Sci-CommSpiracy: Speaking to a world that wants to believe - but doesn't want to believe you.
For the last few years, the rise of 'fake news', 'alternative facts', and a surge in conspiracy fanaticisms like flat-earth or Q-Anon have seriously threatened the communication of science - a mindset perhaps most succinctly summarised and supported by Michael Gove's haunting quote "people in this country have had enough of experts". While he later clarified that he was only really referring to Economists (make of that what you will), the damage was done and many were tarred with a very tarr-y brush.
SeaSpiracy has been a hot topic of conversation (if hurling insults on social media can count as 'conversation'), and the film itself is something that I intend to cover in a future article. Suffice to say, this film too has made an impact; many viewers have been powerfully moved and thoroughly zealed to the cause, meanwhile many marine and fisheries scientists are despondent from the film's numerous inaccuracies, exaggerations, and oversimplifications. Scientists who are speaking out on this subject are being bombarded with insults and told that they've been 'bought' by the industry. It's not been a catalyst for discussion - at least for the 'newly-informed' - it's more like all-out war.
We find similar conversations politically; Brexit and Trump being two major issues that have radically polarised audiences with bile and rigid beliefs - beliefs that are as baffling to the opposing side as they are strongly held.
Throughout all of these examples, there's a shockingly similar narrative:
"The world isn't what you thought it was; there's an elite class manipulating you; no-one can be trusted [except me]."
This narrative fits the classic model story very well - of an underdog rising against the odds to overcome an oppressor. I understand why it's compelling. Even more so, whatever stage of life you're at, you're probably still learning that the world isn't as simple as you used to think it was - such is the nature of being human.
A huge percentage of the global population is worried, scared, feeling the brunt of injustice and/or inequality, and I'm not going to say there aren't plenty of reasons to be generally anxious about the world today. People all over are crying out for some truth, some certainty, and often it seems out of reach.
So we have abundant opportunities to talk to people - and really to give them answers and certainty that they're looking for - but we're also looking at the most jaded, mistrusting, and reluctant audience the world has maybe ever known.
I think there are lessons for sci-comm in all of this, and maybe just a little hope too.
Personal Accounts are Powerful
MOST of the time, personal accounts are very powerful. People who don't like to believe what 'experts' have to say because they fear they're being laughed-at, usually do like to listen to people more like themselves - particularly if they've overcome a common problem.
The one major backlash of this, that can turn a friend into a foe in an instant, is if the audience is given any reason to believe that you've been 'bought'. How do you avoid this? Lead with personal connections and build rapport, instead of with your well-earned credentials.
I can't say that this will assure a peaceful or productive discussion, as there are plenty of accounts of people with the greatest rapport - families - being torn apart by recent issues, but when you're communicating science it's the best start we've got.
That's not to say that brands or organisations can't engage in discussions too - though the prejudice against institutions of knowledge may be greater than against individuals. My advice here is to demonstrate your values that your audience are most likely to resonate with, and share other people's personal stories as much as possible.
In High Water Common Ground I didn't let anyone on-screen with a badge on their chest - they were all just individuals sharing their own experiences. This peer-to-peer approach has led the film to be widely used in community outreach settings, and the model has continued to be utilised between the communities at the forefront of Natural Flood Risk Management - see Slow The Flow.
Respect The Narrative - Be A Mentor
The fact is, people are right to be worried about the state of the world at the minute. As environmentalists trying to tackle the climate and ecological crises, we've been trying to get people to be more worried for ages! And what's more, we know the solutions are available, and that what we're pursuing is a better world in every possible sense, to the benefit of everyone - so we've ample reasons to want to push our agenda.
However, a seemingly growing number of people (growing in confidence anyway), and unreceptive - actively turned-off by - actual scientific credentials. So instead, remember the narrative that's playing out; for these individuals, they are the underdog protagonist on a journey of discovery - note how many opponents to actual science claim to have "done the research" themselves to draw their own, perfectly thoroughly informed, conclusions. That means that they're open to at least some information, as long as it's presented appropriately and doesn't talk-down to them.
So remember that your role in this narrative is to be the Mentor - to allow the 'protagonist' to go on their journey of discovery, while you have the opportunity to aid them on their way.
To me, sharing opportunities to learn sounds much better waving around credentials and having shit flung back at you.
In High Water Common Ground, Professor Chris Spray of the Tweed Forum was one of the academics that shared his institution's established research - and at the forefront was the way in which the Forum has worked with local farmers and landowners to conduct their science, and the ongoing way in which they encourage other groups to visit their catchment to test their data.
Transparency is Imperative
Transparency in operations has never been more important, and it's become a top priority for your fans as much as it has for your opponents.
For fans, transparency is important in a reassuring way - to demonstrate clearly that your values resonate and you take pride in what you do, the impact you make and how you make it.
For opponents, transparency in your operations will prevent them from getting more ammo if they ever 'uncover' hidden ties or dodgy-doings that they're all too keen to use to discredit you. If they get dirt, it'll play into the narrative that you're part of a conspiracy against them, so make it very easy to see that the dirt they're looking for simply isn't there. Remember that all the while, they'll be waiting for you to show your "true colours".
I produced High Water Common Ground with the help of 12 'sponsor' organisations, and that was clearly displayed on the title tile. What I also made clear was that while I retained ultimate editorial control, each party - including those featured on-screen - had been given the chance to share their message through this platform, so it was a level playing field with equal right to reply. Every other contributor to the knowledge presented in the film was named, and it was presented not as an absolute solution, but as a movement that all are welcome to contribute to.
Overall, balance your deserved credibility with humility, remember the position of your audience and respect the position that they're in. Remember that we should all be on the same side in this, and act like that's achievable, rather than the juvenile fantasy it can so often feel like.