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Speak spotlight: Professor Sander van der Linden

Sander van der Linden, Professor of Social Psychology in Society and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, will be a panellist at Covid communications: did science win (6-7.30pm on Friday 1st April) where he will talk about his work on countering conspiracy theories. Other speakers are virologist Chris Smith, Moira Nicolson, Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office, and Tushna Vandrevala, Professor of Health Psychology at Kingston University / St George's University of London. The event will be chaired by Rod Reddick, Covid-19 editor at The Conversation.

Cambridge Festival: Can you describe briefly the nature of your research?

Professor Sander van der Linden: I study the social influence and persuasion process, that is, how we are influenced by information, the media and the opinions and judgments of other people as well as how we can help people identify manipulation of information and media both online and offline.

CF: Do you think we have become more media literate as a result of Covid or less so?

SVDL: I do think people have become more cognisant of the fact that the way in which science is communicated can lead to public debate, confusion and even polarisation. Although some people may have become more media savvy, whenever science becomes politicised, groups become less concerned with the facts, unfortunately.

CF: Are you optimistic that social media/media companies can tackle the problem of misinformation, given their business models? 

SVDL: Yes and no. Our research with social media companies gives me hope that they are interested in finding solutions to the misinformation problem and potentially implementing them. But unfortunately, the nature of their business model often prevents them from doing what is in the interest of the public so, as long as the underlying incentives don’t change, we are fighting an uphill battle.

CF: Are there particular vulnerable groups that we should target more when it comes to countering misinformation or is a more general approach better?

SVDL: We often advocate for a general approach, but it is important to ask which groups are most vulnerable and how we can help those audiences spot misinformation. Unfortunately, people who are highly political, fairly fixed in their views and active in online groups are also least likely to have an open mind about these issues.

CF: How can we better reach those who might have legitimate reasons to doubt health information?

SVDL: Trust is established by displaying trustworthy behaviour and communication. To this extent, we have devised five rules for effective and transparent evidence communication: 1) pre-bunk influential myths and misconceptions, 2) inform but don't persuade, 3) recognise uncertainties about scientific evidence, 4) discuss the quality of the available evidence and 5) offer a balanced view whilst emphasising the weight of the scientific evidence. In other words, treat people’s concerns with respect and help them reach an evidence-based decision without forcing an opinion on them.

CF: Do we need a more interdisciplinary approach to media literacy?

SVDL: Yes, absolutely, we need medical and public health experts, computer scientists, social and behavioural scientists and the humanities to all work together to tackle this problem.

CF: Why is public engagement important when it comes to this subject?

SVDL: As we’ve learned the hard way during the pandemic, if people are not engaged with science or supportive of public policy or even become distrustful of experts and the scientific process, it can undermine public health and societal well-being. It’s a two-way conversation.