Digital media has been a double-edged sword for science communication. While more people are engaging with science online, many are increasingly finding – and sharing – misinformation. The EU-funded TRESCA (Trustworthy, Reliable and Engaging Scientific Communication Approaches) project sought to uncover how trust can be fostered in the digital ecosystem. “A lot of public trust is based on the credibility that you give to certain organisations,” says Jason Pridmore, TRESCA project coordinator. “You’re more likely to trust an organisation if somebody in your general social network trusts them, which is also how misinformation can spread,” he explains.
Assessing trust through pan-European surveys
TRESCA launched a series of qualitative and quantitative research efforts, including a questionnaire exploring the reasons behind trust in science communication completed by more than 7 000 people across France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. “Adding a personal story to the scientific communication increased the willingness of people to say this is trustworthy,” remarks Pridmore, vice-dean of Education at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He adds that certain countries were less responsive to these stories though. The team also found high-quality production and strong visual aesthetics to have tangible benefits to levels of trust. “We didn't anticipate that it would be such a critical issue.” This too holds potential for well-crafted misinformation to spread, he adds. “So you end up with this flip side.”
The importance of visual communication
One of the outcomes of the TRESCA project was a video created by consortium partner Kurzgesagt, which explores the challenges in communicating scientific developments to the general public, including the risks of oversimplification. The video was a tremendous success, and has been viewed by Kurzgesagt’s audience over 10 million times. “The end product was the culmination of a self-reflexive process,” explains Pridmore, which is necessary in both scientific research and its communication.
Building greater defences against online misinformation
The team also developed a massive open online course (MOOC), Science Communication: Communicating Trustworthy Information in the Digital World, to help scientists, policymakers and science communicators learn about each other’s goals, agendas and methods of communication. “The implication is this spills over into the general public, because all three of those different groups are speaking to the public in different ways,” Pridmore notes. The project also investigated the feasibility of a misinformation widget, an online tool able to quickly assess the trustworthiness of information found online. The team found this sort of system is highly valuable and possible technically – but would require significant financial investment to turn it into an efficient tool aimed at digital media. There is a follow-up project, Inspiring and anchoring trust in science (IANUS), which will aim to understand how to foster ‘appropriate scepticism’ in science among the general public. From April 2023, all projects related to TRESCA will be joined together in the EU-funded COALESCE project, to develop a European competence centre for science communication. “The intention is that we will have a self-funded organisation that will act as the point of departure for trust in science,” Pridmore says.
TRESCA, trust, science, communication, misinformation, digital, media, self, reflexive, Kurzgesagt, COALESCE