HSOC Student Uses Instagram to Combat Covid-19 Misinformation in Peru
Posted September 27, 2021
Tell someone an article contains misinformation, and they can avoid it for a day. Teach them how to spot misinformation, though, and they can avoid it for a lifetime.
“We have a big misinformation issue in Peru,” she explains. The South American country doesn't have as robust of a science presence as the U.S. — for example, there aren’t any organizations that hold the same authority that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does here — and there's plenty of misinformation on social media, too, Ruiz-León says.
But with a background in biochemistry, unique insight from her History and Sociology of Technology and Science Ph.D. program, and 68,000 followers on Instagram, Ruiz-León saw an opportunity to make a difference. Now she is one of the most prominent science communicators (or sci comm, for those in the know) in her home country of Peru.
Combatting Covid misinformation
Ruiz-León’s sci comm Instagram account mitocondria.cc grew rapidly during the pandemic, because people were drawn to the way she shared information so calmly and clearly during such a frightening time.
She was often so busy she could only post once every couple of days, but that gave her an advantage, Ruiz-León says, because she was able to gather all the facts before she spoke. This tone was often in contrast to the media, which frequently presented new findings in a more alarming way or in a rush before all the relevant information had been disseminated, she explains. Ruiz-León also sticks to summarizing only the most important news and data in her posts so as not to overwhelm her followers with too many details. And she focuses on teaching people how to spot misinformation on their own so they can do so independently in the future.
“Since I’m coming at it from more of a history angle, I don't focus so much on the specific content,” says Ruiz-León. “I don't say, ‘This news is fake because of this,’ because that has a short-time of impact. Instead, I focus more on explaining how science works. A big concept in the science and technology discipline is a tool called ‘opening the black box of science,’ and that's what I try to do on social media.”
Now her followers send her messages about their family members who were nervous about getting vaccinated and how showing them her videos gave them more peace of mind going into it. They also tag her on circulating fake news stories, calling them out as misinformation and directing people to Ruiz-León’s page to learn why.
Beyond her Instagram account, Ruiz-León has also collaborated with the National Library of Peru, created Instagram live videos with congress members, and attended a ministry communication meeting to discuss how the Peruvian government can better combat Covid-19 misinformation and promote getting the vaccine. She also presents content for school children on national TV, where she’s proud to represent little girls in STEM who don’t often see young women speaking on the topic. The channel is a particularly effective communication tool because it’s the only one in Peru that translates their programming from Spanish into the indigenous languages like Quechua and Ashaninka.
Sharing with a historian’s perspective
When asked if she was invited to participate in these conversations because of her social media presence, Ruiz-León said yes, 100%. Before she had so many followers on Instagram, she spent months knocking on doors for opportunities in Peru only to be told ‘no’ time and again. But even though her social following is what got her initial attention from larger media organizations, Ruiz-León believes it’s her unique perspective as a historian that keeps people listening.
“If you only have the training of science communication, you're not critical about science; you're just a science cheerleader,” she says. “By having a historian's perspective, you're able to say, ‘ya know, science is not always great,’ and you can give multiple examples of how scientists have failed women, minorities, anyone possible. So, I think understanding the history of science can add a lot more to science communication.”
Because of that, Ruiz-León always gives the same advice to students and scientists who want to follow in her footsteps: “Read about the history of science in your discipline. Because you're going to find out about the mistakes, and that's going to make your communication more valid and have more balance.”
Curating a virtual science museum
In her History and Sociology of Technology and Science Ph.D. program, Ruiz-León’s research focuses on the first interactive science museum in Peru, the ITINTEC museum, which opened in 1979 and closed in 1993. Her Instagram followers have rallied to support her, helping her find and contact people who used to work there and get books she needed from Peru (sometimes with an extra package of her favorite coffee) when she couldn't travel during the pandemic.
After completing her doctorate, Ruiz-León hopes to return and open a science museum in Lima again one day. Until then she will stick to curating her virtual science museum on Instagram to teach, inspire, and share her passion with others.
“We can’t have science museums in every city in Peru, or not everyone's going to go to that one science museum that exists there,” says Ruiz-León. “But the idea of a science museum is more like an experience, where you get inspired by science or amused by knowledge. And you can do the same with social media.”
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