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A Grassroots Effort to Fight Misinformation during the Pandemic

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During the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, with misinformation permeating every form of media, members of the public were growing increasingly concerned for their health and seeking answers about the virus, its mode of transmission and how to protect themselves and their loved ones. Five organizations came together, recruited hundreds of volunteer scientists and built a new tool to get the best scientific information in plain language to millions of people around the world. This is the story of that project.

In March, with the help of other organizations, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launched Ask a Scientist to enable the public to literally ask a scientist any question related to SARS-CoV-2. The site is loaded with information from reputable scientific and public health sources such that it recognizes questions and provides an automated response. But for more custom-made questions, the public can send an email to a network of hundreds of scientists and get a response back in their inbox.

Throughout the pandemic, the site was viewed by millions of users as our expert volunteers, made up of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty members, answered thousands of questions, making Ask a Scientist one of the go-to resources online. What began as a small project to combat rampant misinformation about the pandemic quickly grew into a large effort that brought together experts in virology, medicine, public health and more to help the public access up-to-date information.

IN THE BEGINNING

In early February, news of the spread of a novel and deadly coronavirus had the U.S., and the world, on edge. Social media was rife with conspiracy theories and misinformation regarding the virus’ origin, how it spreads, and its severity. FAS, whose mission in part is to connect scientists with policy makers and the public, formed a small group of researchers to tackle this misinformation. The group collected and analyzed the most pervasive myths surrounding SARS-CoV-2, and then used sound reports and the scientific literature to debunk them.

We then launched a Web site to bring the up-to-date information to the public. It included answers to commonly asked questions and also catchy and simple PSAs on how to best protect oneself and loved ones. We also pushed out this information on social media. We included ways for the public to interact with our researchers to get their questions answered. 

Soon after, news of our efforts spread in media outlets, on social media, and by word of mouth. Our researchers were flooded by queries from a hungry public and the demand was far bigger than our small team at FAS could handle.

ENTER NYU AND NEW JERSEY

The solution was simple: if you can’t handle the incoming volume of questions, build a Web site that can automatically answer them. So FAS partnered with the New York University GovLab and the State of New Jersey Office of Innovation to build an entirely new Web site to make it easier to find answers to the most pressing questions about COVID-19, and rebranded the project as Ask a Scientist.

We preloaded the site with answers to hundreds of questions researched by us, or taken directly from the CDC, the WHO and other established public health entities. This new Web site also contained an answer-bot that automatically loads answers to questions typed in the search bar. Users can go in-depth, read about tangentially relevant issues, and even share each answer onto social media. Additionally, through a partnership with Amazon, we enabled users to interact with the site through their Alexa home device.

ASK A SCIENTIST

Notably, we added a feature to the site allowing those who did not find an answer to their question to send us a question and receive a response. But this time we were ready for the deluge, thanks to a partnership with the National Science Policy Network, an organization of hundreds of graduate students and postdocs aiming to promote the involvement and impact of early-career scientists and engineers in public policy.

This diverse group of scientists looking to make a difference during the pandemic was critical to the project’s success because they could field questions quickly and respond to a concerned public. By March 15, the Ask a Scientist volunteer network contained 150 graduate students (140 Ph.D. candidates and 10 master’s students), 100 Ph.D.s, 18 medical doctors, 50 with degrees in public health, 30 in virology, 30 in immunology, 20 in epidemiology and 15 with expertise in science, health or risk communication. Interest in the project only increased from this point forward, and a skilled editing team was recruited to ensure all of Ask a Scientist’s answers passed strict quality control measures.

To increase Ask a Scientist’s ability to reach as many members of the public as possible, the project’s Web site was translated into Spanish by a dedicated team of bilingual scientists. By the end of May, Ask a Scientist partnered with hundreds of NSPN members with expertise in virology, epidemiology and public health, as well as scientists from leading institutions who wanted to give back to their communities as the virus spread throughout the U.S.

Answers crafted by Ask a Scientist’s team of experts were also appraised for their value to others and, after removing any personally identifying information, were vetted by senior, Ph.D.-level scientists and made publicly available in the initiative’s comprehensive knowledge base. By doing this, the Ask a Scientist “answer bot” continued to get smarter and smarter. These answers were frequently updated to provide an easy-to-navigate database of information about the COVID-19 pandemic for the general public.

By mid-April, Ask a Scientist was featured on the National Governors Association’s Web site as a resource for state and local officials during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as embedded in the New Jersey and Alabama state government Web sites where it was being viewed by millions on a weekly basis. In an April press conference, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy called Ask a Scientist a “truly unique feature” that helps people get the answers they need to protect their families; he noted there had already been over two million visits to the New Jersey site at that point.

Ask a Scientist expanded so quickly that it outgrew its original organizational structure. Questions flooded in from the public and the number of volunteer scientists swelled to over 500. The team reached out to Accenture to help build a completely new back-end system to categorize and respond to questions. Both groups collaborated closely to construct a portal for the volunteers to make it easier to sort, answer and edit responses for the public, as well as communicate with each other to ensure that volunteers answered questions that aligned with their expertise. Ask a Scientist also grew in popularity in other countries. Our team received questions from 10 foreign nations, including Russia, India, Italy, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Spain.

A NEW PHASE

By May, the Ask a Scientist project had grown to not only provide the public with sound information, but also inform policy makers. The new initiative, called the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force, is based on a similar notion: crowdsource expertise from those who work across U.S. research institutions to inform the work of policy makers. To do this, FAS gathered some of the brightest scientific minds, in subjects such as virology, testing, big data, public health, treatments and vaccines, supply chain management, infectious disease medicine and international public health policy, to provide the best information as quickly as possible to federal and state lawmakers.

LOOKING AHEAD

Ask a Scientist has been an effort of collaborative science policy and communication, as experts from all over the world worked together to translate cutting-edge research for the public and deliver the most accurate advice. It is an effort to combat misinformation and provide individuals with the information they need in their everyday lives. This pandemic has clearly shown that effective science communication is essential to keep people safe. Collaborative, grassroots initiatives like Ask a Scientist can make a real impact in these efforts.

This effort would not be possible without support from the Rita Allen Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and individuals who support FAS.

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