24 September 2020


'Disinformation and Science: Report of an investigation into gullibility of false science news in central European countries' by the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology European Science (European Parliamentary Research Service) comments 

The main aim of this report is to present and discuss the results of a survey concerning perspectives on fake news among undergraduate university students in central and eastern Europe. The survey was carried out in spring 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. An online questionnaire was used. The report is therefore the product of what could be achieved under highly unusual circumstances and should serve as a pointer for further study. 

Misinformation is always troubling, especially in science. Scientists feel distressed when public understanding diverges from the truth. Intentional disinformation (fake news), however, is not always the cause of misinformation. The report discusses the causes related to social trust and types of media consumption. 

The sample of the study consisted of several hundred bachelors or masters students from each participating country. Half of the students were recruited from social sciences areas and the other half of the sample were recruited from natural sciences areas. The method of approaching the students was online questioning. One university was chosen from each participating country, and the link to the questionnaire was sent by that university's administration to the students. The response to the questionnaire was naturally anonymous and voluntary. 

The questionnaire consisted of four parts. The first part presented several typical fake news announcements from the field of the natural and social sciences. (e.g. 'there has never been a landing on the Moon'; 'homosexuality can be cured by genetic engineering'). In the second part, true news announcements were applied as a control. In the third part, we tested the effect of the fake news by measuring the level of agreement or rejection. In the fourth part, social psychological, social and demographic data, including social trust, social media usage and general news consumption, were gathered. Responses were stored in an online data file and analysed by multivariable statistical means, such as principal component, factor and cluster, and multiple regression analysis. 

Respondents in more or less all countries have shown resistance against falsehood in scientific communication, casting doubt over false news headlines. The students accepting headline news as evidence-based true statements and simultaneously rejecting fake headline news in each country outnumbered the scientific communication non-believers. However, the content of the individual headline news mattered. False or true, headline news referring to specific spheres of human existence, such as gender and sexuality, incited more interest than news concerning more neutral problems of society and nature. The central issue was social trust, which can provide a solution to help people emerge from the mess created by the new information ecosystem that creates information bubbles and crushes reliable and responsible sources of information.