Faced with the endless stream of scientific studies on COVID-19, virologist Jean Barbeau is working to make studies in his field of research accessible for the general public.
Jean Barbeau, a professor at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Dentistry since 1993, specializes in microbiology and immunology. He is also responsible for infection prevention and control at the school.
Barbeau is dedicated to teaching and popularizing science. He had been using social networks for years to gain fast access to scientific publications and communicate with colleagues, and he was already using his Facebook page to share information and publish popular science capsules on microbiology. Now the pandemic has prompted him to disseminate his research publications and share his knowledge in a way that is accessible to all.
Why have you become more active on social media since the onset of the pandemic?
Social media are wonderful vehicles for getting information quickly, before it appears in conventional media and before research articles are published. This is a strength but it can also be a serious problem because social media are a giant rumour mill. When there are no moderating influences, scientific disinformation can circle the globe 10 times in less than a day. Sometimes misinformation is deliberately fabricated but most of the time it stems from people misunderstanding scientific concepts. PCR tests are a good example.
The reason I’m active on social media is mainly to educate. I try to explain scientific concepts in my fields of expertise and knowledge: microbiology, molecular biology, immunology, infection control and some aspects of epidemiology. The general public does not have enough knowledge to understand certain complex questions where subtle distinctions are very important. So people are generally ill prepared to critically analyze the information they are bombarded with on a daily basis. This was true at the beginning of the pandemic, and it remains true today.
We—both the experts and the general public—have a better understanding of the COVID-19 virus and its impacts than we did at the beginning of the pandemic, but the task of analyzing the data has become dramatically more complicated over time. Even the experts are starting to feel at sea! Over 500 scientific publications come out every week on COVID. Some of them haven’t even been peer-reviewed. No one can really keep up with them. Trying to track the effectiveness and impact of vaccines, for example, is a daunting challenge.
I therefore felt I could make a contribution in this jungle of information by sorting things out, separating truth from falsehood and, especially, adding nuance. I wanted to help raise people’s scientific IQ, so to speak, so that my followers could not only understand what was being published but also help disseminate more accurate and digestible information.
Also, when you understand something, you’re less prone to anxiety and fear.
Are you trying to reach the people spreading disinformation or the people who might believe it?
While I would love to get the “professional disinformers” to give accurate information, I’m not kidding myself. They don’t really read my texts; they just take the gist of it and reject the whole thing. So I target people who are looking for reliable information or who are wavering, hoping to hook them before they fall into the misinformation abyss. I have a few thousand subscribers who follow my capsules. I figure that with more information they can help fight disinformation.
Are you concerned that disinformation is gaining ground?
Well, it’s more than a concern; it’s been gaining ground for a while. There aren’t enough people with a moderating influence to counter not only deliberate disinformation but also unintentional misinformation.
For every piece of disinformation debunked, 10 new ones pop up. There is an infinite number of ways to say falsehoods and only one way to tell the truth. We are beset on all sides by the two extremes: those who deny the existence of the pandemic or the efficacy of vaccines, and those for whom nothing that is done will ever be enough. Debunking the falsehoods spread by the first group is easy enough, but dealing with the second group is more complicated, because they are better informed and have good intentions. But the ultra-alarmists are also a problem.
What is your strategy to avoid getting drawn into quarrels?
I try as much as possible to stay above the fray when discussions start to get out of hand. My posts mostly provide scientific information and explanations rather than taking a stand, so they’re less likely to attract controversy.
I believe that, in general, members of the public want accurate information but sometimes they don’t look in the right place: you need some background to know how to find reliable information in a field you’re unfamiliar with. It isn’t always easy. I’m careful not to be either offensive nor condescending in my posts. One misstep can make you lose credibility with your existing and potential followers. Understandably, people don’t like to be talked down to.
When someone responds negatively, or even aggressively, to your comments, how do you react?
A negative reaction is not always a bad thing. It sometimes gives me an opportunity to correct information that was unclear or to write another post. You can usually tell whether the person is really interested in constructive interaction. If someone takes the trouble to contradict me with an argument, I ask for their sources. Very often there aren’t any, or they are easy to disprove. Sometimes the sources are valid and I have no problem admitting it.
On the other hand, some comments leave no room for a response: for example, being accused of hiding information or of being in the pay of “Big Pharma” or the government. In such cases, it is pointless to argue, and I “escort” (the polite term I use for blocking) the person off my site.
What advice do you have for colleagues who want to comment on social media?
You have to stay above the fray as much as possible, stick to your area of expertise, and not be afraid to say when a topic is outside your competence. People will respect you for it. Making inaccurate statements and having to correct them can happen, but we should try to avoid it as much as possible. If you lose credibility, it doesn’t just affect you personally; loss of public trust can spread quite quickly. Bad news travels fast!
For my part, I believe we have a “duty of reserve,” so to speak. In my opinion, criticizing public health authorities, colleagues or government decisions too often is counterproductive. It can undermine overall trust in science and decision-making at a time when the cooperation of the public is crucial. On the other hand, expressing reservations or making constructive suggestions supported by arguments is clearly legitimate and, I would suggest, necessary.
Having a social media presence to share what we have learned during our years of study and teaching and to help improve the scientific literacy of our fellow citizens is very rewarding. I encourage all my colleagues to do it.