Internet is ‘valuable science resource but can bias discourse’

People access the Internet in Kenya Copyright: Flickr/ World Bank Photo Collection

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Online science communication may have surprising effects on readers: while the Internet can help close knowledge gaps, it can also bias public discourse on new technologies, according to an article in Science.

The article published last week (4 January) says that US research into public knowledge shows that online news may be helping to narrow the science knowledge gap between people of different educational backgrounds. This gap had grown partly because science coverage in traditional media tends to cater to highly educated audiences, it says.


  • Internet-based science news may be helping to close the knowledge gap
  • But online science communication can alter how the public perceives science news
  • For example, Internet search tools can change people’s search patterns

But online science communication may alter how people perceive news on science and new technologies, say Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States.

Brossard tells SciDev.Net that while research shows that online access can be a remedy for the knowledge gap — which could be even wider in the developing world — online communication tools can backfire because of how audiences interact with them.

Forthcoming research by Brossard and a former student reveals that readers’ opinions of the risks of emerging technologies can be influenced by a website’s comments section.

They found that changing the tone of comments that accompanied an otherwise unbiased news story on nanotechnology — for example, by inserting the word ‘idiot’ into a comment without changing its content — altered readers’ perception of the risk it posed.

Also, the researchers say, the use of search tools, such as Google, shapes public discourse because audiences often click on the highest-ranked link, and avail themselves of ‘suggested’ search options.

This can change search choices and patterns, potentially affecting public debate on scientific issues, say the researchers.

For example, they found, the top ten keywords searched for on Google in relation to nanotechnology shifted from an economic to a medical context in the United States between 2008 and 2009, the researchers found.

Solutions to both these audience-media interaction problems are complex, but Brossard argues for more interdisciplinary empirical research to "understand how they link to views and behaviour".

For example, policies for moderating online discussion forums vary between organisations, yet the policies may not be based on any evidence of how they might affect audience perception, she says.

Brossard says that offering science writers training, for example in understanding how to use keywords in articles to maximise their prominence in search engine results, may help accurate and impartial news reporting to reach a wider audience.

But Felicity Mellor, senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, cautions against assumptions that science communicators should seek to "control public discourse".

"We should be aware of the risks, but that doesn’t mean we change what we do," she says.

Mellor also tells SciDev.Net that new media literacy might be difficult to nurture in developing countries if citizens have yet to learn to become media savvy from traditional media outlets.

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