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Spring 2019

On Henry Mall

Illustration by Danielle Lamberson Philipp

Somewhere in the discouraging maze of fake news and widespread disinformation campaigns aimed at confusing and polarizing public discourse, there lies a road map for fostering honest public debate — at least around issues of science and technology. And Dominique Brossard may have found it.

The search for this glimmer of hope led Brossard, a professor of life sciences communication, into the contentious realm of genetically engineered crops. She teamed up with Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania for an extensive study that sought to answer one question: Are consensus reports published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) useful for fostering informed public conversation on a divisive technology?

NASEM consensus reports are produced by panels of people with broad expertise and are aimed at achieving scientific agreement on the state of a technology and its varied impacts. Brossard contributed her expertise on communicating science in new media environments to a recent consensus report titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.”

“The goal of a consensus report is to start a public conversation,” she says. “It has to be used.”

To explore the extent to which the crops report was being used, Brossard, Jamieson, and their colleagues employed national survey data and large-scale social media content analysis to explore public conversations on genetically modified crops both before and after the report’s May 2016 release. The results of their analysis, published in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, were encouraging.

One of the primary conclusions of the crops report is that there is no evidence that eating foods stemming from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is harmful to human health. It also reasons that the technology is increasingly important to modern agriculture (but context-dependent); is powerful but not a magic bullet that can “feed the world”; is changing rapidly (and regulations need to keep pace); and has environmental trade-offs with both risks and benefits.

Seizing an opportunity to measure the effect of an independent, credible report from the nation’s leading scientific academy on a polarizing issue, Brossard and Jamieson mapped out a strategy to systematically assess the reach and impact of the report as it was publicized and disseminated through social media. Their goals were to capture English-language coverage of the report in both traditional and social media, peg the report’s release to broader patterns of discussions of GMOs on Twitter, and measure fluctuations of negative and positive sentiment in conversations about GMOs in both social and traditional media.

The analysis found that the publicly available report was downloaded nearly 44,000 times and earned widespread news coverage and social media exposure. It also noted a sharp increase in Twitter conversations when the NASEM report was released in May 2016. That, says Brossard, suggests that the report gained currency with the public and had the desired effect of fostering informed public conversation.

And the report’s expert conclusions, say Jamieson and Brossard, not only percolated through traditional and social media, fueling conversations on Twitter and elsewhere, but also changed the tenor of the debate.

“We observed spikes of conversation. We observed spikes in opinion,” says Brossard. It shows that authoritative reports like those produced by NASEM “can influence the conversation if the communication is well done.”