Invasion, pandemic and a world in crisis – let’s strengthen research and democracy!

Incomprehensible, horrifying, worrying. After two years of pandemic, the world as we know it has been turned upside down again. We are all affected and concerned by Russia’s war against Ukraine. But there is a lot we can do to reduce fears and contribute to evidence-based democratic development.

”The first casualty of war is the truth,” said US Senator Hiram Johnson as early as 1917. It is also the title of a book by Phillip Knightley on the work of war reporters, which was course literature when I studied journalism at the University of Gothenburg many years ago.

But it is not just journalists who have difficulty navigating the flow of information. An infodemic or a rumour epidemic involves a flood of both true and false information, which spreads rapidly across many channels, and affects us all.

Until recently, most of it was about Covid-19. Now, of course, it has been overtaken by the war in Ukraine. Just like at the beginning of the pandemic, we are all following the news and special broadcasts, trying to contribute with resources that people are lacking and gathering in social media. Disagreement amongst political parties, for example,on how the pandemic was handled, has been replaced by broad consensus. ”Rally around the flag” is a term that political scientists often use to explain increased support for political leaders from the public as well as the opposition during times of crisis.  

Literally overnight, the epidemiologists and public health experts have been replaced by military scientists and international law researchers in the media. We are experiencing a different kind of crisis than during the pandemic, but the need for research-based knowledge and specialist expertise remains the same.

Source criticism, independent journalism and access to research-based knowledge strengthens democracy and makes the world situation a little less incomprehensible.

”When conspiracy theories, knowledge resistance and emotion-laden rhetoric take over, there is a risk that democracy is diminished, or that it collapses,” writes Professor Åsa Wikforss in her latest book Därför demokrati (Therefore democracy), in which she highlights the importance of knowledge to a well-functioning democracy.

Right now, there is a great deal of misinformation and disinformation circulating and the instruments of war include rumours, influence campaigns and cyber-attacks. In order to know who and what we can trust, we need to be source critical. A good starting point is to use the three questions that have been developed and tested in scientific studies, and which are included in the News Evaluator tool, which VA has developed together with Uppsala University and RISE Interactive:

  1. Who is the sender and what may his/her intentions be?
  2. What evidence is there for various claims made in the news?
  3. What are other independent sources saying about the same news?

Another useful question to ask both yourself and others is How do you know that?

Openness, freedom of expression and public debate are the cornerstones of a democratic society. But that does not mean that you should trust or disseminate everything you come across.

”Anyone who spreads disinformation risks undermining our common security. Do not spread information about Sweden’s defence either,” said the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in her speech to the nation on 1 March.

One thing is certain: Source criticism, independent journalism and access to research-based knowledge strengthen democracy, and makes the world situation a little less incomprehensible.

/Cissi Askwall, VA’s Secretary General

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