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The deluge of digital information can be overwhelming even in normal times, but during a pandemic it can lead to widely divergent views about the situation. To a large extent, varying public engagement with data depends on how the data is presented, and on the messenger chosen to deliver the data. As EPFL professor Robert West explains, research in digital humanities has a key role to play in that process.

Head of the Data Science Lab in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences, Robert West is also a member of the UNIL-EPFL dhCenter, an interdisciplinary research platform set up between the University of Lausanne and EPFL. His work has shown that there is a human angle to facts. The extent to which facts can influence public opinion or action depends on how people understand those facts. Comprehension of data varies from person to person because of differences in background. For instance, information posted on social media could be assimilated in different ways by different people, and thus leave varying influences.

That probably accounts for the widely disparate public perceptions of early news about the pandemic. Many people stocked up on essentials, others brooded about the repercussions on national and global GDP, while some saw no reason for the hue and cry because “It’s just a flu!”

To go deeper into public perception of data, Robert West and colleagues are engaged in a research funded through the Collaborative Research on Science and Society (CROSS) program. The researchers conducted an experiment to see how public opinion was swayed on some hot current topics depending on the source of the information. Contrary to their hypothesis, Robert West and colleagues found that statements made by celebrities (including some disliked celebrities) had more of an influence than those that came from experts. The study demonstrated how digital humanities could be used as a strategy to educate the public during a crisis such as the virus outbreak.

To steer clear of false or misinterpreted information during the pandemic, Robert West advises a three-pronged strategy: check the sources of data interpretations and of the data itself; check whether graphs representing coronavirus data are linear or logarithmic; and retain the correct perspective by staying updated about data on the virus.