Expert knowledge and social media – an impossible equation?

Copenhagen’s communication network data visualised
@Design House Copenhagen 2018.

Do you feel frustrated with the quality of discussion in society? Do you feel we are inundated with data, but need better analysis and a closer dialogue with research and society? Do you get annoyed at the way public debate seems to ignore scientific knowledge? Are you appalled at how politicians and opinion leaders seem to treat academic knowledge as being merely ’on a par’ with that of the layman in respect of the complex issues facing our societies? Do you grind your teeth when reading the day’s headlines in the ‘popular’ media? Join the club. There are luckily still several ways in which experts and the academic community more generally can make themselves heard.

“Joining the club” is actually an accurate metaphor in this case, as this blog is very much inspired by our “phenomenon club”, a loose network of experts and civil servants brought together by the shared wish to broaden our perspectives and engage in some learning-by-doing in the area of systems thinking and change-making. The club has now been in operation for about a year, with sporadic meetings around various topics and in different constellations. The topic of expert knowledge and its changing nature has been a recurrent theme on our self-organising agenda.

Perhaps the most significant megatrends influencing the ways in which researchers and academic experts need to engage with their audiences is digitalisation, as well as the many technological developments which enable new work practices, promote greater mobility, virtual working modes and new communication methods and practices. Many of the mega trends and the most interesting processes impacting the future of work for academic experts are also central to the ongoing changes in our democracies. This is perhaps also why they are so pertinent: they reflect both the possibilities and limitations of our democracies as they currently exist. While openness, transparency and equal access to information remain at the core of our system, we cannot continue to take these values for granted, they need to be maintained and renewed through concrete action and daily practice.

In our “phenomenon-club”, we have often been confronted by these concerns. On a number of occasions, when, with the help our “systems mapping canvases” which are intended to help the systems mapping exercises along and help make causalities visible, relevant “phenomena” for discussion have involved the issues of “post truth”, “the changing nature of expertise”, “the impact of social media on communicating factual information”. We have even discussed them, but seldom with such a deeply thought-through and such a hands-on support as in our most recent session , when our club enjoyed an introductory note by two professionals on this very issue, Petro Poutanen and Salla-Maaria Laaksonen.

Petro Poutanen and Salla-Maaria Laaksonen

Petro and Salla-Maaria have worked on these topics for a long time and recently published a guidebook for professionals on the topic, i.e. Faktat nettiin! Asiantuntijaviestintä sosiaalisessa mediassa (or rather, “Facts Online! Expert communication in social media”). Their argument starts from the assumption that social media is not first and foremost a threat to fact-based knowledge and information, rather it also allows for new possibilities for fact-based research communication, beyond traditional dissemination and communication. Social media allows for the improved visibility and dissemination of research information, diverse and enriching encounters and forms of collaboration, as well as increased openness during the various stages of research. By making assumptions and findings available, accessible and debated online, experts can, above all, correct misinformation in the public domain and bring knowledge-based perspectives to the heart of the public debate.

The book itself (published in Finnish, hopefully with an English-language version to follow) is based on expert interviews and years of research on the topic, expanding the topic beyond the itself useful perspective of science communication and considerations of expert roles, from institutional and authority-based traditional expertise to post-modern forms of experts as brand-builders. The introduction provided by Petro and Salla-Maaria and the debate that ensued with our network of experts from various fields of society provided the inspiration for this blog.

Traditional expert authorities are increasingly challenged.

We identified some of the reasons behind the need to respond to and change the way we act and communicate as experts and researchers. Behind the perceived need to adjust our own practice was, for instance, the common perception that respect for traditional forms of institutional authority is declining. While this can be viewed as a healthy sign of a well-educated society, where titles and institutional positions are no signifier of intellectual or professional superiority, it also reflects some of the negative sides of our societies, with all of those associated post-truth and “fake news” tendencies. As we, in Finland, like to think of ourselves as a country of social mobility, equal opportunity and meritocracy, there is generally little deference automatically shown to authority, but it remained a shared view nonetheless that the traditional respect for research and science should not fall prey to impatience and ignorance. Other factors behind the perceived need to change included the strong tendencies towards increased individualism, partly connected to the marketisation of expertise and the fact that information and knowledge are increasingly commodified, market-driven, and platform-based.

The starting point of our meeting was the belief that these issues should be explored through multiple perspectives and viewed through systems glasses. Societal openness is at the heart of these megatrends and the need for transparency, equality, openness and the renewal of our democracy are central to the changing role of the expert and the status of expert knowledge.

Phenomenon-based thinking and the systems approach to societal knowledge creation are also connected to notions of complexity. The uncertainty of evidence (re: complex phenomena, no more easy answers and simple explanations, increasingly contingent knowledge, requiring interpretation) and the increasing inability of (experts) to control public debate emerged as central drivers behind the shift in expert roles.

The debate concluded with some important reflections on what is required in terms of skills and competences. The characteristics required from experts and researchers today are once again at the heart of the human skills that also accompany systems-thinking and phenomenon-based agency more generally, namely empathy, situational awareness and sensitivity, as well as an understanding of the segments and targets groups (of various communicative efforts).The discussion also concluded that what the experts need is a stronger goal-orientation, i.e. who do I need to reach with my knowledge and findings, why and how can I get my point across, who else may need to know about this and how may his or her community benefit from this knowledge. The key question then ultimately concerns the utilisation of knowledge, rather than its production or diffusion. There was also a shared realisation that one needs to reflect further on the need and/or ability to draw boundaries around one’s professional and personal identity. Are you ready for it? Will you engage in social media, though it may not be part of your incentive structure? Because we need your research and expertise.

Published by phenomenalfinland

A political scientist, living in Helsinki, passionate about the future of our welfare state and curious about new phenomena and new ways, methods and practices capable of making our society better. Aspiration in life: to become the person my dog already thinks I am.

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