Stopping the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is the best 2021 New Year’s resolution

Anxiety and other negative emotions can cause us to spread misinformation. (Shutterstock)

This article was originally published in The Conversation Canada on January 6, 2021.

As we begin a new year and head back (at least virtually) to work and school, we might be thinking about personal things we would like to improve. Some people resolve to exercise more, stick to a budget or cut out sugar from their diet. Others resolve to write that book, use social media less or volunteer in their communities. These are all great ideas, and I’d like to add another one.

Though we all made our New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 1, I respectfully suggest a January resolution that would, if we each committed to it, produce a large positive impact on society. This year, I resolve — and would like to encourage others to resolve — to stop the spread of misinformation at the individual level.

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Stopping the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is the best 2021 New Year’s resolution

We Are What We Attend To

What are you paying attention to? What do you scroll past on social media, or tune out when someone else is speaking?

A new study published in the journal Vaccine looks at the way different groups responded when confronted with vaccination arguments. In this work, authors Helge Giese, Hansjörg Neth,  Mehdi Moussaïd, Cornelia Betsch, and Wolfgang Gaissmaier from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the University of Erfurt (all in Germany) refute a common assumption held by those who study the communication of sensitive or political topics. The widely-held understanding is that exposure to a message negating a person’s existing point of view, will create a rebound effect that will move their opinion even farther away from the message than where it started. This study contradicts the rebound effect hypothesis, suggesting instead that selective attention means that exposure to a contradictory message has little impact on the person hearing it.

Selective attention can mean ignoring the message entirely, or surrounding oneself with others who do not believe the message. Selective attention can also mean tuning out contradictory messages and only tuning into to messages that confirm existing points of view. We are what we pay attention to.

This message is not new per se, and has existed in some ancient schools of thought, such as buddhism, which suggest that mindfulness has power to shape reality. In this line of thinking, we are both what we pay attention to, and are disempowered when we fail to pay attention. Enlightenment is somewhere close to full attention.

In the case of misinformation spread and polarization, I think we all need to ask ourselves what we’re paying attention to, and what we dismiss because it doesn’t fit our conceptions of the world. We need to pay special attention to what we dismiss. In this case, a little dose of mindfulness directed at our own response to contradictory information will help reduce each one of our tendencies towards polarization and group-think.

What are you attending to? What do you dismiss?

We Are What We Attend To

Great Moments in Scholarly Communication

Today I want to highlight a really stunning example of Scholarly Communication on Twitter. Chelsea Vowel, Twitter handle @apihtawikosisan has set the bar high, taking a talk that she has put together, and reproducing it as a Twitter thread, for the reason, she says of initiating a broader conversation. I’ve embedded the first tweet here, please read the whole thread – it’s worth it.

There are a few reasons why I can’t stop thinking about this thread as a fantastic example of research or science communication – both in general and on social media. I’ll list them here:

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Great Moments in Scholarly Communication

New Online Resource: About Online Harassment

For the past 18 months, I have been part of a research team that looks at the effects of online harassment for researchers and scholars who need to be on social media for the purposes of their work.

Words Stigmitize: an image of angry heads with tongues pointing at a small sad person in the cornder
“Words Stigmitize” by Antonis Margaronis is licensed under CC by-nc-nd 4.0

This  project relates to my general research program of understanding how information that is in the public interest can be spread online, and what the barriers are to the spread of information in this context.

Working on the question of online harassment has given me the opportunity to work with a fantastic team of super smart and caring people. We’ve interviewed scholars and researchers, launched a large scale survey, and produced papers, conference presentations, op-eds and YouTube explainer videos. Now we’re very excited to launch a website intended to showcase our research on this project to date, and also serve as a resource for scholars and researchers who use online tools to promote themselves or their work.

 

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New Online Resource: About Online Harassment

Women and Girls in Science – The Digital Communication Edition

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

Truly women and girls have made tremendous advances in the sciences, however the UN reports that women still only make up less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide. This means we must do more work to ensure that this type of work is welcoming to women, and doesn’t push them out. While many initiatives focus on growing the pipeline for women and girls in science by providing new opportunities to involve girls in science and STEM, and while this is certainly a laudable goal, there a fewer initiatives that address the stresses women face as women who enter traditionally male-dominated fields. This is what I’d like to address here.

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009
“Science Careers in Search of Women 2009” by Argonne National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0

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Women and Girls in Science – The Digital Communication Edition

Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

an image of a footpath warn through grass, beside a sidewalk. A sign says "please use sidewalk" but it is clear people are not obeying the sign.
Design vs. experience: by Dale Calkins on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dalecalkins/status/774998979054415872

Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).

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Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

The Data Divide: Who Gets to Know About You?

According to recent research at the Social Media Lab in Toronto, Canada, Canadians are somewhat comfortable with academic researchers accessing their social media data. 56% of Canadians indicate that they are ok with their data being used for academic research purposes. In contrast, only 34% of Canadians feel comfortable with marketers accessing their social media data, but this discomfort is unfortunately at odds with the way social media companies make money, meaning every day Canadians are exposing themselves to the groups which they don’t really (when asked) want to access their data.

A subway platform with the words "mind the gap" written on the floor
“Mind The Gap” by Allen Brewer is licensed under CC by 2.0

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The Data Divide: Who Gets to Know About You?

What can sustainability communicators learn from social media marketers?

Recently, Ann Dale, Jamie Clifton-Ross and I wrote an article for the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing. In it, we detailed a case study about Canada Research Connections (@CRCResearch) and how we applied social media marketing concepts, specifically content curation strategies, to more broadly engage a broad audience with academic research on sustainability.

An image showing arrows between two word bubbles and the phrase social media marketing
“Social Media Marketing” by Jerry Nihen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over two years, we took a deliberate approach grounded in best practices in social media strategy. We attempted to build a network of interested followers friends, we engaged in reciprocity, sharing the posts produced by others, and we deliberately used engaging visuals, narratives, and accessible language in our posting. Furthermore, we ensured that we were posting to social media platforms on a regular schedule, and posting according to the times that were most appropriate for each platform. Finally, we tailored our content to suit different platforms. Longer posts and videos for facebook, short bite-sized content and retweets with images on Twitter, Strong images and short videos on Instagram, and longer videos with animations on YouTube. Every approach we followed was well known in the social media marketing world, but interestingly was not broadly used in science or sustainability communication. Instead, these communication domains tend to rely primarily on a more just the facts style communication with an academic presentation and tone.

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What can sustainability communicators learn from social media marketers?

Climate Change Through the Lens of Communication

There are currently over 500 wildfires burning in my home province of British Columbia, Canada. At the same time, Toronto, Ontario is experiencing floods due to heavy August rainfall. Around the world, extreme weather events seem to be becoming more common place. California, like BC, is experiencing wildfires, Sweden’s reindeer are starving after a severe drought, and Hawaii is in the path of a hurricane, just to name a few examples.

Texas Wildfires by DVIDSHUB. CC-BY-2.0. Available from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/5664238595

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Climate Change Through the Lens of Communication