Advocacy – When what is communicated simply isn’t true

Featured, Science 2019-05-13

The international Science Festival is an annual event that took place on April 2-7th this year, in Gothenburg, Sweden, offering hundreds of science related activities and attracting about 70,000 visitors. The Forum for science communication is a conference within the Festival. The topic for this year was Advocacy – good, bad or dangerous? and the 450 participants were all eager to know how to make a difference in the name of science. And to be honest, the enthusiasm was well needed as the future look less than optimistic.

When what is communicated simply isn’t true

Another highly present topic at this year’s conference is what occurs when the information that is communicated gets silenced or deliberately distorted and used for causing fear and polarisation. A message that evokes a feeling is better received, and a message that evokes feelings such as fear and anger causes an even stronger conviction and potential call to action.

The classic example of messaging in the scientific field that cannot be terminated, however false it may be, is the study from Andrew Wakefield claiming that vaccination against the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) causes autism. The study was published in The Lancet in 1998 and retracted 12 years later as the findings were “incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation”. Scrutinising scientists quickly pointed out that the study was a small case series without controls, that linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs.1

Wakefield retraction

Over the following decade, epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. By the time the paper was finally retracted, few people could deny that it was fatally flawed, both scientifically and ethically and, through the hard work of one journalist, also proven to be a complete fraud. It appeared that not one of the 12 cases reported in the paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case did the information in the medical records match that which was published in the journal. Also, Wakefield’s conflict of interest – through his involvement with a lawsuit against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine – gives further indications that he was immensely biased when testing his scientific hypothesis. Browsing the internet shows that as long as there is a blogger questioning these more recent myth busters, the issue will never get beyond a reasonable doubt for tens of thousands of parents around the world who turned against the MMR vaccine. The issue seems beyond repair as outbreaks of measles keep turning up in different parts of the previously protected world.


During a forum breakout session during this year’s Science Festival, James Pamment (Docent & Head of Dept of Strategic Communication, Lund University) introduced the participants to the massive antagonist to facts that the internet has become. In fact, Pamment says it will take generations to restore the trust of experts and scientifically established facts, which have been distorted by the power of the internet and the dark forces running the show. But again, fear creates impact.

The black market of buying fake social media accounts and engaging click-farms is enormous. In Russia, you can easily buy Instagram-likes at vending machines. Thus, it is easy to take the shortcut in order to become an influencer, to create a wide platform where any message, true or false, can be broadcast to a susceptible audience. The objectives behind disinformation vary: it could be for economic reasons, to discredit an individual or a group of people, for polarisation and fuelling fires, or simply just ‘because I can’.

How do we fight it, then? The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) has put together a report of very useful information about how to strengthen the societal resilience against information influence activities. Did Pammant think that we, as a global nation, are prepared for the fight? Well, sadly, no. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. The odds are uneven, as keepers of facts need to stick to the rules and most obviously tell the actual truth. Thus, there is an urgent need for empowering communication, and it needs to be a joint effort across regions and disciplines. And who should take the lead on fighting disinformation? The military? The Foreign or Home Office? What is disinformation and what is freedom of speech? There seem to be more questions than answers at the moment, but the more these issues are communicated, the awareness will hopefully take us towards a society where facts, truth, ethics and integrity is the rule and not the exception.

Ingela Loell

  1. Michael Davidson, MD. Vaccination as a cause of autism—myths and controversies, Dialogues Clin. Neurosci. 2017 Dec; 19(4): 403–407.