Is fake news disrupting science communication?

I had a WhatsApp message the other day from 2 different family members claiming that “P / 500 paracetamol has been proven by doctors to contain the deadly Machupo virus.” The “Machupo” virus or the Bolivian haemorrhagic fever (BHF) induces symptoms including fever, muscle pains, bleeding gums and seizures with infections only reported in South America (Dyal and Fohner, 2005).

P / 500 paracetamol WhatsApp message — taken from a Facebook messenger screenshot.

So this led me to think; Has fake news disrupted science communication?

What do I mean by that? Have fabrications like the above, primarily originating on social media, affect our belief in genuine articles created by science communicators?

Imperial College defined science communication as:

“An umbrella term covering a wide variety of activities, including, professional communication by scientists; interactions between scientists and members of the public; the media representation of science; and the ways people use scientific knowledge in their own lives.” (British Government, 2016).

Social media and fake news:

Facebook announced 126 million (22%) of Americans may have seen fake news on the site between January 2015 and August 2017 (Sabur, 2017). Exposure to news, opinions and information increasingly occurs in social media (Bakshy, Messing and Adamic, 2015). Social platforms, such as Facebook and WhatsApp encourage a snowball of information (Chabay et al., 2017). This suggests that fake news shared by one person to their extended contacts with the same stories. Perhaps we’re conditioned that if others are sharing, we should too. Even though this information hasn’t been fact-checked or often even read. In other words, fake news is an infectious agent. Education can help to reduce the spread, but it might not be a comprehensive defence (Buchanan, 2018).

What happens when our view and engagement of science communication is distorted by fake news published on social media?

One significant scientific engagement via social media distortion happened in 2016 when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched the #NameOurShip campaign for a new £200k advanced research polar research vessel (, 2016).

Find out more about NERC’s new ship in the short film above about the incredible research it will carry out at the poles (, 2016).

“Will @BoatyMcBoatface triumph & keep up the greatest public engagement with UK oceanography the world has ever seen?” (Davis, 2016).

An inquiry by the British Government, detailing the public’s enthusiasm in science also documents their lack of trust in scientific journalism (, 2017). 35% of people think that scientists adjust their findings to get the answers they want. 29% believe scientific research is never or only occasionally checked before being published (Ipsos MORI, 2014).

The state of public attitudes to science (Ipsos MORI, 2014).
Video of participants in the qualitative research discussing how they think the public could become more engaged with science (Ipsos MORI, 2014).

Authentic fact-based scientific communication, when done right, protects us from ideology and bias, helping us to understand research and discoveries. Science can also inform and influence society, governments and laws (Miller, 2017). Perhaps we should encourage more McBoatfaces within social media while being controlled by accurate factual reporting with the Government ensuring that a robust redress mechanism is provided for when science is misreported (, 2017).

In summary, while my WhatsApp, P / 500 paracetamol, message was fake news. Science communicators should engage with social media more. Perhaps populating our stories and walls with science could create a spark of interest that proliferates the publics conscious. In turn leading to encourage public engagement, public involvement, and citizen science. Optimising the communicators value and promote more opportunities to nurture trust in science communication and science journalism (Miah, 2016).


Dyal, J. and Fohner, B. (2005). Machupo. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018]. (2017). HSA Addresses Hoax Alert Regarding “Machupo Virus” Found in Paracetamol Tablets | HSA | Health Sciences Authority. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Rozina Sabur (2017). Facebook to tell users how much Russian fake news they have been exposed to. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Bakshy, E., Messing, S. and Adamic, L. (2015). Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook. Science, [online] 348(6239), pp.1130–1132. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Chabay, I., Golumbic, Y., Lewenstein, B. and Pellegrini, G. (2017). Public engagement with science online in local communities. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Buchanan, M. (2018). Why fake news spreads like wildfire on Facebook. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Miller, H. (2017). Scientifically Illiterate America. [online] Hoover Institution. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

British Government (2016) Science communication. Written Evidence (6 April), COM0014.

Ipsos MORI. (2014). Public Attitudes to Science 2014. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018]. (2017). Science communication and engagement. Eleventh Report of Session 2016–17. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018]. (2016). Name our Ship | NERC. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].

Davis, C. (2016). Clare Davis on Twitter. [Tweet] Twitter. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].

Ellis-Petersen, H. (2016). Boaty McBoatface wins poll to name polar research vessel. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].

Miah, A. (2017). Nanoethics, Science Communication, and a Fourth Model for Public Engagement. NanoEthics, 11(2), pp.139–152.




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Paul Wilshaw