The Role of News and Social Media in Influencing Information and Policy

News media and social media have emerged as two tools for providing the public with greater access to information, current events, and relevant issues. While this development has created the prospect of a more informed public, it has also provided the opportunity for news media and other media platforms to influence information and the political sphere. Through an examination of perceptions of information portrayed in the media, the power of media to influence information dissemination and public understanding, and the role of media in the political arena, it is evident that news and social media have the capacity to shape information and the political sphere. Thus, both greater knowledge of how to use social media in science and science communication fields as well as general enhancement of public scientific literacy are needed to navigate new media terrains, including the algorithms operating in social media platforms and the pervasiveness of pseudo-science and misinformation.

Efforts to foster public scientific literacy are often aimed at enabling people to make more informed decisions, both in their own lives (such as personal health choices, or engaging in sustainable practices), and in the public sphere (Slater et al., 2011). Implicit in such efforts is the cultivation of some measure of trust in science, and an understanding of scientific literacy as a valuable social goal. However, the relationship of confidence and trust between the public and science may be undermined by the way in which news media communicates science. The dominant focus of science reporting in most prominent media is about the outcomes of “cutting-edge science” (Slater et al., 2011). It is comparatively rare for news articles to attend to the research methodology or the social-institutional processes by which results are obtained (Slater et al., 2011). The gap between these two reporting methods presents a compelling opportunity for the news media to educate the lay-public about the scientific enterprise (including the normal operation of its activities, forming research agendas, vetting and solidifying results, educating its members, etc.). Through leveraging strategic messaging tactics, science journalists, or dedicated science communicators, play a significant role as brokers of scientific achievements and breakthroughs, the scientific process itself, and the processes for solving complex technical problems. However, these messaging schemes are not often fully realized, and science conveyed to the public is often minimally informative regarding the actual functioning of the scientific enterprise. Crucial information detailing methodologies used to produce outcomes is omitted and news reports often fail to contextualize the science in the work that probed the research question(s), or the institutional-social process in which a study is embedded (Slater et al., 2011).

Beyond not discussing science in “high-level” or “technical” terms, journalistic norms and practices also encourage publishing and dissemination of information that is deemed “newsworthy,” prompting a focus on discrete “events” (Slater et al., 2011). This limited portrayal of science in evidence-based information contexts poses the risk of further alienating the public from science, thus compromising the dynamic nature of trust between them. This notion was borne out and widely prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, where a “latest is best” mindset was adopted in sharing scientific and evidence-based information. This practice went against the typical scientific belief that “latest is most tentative” and, therefore, most susceptible to subsequent rethought or revision (Slater et al., 2011). “Twitter peer-review” processes helped to correct and facilitate rapid changes in scientific understanding about Covid 19, faster than revisions and retractions in research journals would have taken (Brainard, 2022). However, the damage this approach fosters was illustrated by the high number of scientific contradictions and reversals surrounding COVID-19, contributing to distrust and disregard of science, as the public failed to understand that scientific rethought and revision are, in fact, part of the normal scientific enterprise. This outcome led to a proliferation of pseudo-science, disregard for scientific fact, and an embrace of misinformation. It is, therefore, essential to contextualize science in science communications in order to promote greater scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is a necessary precursor to widespread public trust in the institution of science.

Further, news and social media possess significant power in how evidence-based information is disseminated, and in subsequent public understanding and acceptance. In fact, many scientists and scientist-turned-communicators continue to see online communication environments as proficient tools for providing information to the public and resolving information asymmetries between experts and lay audiences (Brossard & Scheufele, 2022). Yet, in a highly contested digital environment, the scientific community is just one of many voices competing for attention and public buy-in about a myriad array of issues, especially in the context of online and fast-paced digital media environments. Brossard and Scheufele (2022) explicitly discuss the need for scientists to break free from “individual homophily” and informational siloing that are pervasive in the scientific digital media sphere. They draw attention to the scientific community’s generally unimpressive track record in harnessing the full potential of online communication tools to reach beyond audiences that already follow and have an understanding of science, to meaningfully connect and engage with those who disagree or feel disconnected from science (Brainard, 2022). In the same vein, scientists must also avoid the temptation to communicate with these lay publics in a way that is not entirely anecdotal and reliant upon persuasive appeal.

