special role in the crisis.
Experts have gone public in order to inform about the risks and the scope for action. This important role as informers and advisors to decision-makers and politicians, and not least to large sections of the population, has made an important contribution to a relative stabilization of the rate of new infections. Still, criticism is occasionally voiced, especially when different experts arrive at different risk assessments, or when measures recommended by science no longer appear to be proportionate. Then it sometimes seems as if it were not about facts and knowledge, but about opinions and interpretations. Against the background of a situation in which strict measures can have a deep impact on an individual's lifestyle and can even mean a reduction in quality of life, it is perhaps not surprising that the experts themselves become the target of criticism when the reputation of "armchair epidemiologists" – who have never seen a laboratory from the inside – is criticized.
The Salvation-Bringing Dilemma
Science is also expected to provide answers to challenges that are new and unprecedented – at least if one takes social evaluation as a yardstick. The widespread expectation is that a scientifically developed solution should be available as soon as possible to secure the economic system and save as many lives as possible. That solution could be a suitable vaccine. Today we live in a world in which many processes are scientifically measured and controlled. Countless measuring stations allow weather forecasts to be made, the seabed is explored, human curiosity reaches deep into space. We are used to getting answers from science. This, however, confronts science with a dilemma – on the one hand, results should be available as quickly as possible, on the other hand, there is the danger of damaging scientific integrity if quality standards are not followed because time pressure forces shortcuts.
Even if an effective solution were to be found, the risk of losing reputation remains because a breakthrough in the fight against the pandemic involves considerable financial incentives. It does not take much imagination to picture the theories of countless conspiracy theorists. Whether the accusation is that "there are no longer any real scientists, only academics who cower" is really true, one may well view with caution. But an exaggerated belief in science, the idealization of science, certainly carries its own risk. After all, science is of course always tied to interests and must be critically reflected in its means and findings and thus remain open to criticism if it is to continue to exist as a "systemically relevant variable". It is precisely a situation like the current crisis that poses a particular danger: for science to become all too aware of its importance for society, or for science to subject itself to the interests of industry and dominant narratives.
Scholarship has always had to deal with criticism and accusations; this is the case today and should not change in the future. Criticism of scientific research is desirable, because an open democratic society thrives when measures can be questioned and criticized. Conspiracy theorists still suspect, of course, that there is a truth behind the truth, but the highest possible degree of transparency about all measures – about the way a risk is assessed and about the financial and structural consequences of this crisis should be an absolute goal for all stakeholders.
Idealization and Disenchantment
The integrity of science should therefore be of particular interest at this time. All involved stakeholders – the numerous representatives of politics, media and science – must work to ensure that research is protected from excessive expectations, from slander and the imputation of unfair motives, as well as from idealization. The extent to which this is possible and the limits to it should be subject to public discussions.
Neither should the role of the experts in demand be overestimated and blind faith in science be allowed to spread, nor should science be used in the medium term as a scapegoat for possible setbacks or possible economic and structural consequences of the crisis. Ultimately, the responsibility for reporting on the corona virus today lies not only in the hands of journalists, reporters or commentators, but in the hands of society as a whole. Every one of us is responsible for making a contribution to the information ecology that shapes our coexistence not only during the crisis, but far beyond it.