Save science, fix social media

Mark Mann
December 18, 2019

At the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, I attended a symposium titled “Science advice for foresighting: the slow burn,” about addressing complex challenges like climate change, where public perception doesn’t match the scientific consensus, but the cost of inaction is high. Among other things, panellists spoke about the issue of misinformation spreading on social media, mainly as a consequence of algorithms that enable bad actors to monetize conspiracy theories.

After the talk, I met several people at Health Canada who work on public awareness of the risks, symptoms and treatment of Lyme disease, which has become more common north of the 49th parallel, thanks in part to climate change. As with the anti-vax movement, ineffective “alternative treatments” are rapidly gaining traction online, while skepticism of the medical establishment is growing. It’s hard for the government agency to keep up with the volume of false messaging on social media.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of social media as one of the most disruptive applications of digital technology in the last twenty years, for good AND ill. Bruce Croxon, the founder of Lavalife, helped usher in this new era, and he speaks about this dramatic societal transformation in our Scaleup Q&A.

Heidi Tworek, a professor at the University of British Columbia, argues for the creation of a social media council that would bring together representatives from social media companies and civil society organizations. She focuses on the problem of content moderation, but such an institution could also be tasked with confronting the underlying digital systems that are incentivizing the breakdown of trust in science. Our health — and our future — depends on it.


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