Social media, special interest groups, and the spread of scientific misinformation

I recently read a great blog post about issues with the spread of misinformation via social media. If you are a social media user, I’m sure this is something you are familiar with. How often have you gone on Facebook and seen “16 dead in tragic roller coaster accident in Orlando” all over the page? Yeah, that’s a hoax. People love to click on stuff like that though, which is why people involved in phishing love to proliferate such stories. If you’ve never heard of that hoax, maybe you have heard of this one:

(agent-x.com.au)

(everyone who has an email account has several of these messages sitting in their spam folder. This is the kind of phishing that leads to viruses and identity theft, both of which are pretty bad news for the individuals involved.

However, I’m not here to talk about these (you should know how to identify them, though. Try looking here for some “pro-tips”). I’m here to talk about another issue in social media use: the spread of false or skewed scientific information. Is it a problem? Short answer: yes absolutely (i.e.: Megalodon is still extinct and mermaids aren’t really (sorry, I know this is sad)). I should also take the time to point out that social media is a wonderful, fast, and effective way to reach large audiences and connect with the entire world. I think it is great. I also know it can actually be used to spread useful (and factual) information fast (i.e. Boston Marathon bomb, any serious weather event, most emergency situations, etc…). However, not everyone uses responsibly. Americans have the right to freedom of speech and press and, as such, they can say or write pretty much anything they want. I’m not here to argue about that at all. I am here to point out that sometimes thing can go totally wrong.

The example from the blog post I mentioned earlier comes from alarmist reporting about the Yellowstone supervolcano.

An inforgraphic, just in case you have never heard of this event (cuttingedge.org)

Obviously an eruption would be rather detrimental to life on this continent, but there are no hard data suggesting that this event will occur within the next year. Unfortunately, there was a malfunction sensor in the park a while back and it reported data directly to a public website. The public (and the doomsday crowd) saw this and started sharing it all over Facebook and Twitter. Yellowstone reported a huge increase in queries about the caldera. I encourage you to read the story here. This is a great example of what not to do. If you want to disseminate science, you should probably fact check. Alarmist responses don’t really help anyone.

At present, Yellowstone is beautiful and fascinating. Go check it out.  (yellowstone.net)

Sensationalism and false statements (accidental or otherwise) can be quite detrimental. Take the Ebola scare. A patient in the US has Ebola right now and people are worried about a possible pandemic. It is not a ridiculous notion to be concerned about such things. However, it seems likely that such an issue will not occur in this country. I’m not an expert on medicine or global health, and I don’t pretend to be. I am a scientist though and I did some of my own research on Ebola. I won’t get into it, but if you want to hear what actual health experts think, I suggest a quick google search. You can also check out this thread on Reddit r/science (which is moderated by scientists. People who are experts are forced to vet their credentials and will only receive a credential next to their username after vetting).

The spread of misinformation is not new (as you can see from the featured image of the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline), nor is it strictly related to social media. Special interest groups love misinformation. Think about tobacco companies, any election ever, or even global climate issues. The Guardian just posted am interesting article about how global warming was really a battle for the opinions of Evangelical Christians (check it out). While I really am not a fan of relating climate change to anything as polarizing (and unrelated) as politics or religion, the article makes a great point.  The group they are writing about is an Evangelical group that is attempting to persuade anyone who will listen that climate change policy (to reduce CO2 emmisions and the like) is a bad idea because it is bad for the poor and because the Earth was created to be able to adapt. Believe what you want about how the Earth got here, but it honestly has nothing to do with warming scenarios. The “experts” chosen by the group to make scientific claims are two of the handful of climate scientists who oppose the 97% consensus on climate change in the field. That is a problem. You need a representative sampling to make a claim. For every one who opposes the consensus that humans are the major driving force behind the changing climate, there is an army who would speak out with the other opinion (based on scientific evidence and years of research). Even worse, the group is making claims that clean energy initiatives would be bad for the poor (because they can’t afford to switch from cheap fossil fuels to renewable energy). In reality, the countries that burn the least greeenhouse gases (essentially, countries that are less developed), are often the most at risk in climate change scenarios.

(theguardian.com)

Think about it. Regions that are agrarian rely heavily on consistent rain and weather patterns to grow and tend crops. If they cannot grow their crop effectively, they will lose their greatest source of income (and food, clothing, goods, etc…). Drought and altered weather patterns (more extreme storms, hotter hots, and cooler cools) can drastically affect crops. Poorer countries also have less infrastructure to deal with storms, storm damage, severe weather, health issues, etc… There is less access to air conditioning and heat (and power in general), the list can go on and on. Climate denial is frustrating, but attempting to spread this particular piece of misinformation is worse. Telling people that green initiatives, clean energy, and any attempt to slow fossil fuel burning would actually harm some of the people if could help the most is wrong. It recognize that industrializing nations that rely on fossil fuels to advance their countries and make money may suffer financial losses. I also recognize that fully industrialized nations and world powers may have the same problem. This issue is complicated and that is why making policy about it is difficult. I don’t want to force my opinions on anyone, so I am going to leave you with a quote and a comic that I really like.

This is a quote from Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who opposes the group mentioned above: “The foundation of the Christian faith is about loving others as Christ loved us, and it is clear from the work that I do myself as well as I see from other colleagues that those with the least resources to adapt to a changing climate will be most affected by our actions.”

And this is my favorite (non-Peanuts) comic:

(planetsave.com)

 

Please be weary of what you read. Fact check things you see on social media. Ask other people, explore the possibilities. Listen to vetted experts and become an informed citizen of the world.

Lastly, if you are thinking about retweeting, sharing, forwarding, or posting about a topic, make sure you aren’t spreading false science (without a disclaimer). Be careful out there!

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One thought on “Social media, special interest groups, and the spread of scientific misinformation

  1. Clare Flourish

    Indeed. There was a meme of the Pope going around, quoted as saying things he could not possibly have said, if you know anything about it. It makes me trust facebook shares less.

    -Why would the scientists lie?
    -Well, they are atheists. They do not understand what Truth is.

    How can you get through to someone who thinks like that?

    Thank you for following. Come and comment: the comment relationships make this hobby worthwhile.

    Reply

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