Readers’ comments as a public arena for the scrutiny of science: a study of science news comments in two Brazilian newspapers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Carla Almeida, Museu da Vida – Fiocruz, Brazil

Format: Individual paper

During the COVID-19 pandemic, science, scientists, their knowledge and discoveries became not only an everyday subject, but also an object of public scrutiny. Traditional media, by providing wide coverage of the topic, opened a privileged space for this scrutiny to take place. Interested in examining the modes of (dis)authorisation of scientific discourse in COVID-related debates held in traditional media, we collected 123 comments from readers of 14 science news on the subject published in the online version of two Brazilian newspapers – Folha de S.Paulo and O Globo – between April 12 and May 9 of 2020. We then conducted a discourse analysis, mobilizing concepts from Charaudeau’s Semiolinguistic Theory, through which we sought to identify discursive markers of acceptance/reaffirmation, weighting/negotiation and rejection of the authority of science/scientists and the argumentative device supporting the different positions of the readers. The comments analysed suggest readers generally supportive of science, who use expert/pedagogical language in their interventions to comment and explain the science behind reported studies. Although we did not identify a position of total rejection of science, stories about controversial topics, such as (hydroxy)chloroquine, generated comments questioning scientific methods and researchers’ motivations. Among these critical comments, we verified a dispute of authority among the readers – who can talk about science? We also identified among the comments on (hydroxy)chloroquine news stories a strong polarization between supporters and critics of the drug’s use, reflecting the political polarization in Brazil, governed by a right-wing denialist president who then defended the drug’s use as a Covid treatment against the Brazilian scientific authorities, represented mostly by the left. In this sense, our study contributes to current discussions on the legitimacy of science in a context of increasing denialism and intense circulation of misinformation and on the complex relationships between science and politics.