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Sun 25 October 2020
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Amplified by the media, fringe scientists are allowed to present simplistic yet dangerously shareable solutions to complex problems, reports Zack King from Independent SAGE

I’m worried. I get it, lots of people are worried right now. I guess a pandemic should be worrying. Perhaps more than ever, PR and communications is at the forefront. In every direction, there are different messages, different opinions and different ‘right answers’ to this once-in-a-generation event.

Misinformation, fake news, is nothing new. Both Brexit and the US election brought into sharp focus its effects. There is little doubt that the spread of misinformation across both traditional and social media played a significant role on the two seminal democratic moments of this decade. And now, it seems, it has infected society once again, through COVID-19.

Clearly, those peddling misinformation are fairly subject agnostic, but it strikes me that science is particularly vulnerable. As consumers of information we tend to like certainties, and that is not the language of science. Things are always ‘highly probable’ or facts of ‘consensus’. This can often leave the field open for fringe experts to appear mainstream, or even as credible advocates of a viable alternative.


The Click Machine

This is a trend the science community has been well used to, most markedly on the topic of climate change, with deniers often given equal airtime in a misguided bid to ensure “both sides” are heard. This has been mirrored during our present pandemic. The same four or five so called ‘experts’ – who in reality represent dangerous fringe views – are presented as representing a viable alternative to the pro-lockdown consensus.

Last week I spoke to a journalist at a major national newspaper who said to me, “Our bosses are just chase page views, so these ‘alternatives’ always get featured as they get clicks. We need to be more responsible with what we publish on big issues like this. We don’t seem to have an overall editorial stance; we just publish and be damned.”

Sadly, I don’t think this will come as a surprise to any of us in the industry. But shouldn’t we be asking more from our press, particularly in a time of national crisis? Once misinformation proliferates, we know how hard it is to repress.

In my small echo chamber, I have seen the ever-increasing use of buzz words like “Sweden” and “controlled shielding,” often from young people and celebrities who are clinging to the idea of a rapid return to normal life, frankly without any real understanding of what they are advocating. Conspiracy theories are then injected with steroids once they are presented through the mainstream press as viable alternatives.

Of course, I should declare my skin in the game. I have been fortunate enough over the last six months to have led the communications work for Independent SAGE, a group of pre-eminent scientists who have been critical of the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Not least Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government – a position currently held by Sir Patrick Vallance.

We have been fortunate to have members of the group speak on almost every media platform and be quoted in most newspapers. The hunger from the media for experts is unrelenting.

However, increasingly, Independent SAGE experts are being asked to appear opposite fringe scientists giving incredible (or should that be un-credible) opinions. Portrayed as a 50-50 debate, it’s not surprising that the path of least resistance – provided by lockdown-sceptic scientists – is gaining traction amongst the public, no matter the cost to public health.

So, what can we do about it? As communications professionals we can start by turning down the often-lucrative PR work on behalf of these dangerous fringe players. But we can also ask more from our media. There are lives at stake and journalists owe it to the public to present the science as it should be. We should be following the consensus science, not awarding fringe views excessive airtime, merely because they generate clicks.

We have been told by the Government for over six months that “we’re following the science”. It’s time we all got to grips with what that actually means.

Zack King is Associate Director of Firstlight, a PR agency that works with Independent SAGE


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