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Episode Guide: 'Disinformation Divide'

In the second episode of “Infodemic,” investigate the politicization of science across the United States and Saudi Arabia, and how governments propagated disinformation and pseudoscience in Brazil and India.
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"Disinformation Divide” Part 1 investigates the politicization of science and its effects in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Part 2 examines the consequences of disinformation and pseudoscience in India and Brazil.
Disinformation Divide (Preview)

Part 1: When disinformation creates divides

First, join Cary Funk, Director of Science and Society Research at Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., and Faris Bukhamsin, CEO of Scientific Saudi, a science communication agency aimed at promoting science and its importance in daily life.

Funk begins by noting a brief period of “American unity” in the U.S. early on when the outbreak had just taken hold — but within weeks, the public’s view of scientists grew politicized, thus unity dissolved into a political divide.

She names two causes for that rift:

  • The rapid, unchecked spread of disinformation via social media;
  • Repetition of misinformation, enough for people to begin believing in it (also known as the illusory truth effect).
Cary Funk and Faris Bukhamsin on a video call for "Infodemic."
1/3 Cary Funk and Faris Bukhamsin on a video call. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"
Faris Bukhamsin, CEO of Scientific Saudi.
2/3 Faris Bukhamsin, CEO of Scientific Saudi. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"
Sophia, a Saudi Arabian robot citizen.
3/3 Sophia, a Saudi Arabian robot citizen. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"

In Saudi Arabia, Bukhamsin describes the government’s own curiosity and interest in science as part of the public’s willing acceptance of science — when science is taken on as a “national strategy” rather than a tool for division. That, coupled with the Saudi Arabian government’s clear response to the COVID crisis, its strict regulation of misinformation, and its “united front,” as Bukhamsin describes, were crucial to its success in public cooperation and taming the virus in its early stages.

To reestablish trust in science globally, Funk suggests data transparency. The more data is openly available to the public, the more likely people are willing to trust the research, according to one 2019 Pew Research survey. “If you’re wanting to build more trust, you have to think of it as a relationship that you try to nurture over time,” Funk says.

Further Reading

Part 2: When governments ignore science

In the second half, hear from Narendra Nayak from India, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, and Natália Pasternak, president of Instituto Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Institute) in Brazil, as they compare how each of their countries’ governments had communicated the COVID crisis to the public.

In India, the government had turned to anything but science, Nayak explains, promoting and taking up claims by non-scientific bodies — astrologers, worshippers at Puja rituals, and people who present “quack remedies” to the coronavirus. Such remedies have included the consumption of cow’s urine and banging pots and pans.

Meanwhile in Brazil, Pasternak describes the government’s response under President Bolsonaro’s leadership as “the worst possible,” not only for turning a blind eye to science, but also downplaying the severity of the crisis and spreading false information. It was enough to prompt the public to take it upon themselves to establish precautions against COVID-19, like drug lords organizing lockdowns and curfews in their own favelas.

An aerial view of a favela in Brazil.
1/3 Aerial view of a favela in Brazil. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"
Narendra Nayak and Natália Pasternak on a video call.
2/3 Narendra Nayak and Natália Pasternak on a video call. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil makes a statement.
3/3 President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. | "Infodemic: Disinformation Divide"

Some key takeaways that Nayak and Pasternak discuss:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic could allow more value placed in science and the funding of scientific research from the government;
  • The need for science to help further develop countries and overall well being;
  • Encouraging people to turn more to science for answers, rather than anecdotal claims;
  • Importance for scientists to explain behind the science to the public (i.e. how vaccines are created, how clinical tests are performed, the difference between bacteria and viruses).

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