Opinion: Fake News about the Corona Virus and science in general


Marc Schiltz, Secretary General of the FNR, discusses Fake News and pseudo-science – how they affect science and what science can do to fight back.

The news about the Corona Virus epidemic is making many people hold their breath on a daily basis. A theory has been spreading on social media that the virus did not – as assumed – start on a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but that it was created in a lab where scientists experimented with viruses. The ‘theory’ is that something went wrong with their experiment and this led to the virus. Despite no foundation for this claim, it is spreading like wildfire, like the virus itself.

The internet and social networks pose a new and difficult challenge for dealing with information. Scientific studies have shown that false information spreads on social media up to ten times faster than truthful information, and that false information tends to reach a wider number of users.

Then there is the phenomenon of “social bots”: bots deployed on social media to spread information in a way where it appears they are real users. A recent study unearthed that one quarter of the tweets about climate change were posted by such robots, with the majority devoid of any scientific foundation. This proportion was higher in certain topics—bots were responsible for 38% of tweets about “fake science” and 28% of all tweets about the petroleum giant Exxon.

Another example: A study found that half of the most-shared articles on Facebook in 2016 about cancer featured claims which are doubtful from a medical and scientific standpoint. These topics concern our health – life and death – and it is concerning they include unverified claims.

Science struggles with Fake News. Most of the time, Fake News are short and to the point. Scientific and medical articles are complex. It is difficult to debunk Fake News in one to-the-point sentence. Still, science must try to fight back with the same means – for example what the WHO is trying to do with information about the Corona Virus epidemic.

One avenue is to actively search for Fake News and misinformation and to reach fast and to-the-point. Another avenue is to get more visibility, for example by bringing science together with ‘influencers’, supporting science journalists, or increasing the communication coming directly from the scientists. Science actors can also create their own platforms with large visibility – as Luxembourg has done with science.lu.

It is clear – it will be a great challenge limit the spread of Fake News and pseudo-science, just like the Corona Virus.

This opinion piece was originally published as a ‘Carte Blanche’ on rtl.lu in February 2020 (in Luxembourgish)

Marc Schiltz, FNR Secretary General

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