Without adequate and appropriate methods for how to best communicate science through social media, there is a risk of a future where the dynamics of media and communication systems will have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that scientists are attempting to communicate. Societal access to scientific information has largely shifted away from the legacy media, government agencies, and the scientific community towards various social media platforms, which are now the “central gatekeepers” of information and communication about science (Brossard & Scheufele, 2022). Arguably, the largest challenge scientists now face is the substantial change in how scientific information is shared, amplified, and received in an online environment mediated by artificial intelligence and algorithms. For audiences that infrequently engage with credible scientific content, algorithms may eventually reduce or fully prevent reliable information about science being made accessible to them (Brossard & Scheufele, 2022). Brossard and Scheufele state that the key to conquering this challenge will be, a priori, a partnership among the scientific community, social media platforms, and democratic institutions, and, on a micro level, understanding by scientists of how algorithms work, and how to function within their bounds.

Having explored the role of media in influencing perceptions of information, and the power of media to affect information dissemination and public understanding, it is also important to acknowledge the roles of the news media and social media in influencing the political sphere. Lester and Foxwell-Norton (2022) noted that social media are no longer separable from our social lives and environmental futures. These media have also become the principle means for sharing understanding of the world, and a place to debate and negotiate common risks and concerns. To illustrate how this phenomenon is engrained in our lives, the popular term “media ecology” is used to highlight the interconnection of media platforms, technologies, genres, formats, and producer and audience practices that drive media production and distribution (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2022). This ecological-type of interconnectivity recognizes interactions, and highlights that it is impossible to isolate environmental concerns and risks from the policy decisions that they prompt in particular localities (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2022). This term also acknowledges the dynamic contexts where business models for production of traditional news media have collapsed and other models and forms of information production/circulation have emerged, e.g., social media sites and traditional news sources turning to new social media platforms to produce output (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2022).

News media have a distinct role in the media ecology as they have the ability to influence information as it is disseminated to the public. Studies conducted in the U.S., Norway, and Australia have shown that news media can strongly influence public awareness and concern about an issue through shaping political debates by selecting subjects and highlighting specific issues, called agenda setting, and by presenting particular angles to tell stories, called media framing (Condie et al., 2022). While news media have the ability to determine issues presented to the public for discussion and debate, based on what the media expects will draw large audiences, readers now also have more choices about the news they receive and from what platform (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2022). This wider access to news sources has simultaneously allowed for greater participation. Today’s media ecology not only consists of traditionally dominant actors like politicians, journalists, and academics, it also includes “non-elite” counterparts such as average social media users, grassroots campaigners, and activists (Chen et al., 2022). Social media have become valuable tools in the political sphere because they foster both online and offline communications and aid in the dissemination of information and mobilization of resources, which are crucial to successful social movements (Chen et al., 2022). Social media can disseminate information, promote understanding, and help with environmental conservation efforts by changing public opinion to positive attitudes about various non-popular species preservation (Beall et al., 2022). Additionally, social media have enabled wider participation of youth in the political space. They use social media as tools in their movements to influence political and policy decisions. For example, in Fridays for Future Greta Thunberg uses Twitter and Instagram to frame issues and circulate information that traditional news centres may not cover (Chen et al., 2022). This media ecology demonstrates the ability for news and social media to work in tandem, and for social media to be used as a tool for communicating information that traditional news centres may not see as valuable but is, in fact, useful to a diversity of audiences.


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Authors: Andrea Rankin, Christina Coculuzzi, and Lauren Beckett

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.

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