Environmental policies have been enacted world-wide to promote a swift transition from fossil fuels to biofuels in the transport sector. Since 2007, a media controversy over the sustainability of biofuels – be it environmental, social or economic – has put pressure on science to reduce uncertainty by providing sober policy-advice to decision- making institutions as well as informing the public. These calls for increased expert involvement demonstrate a faith in the supposed neutrality of expert analysis. At the same time, much scholarly work has highlighted the increasingly blurred boundaries between policy-making, science and industry, as well as changed communicational strategies following in its wake. Not only do scientific understandings change as they are conformed to medias news value criteria, they are already the result of strategic considerations as they “leave the ivory tower”, so to speak.

Search engines, Google in particular, are also very important filters that shape the public understanding of biofuels. Google’s way of sorting and ranking information is shaped by its PageRank algorithm that uses the number and quality of links a website gets to evaluate its value. Depending on how much resources website providers have, they can optimize their sites to fit the PageRank logic. Google also profiles users’ habits and interests, making it possible to target ads based on users “search terms”. Users get services for free, while “paying” with their data. This, among other things, calls into question search engine’s roles of what we commonly think of as neutral tools for information provision.

This paper is based on a comparative study of how biofuels have been presented in the Swedish press and in Google’s search results, over a period of 6 months. It surveys who the dominant actors have been (and probably still is), with a special focus on expertise and experts, looks at the links one can discern between different websites (Using digital method Issue Crawler), and traces press material back to press releases, when possible.

The study poses a reflexive challenge: how to communicate that the conditions shaping the content, form and style of science communication is an integrated part of what is relevant to know about a specific science based topic. If we could manage that, the quality of science journalism would improve dramatically.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

The role of search engines and the press in the biofuel controversy
Technoscientific marketing or democratic deliberation?

Jenny Eklöf   UmeÃ¥ University

Environmental policies have been enacted world-wide to promote a swift transition from fossil fuels to biofuels in the transport sector. Since 2007, a media controversy over the sustainability of biofuels – be it environmental, social or economic – has put pressure on science to reduce uncertainty by providing sober policy-advice to decision- making institutions as well as informing the public. These calls for increased expert involvement demonstrate a faith in the supposed neutrality of expert analysis. At the same time, much scholarly work has highlighted the increasingly blurred boundaries between policy-making, science and industry, as well as changed communicational strategies following in its wake. Not only do scientific understandings change as they are conformed to medias news value criteria, they are already the result of strategic considerations as they “leave the ivory tower”, so to speak.

Search engines, Google in particular, are also very important filters that shape the public understanding of biofuels. Google’s way of sorting and ranking information is shaped by its PageRank algorithm that uses the number and quality of links a website gets to evaluate its value. Depending on how much resources website providers have, they can optimize their sites to fit the PageRank logic. Google also profiles users’ habits and interests, making it possible to target ads based on users “search terms”. Users get services for free, while “paying” with their data. This, among other things, calls into question search engine’s roles of what we commonly think of as neutral tools for information provision.

This paper is based on a comparative study of how biofuels have been presented in the Swedish press and in Google’s search results, over a period of 6 months. It surveys who the dominant actors have been (and probably still is), with a special focus on expertise and experts, looks at the links one can discern between different websites (Using digital method Issue Crawler), and traces press material back to press releases, when possible.

The study poses a reflexive challenge: how to communicate that the conditions shaping the content, form and style of science communication is an integrated part of what is relevant to know about a specific science based topic. If we could manage that, the quality of science journalism would improve dramatically.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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