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Should scientific communicators use fake news tactics?

Jaebien Rosario
Written By
Jaebien Rosario
Should scientific communicators use fake news tactics?
Artwork by Claire McCloskey

The war on science is a battle against truth, and lies can be deadly. Here's how scientists can fight back.

Talking about morality is complicated, but we do it all the time.

People often talk about what’s right or wrong when it comes to religion, politics, health, and even on a regular daily basis. Some psychologists argue our social environment is powerful in shaping our ideas of morality.

When we express our ideas about right or wrong (morality) emotions often come up. Emotions are argued to be highly associated with the formation and amplification of moral judgments.

This impacts online discourse, especially around sociopolitical issues.

In one paper, researchers looked at whether the usage of emotional-moral wording increased the chance of tweets going viral. Researchers analysed over half a million tweets pertaining to three contentious issues in American politics. These issues were gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change. 

The researchers found that tweets containing moral and emotive language were on average more likely to be retweeted by others.

Specifically, there was a 20% increase in retweet rate per moral-emotional word added.

What does this tell science communicators?

It tells us that emotions do matter when crafting and delivering a message. Unfortunately, emotions such as outrage and anger can drive up engagement and diffusion of content on social media.

Perhaps, if we cannot win against emotions and moral language we can use them to our advantage. Striking up the moral and emotional imperative to take science seriously or pay closer attention to the connection between science and policy. 

However, this can be seen as ‘adding fuel to the fire’ for many. We often see science communication as being purely objective and descriptive. This is in contrast with morality which is prescriptive, as communicators of science we do not necessarily want to tell people what to do.

Another option would be to call out these emotional and moral messages for what they are. They want to invoke feelings in their audiences and garner attention. We have evidence that preparing people for false messages and false information helps them better resist that message or information. 

Maybe by reshaping the public’s response to these types of messages, we’ll be more resistant to spreading false information.