When it comes to COVID-19, social media fills a gap left by scientists — and it's a problem, says sociologist

It takes time for scientists and public health officials to provide reliable answers in crises like the current pandemic. That can be frustrating for people seeking accurate, science-based information, who then turn to other sources, says Fuyuki Kurasawa.

Fuyuki Kurasawa says we’re ‘facing an unprecedented crisis of public understanding’

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam sorts through her papers during a news conference on June 9, 2020 in Ottawa. Sociologist Fuyuki Kurasawa says officials and experts need to engage in forms of public communication that are more accessible to the general public. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Originally published on June 14, 2020.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, most people are looking for accurate, science-based information to help them navigate their lives in these unprecedented times.

Unfortunately, says sociologist Fuyuki Kurasawa, officials and scientific experts aren't always able to provide reliable answers quickly enough, leaving many frustrated and turning to other sources.

In his recent article for The Conversation, Kurasawa, director of York University's Global Digital Citizenship Lab, writes that we are currently "facing an unprecedented crisis of public understanding." 

To fill the information gap, he says online networks of people — which he calls "epistemic communities" — have started to develop their own theories and ways of understanding things, fuelled by social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok.

"They are advancing a set of explanations as to why particular phenomena are occurring, and those explanations are often in contradiction to the official versions of facts," Kurusawa said. "They're also simply often based on rumour, speculation or opinion." 

Kurusawa spoke with Spark host Nora Young about why it's so difficult to provide immediate answers and how health officials and scientific experts can do a better job at communicating with the public.

Here is part of their conversation.

In the context of something like a pandemic, people obviously have lots of questions they want to know the answers to immediately. What is it about a crisis like the pandemic that makes giving those answers quickly so difficult?

So often, members of the general public expect that scientists will have immediate answers and definitive answers about something like COVID-19 in a way that is not realistic. 

We know that for scientific processes and expert forms of knowledge to operate, it often takes years to come up with a completely definitive statement, and there are often ones that are contested by scientists themselves, debated, modified over time, and then eventually you arrive at some sort of consensus. 

But right now, because there's so much of a vacuum, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, you have actors who are looking for influence or looking simply to disrupt what is what is occurring scientifically in the world, who are putting out what appear to be definitive statements about the unknown, and who are filling the informational vacuum that is occurring. 

A protester at Queen's Park in Toronto in April holds a sign implying COVID-19 vaccinations is the real intention of the epidemic. (Arindam Shivaani/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

And that blend that is really quite a dangerous cocktail because it mixes in with public fear, with lack of information and with scientists who fundamentally, as we know, are very prudent about the statements that they are making because there isn't enough factual information to make definitive claims about the nature of the virus. 

Members of the public are looking for definitive answers and for reassurances immediately, and thus there's a kind of contradiction, and disinformation and misinformation fills that void in ways that are unfortunately really effective and quite influential.

And so what's going on psychologically or emotionally when we're in a situation where we don't have a lot of available information or the situation is evolving very quickly? 

There's a tendency when there is a source of unknown and a source of what we'll call social anxiety or social fear for the average person to fall back on what they know to be true their beliefs and or their opinions…. So any sort of information that confirms or reinforces what they believe already is going to be taken in by them in a way that is going to be much more favourable. This is what we call confirmation bias. 

But what we also know with the rise of social media platforms, and the internet in general, is that people tend to fall back on information from sources that come from their networks of friends and family members. So "trusted information" is not necessarily information that comes from strangers who may be scientists or public health officials or politicians, but rather from people who they and members of the general public already trust.

This is how not only conspiracy theories but often misinformation and disinformation spread…. We tend to fall back on the familiar, and unfortunately, the familiar often is misleading when it comes to topics such as things like a pandemic.

So Fuyuki, the time that is needed to properly analyze a problem and offer expert guidance, maybe especially in medical or scientific issues, if that can't compete with the speed of social media, is there a solution to that?

We don't live in a society where we have a top-down model of communication and of dissemination of scientific facts, as may have been the case in the past. 

What experts need to do is to try to engage in forms of public communication that are much more accessible to the general public.- Fuyuki Kurasawa

What we're seeing right now is that the messages that are coming out of public health officials, scientists, researchers online are often drowned out by celebrities [and] by actors who may be malevolent and wanting to spread disinformation or misinformation. 

So rather than simply presenting the facts as though they will speak for themselves and will be believed by the general public, what experts need to do is to try to engage in forms of public communication that are much more accessible to the general public.

So they need to learn from social media influencers on how does one communicate a message that is factual, that is based on science or based on research, but that is also accessible, that is going to gain traction online and gain influence? It could be through humour, or it could be through attractive videos or graphics, various kinds of images and music. But there has to be a form of public communication that is different from that that has existed in the past.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Althea Manasan. Produced by Adam Killick.

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