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Getting out of the filter bubble: Science communication must address sensitive topics and social media

Workshop of the National Research Platform for Zoonoses and the TMF opens many perspectives on current challenges in science communication

The communication of scientific findings faces enormous challenges in view of the revolution in public discourse caused by social media. Not only communication concepts for crisis situations and communication readiness, but especially the ability to listen are required more than ever. This became clear in the discussions of the workshop "Silence is silver, talking is gold - Communicating sensitive issues properly", which took place on 14 and 15 November 2017 in Muenster.

The workshop, which was organised by the National Research Platform for Zoonoses in cooperation with the Science Communication Working Group of the TMF, was attended by scientists and communicators as well as journalists and ministry representatives. The fact that social media are relevant and that science communication has to open up to these new channels in order to deal with fake news and alternative facts in an objective way was intensively discussed during the workshop.

„Make friends before you need them“

In particular, communication on sensitive topics, such as animal experiments in basic research or vaccines, nowadays requires all the skills of communicators and science. "At best, transparent communication already helps to prevent a crisis," explained Josef Zens (German Geo Research Centre Potsdam, GFZ), who acted as moderator throughout the two workshop days.
Self-reflection should also be guaranteed within the institution. "Anyone who deals with sensitive issues in everyday life must find their own culture and ensure that this culture is guaranteed internally. This also includes talking about ethics," Zens reported from his experiences. In doing so, the logic of the public should be reconciled with the logic of one's own researchers. "Self-reflection, such as 'I am the good guy', is not enough," says Zens, "Social demands must be anticipated and observed.

Transparent communication not just in the crisis

"Please don't wait until the crisis to communicate" was also the credo of Dr. Christina Beck (Max Planck Society, Munich), who reported on her experiences with crises she had experienced in connection with animal experiments. For science communication in detail, this means providing information about one's own work at an early stage, building up a community and establishing one's own relationships with journalists and the media.
The topic of animal testing, which is relevant for zoonoses research, played a major role in the workshop. In recent years, scientists have learned to address their failures in communication and to clarify and enter into dialogue with initiatives such as "Understanding Animal Experiments" or the Max Planck Society's Animal Experiments Portal. "We have to prick the filter bubble, show ourselves and get involved in discussions," Dr. Roman Stilling (Initiative "Understanding Animal Experimentation", Muenster) called on the workshop participants*. To ensure that debates on critical topics such as animal experiments do not get into a muddle and are conducted objectively, the field of communication should not be left to others alone.

The use of social media in health communication strengthens the ability to listen

"We need to get out of the filter bubble and have a real dialogue with the public. This includes listening," explained Beatrice Lugger (National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik). This would help to understand the contexts and world views of the community and critics and to sharpen the perception of social fears. "We must not only invite, but go. This includes listening at eye level, taking critical voices seriously, and building communities and networks within and outside the scientific community," said Lugger. 

"Health communication fails to listen to people and identify and understand their needs, expectations, level of knowledge or attitudes. This not only hampers effective communication, but can also lead to general distrust of one's own organization," noted Caroline Daamen (European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC in Solna, Sweden). For Daamen, the use of social media, especially Twitter, is essential for good health communication. They are already part of the discourse, strengthen their own ability to listen and contribute to understanding what target groups and critical voices are talking about.

"One must not forget those who don't actively participate in the discussion, but read along. This means that it means a lot to be present and appear as an institution in social media channels," Caroline Daamen said during the discussion. Social media also fulfilled a radar function: discourses and critical topics can be observed on them.

Oberstes Gebot in der Krise: "Sagen Sie die Wahrheit und sagen Sie sie schnell"

If a sensitive issue develops into a tangible crisis, speed is of the essence. Communicators, in particular, can be faced with a flood of enquiries from the media and authorities, and citizens also express their outrage via social media, e-mail and telephone. 

One should be prepared for this state of emergency: roles and tasks for the crisis should be defined in advance. The appointment of crisis teams and the establishment of coordinated and binding internal reporting and information channels should have been done before the crisis. The experts at the workshop recommended that negative reporting and feedback should be responded to quickly, transparently and on a factual basis in accordance with the principle "Tell the truth and tell it quickly".

The media can help to objectify emotionally-driven debates. "During our crisis, we have found that the media have reported very factually," said Christina Beck. The Science Media Center Germany (SMC), which was presented by Volker Stollorz, can help with this. Among other things, the SMC produces fact sheets on currently discussed and relevant issues in science and places experts with journalists.

"Crises can be practiced"

The speakers of the workshop, who have already gone through crises in their work, recommended various measures to the participants to prepare themselves for a crisis:

  • Writing a crisis manual with internal recommendations for action in the event of a crisis
  • Staffing of crisis teams in advance Classification of crisis levels
  • Creation of a risk matrix, crisis scenario training with functionaries of the own institution
  • Ensuring a functioning internal communication and internal self-image


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