Fake Science and Political Online Attention: Qualitative Research About Bolsa Família Program Using Altmetrics

Thursday 23 August
A guest post from Thaiane Oliveira

The Bolsa Família Program is a tramp thing”! These words are in the mouths of many Brazilians, especially those of middle and upper classes who do not need the government-run subsidy to supplement the family budget. Not only in the people's mouths, but according to the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, one of the articulators of the 2016 coup in Brazil [1], says Bolsa Família enslaves people, making them dependent of the state [2]. The Bolsa Família Program (BFP) is an income transfer program for families living in poverty and extreme poverty, created during the Lula in 2003, Brazilian ex-president of Workers Party (PT).

Even in the face of economic studies that show that the program serves those who really need it, as published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), opinions on the BFP are controversial. Popular and government leader’s opinions are mainly political.

The World is going through a crisis in science today with the growth of movements that delegitimize and announce that some scientific knowledge is “fake”. This is the case of anti-vaccine and flat earth movements that plague several countries of the world. But when the scientific production concerns a controversial public policy like BFP, is the repercussion of studies on the validity of these social programs also considered fake for the audience?

Trying to answer this question, we developed a study to identify the repercussion of research on BFP in social networks, using altmetrics, combined with qualitative research.

Data collection was done through Dimensions.ai and the Altmetric API. 871 outputs were collected in total - 819 of them articles. From this group, 524 were Open Access and 348 were paywalled or Closed Access. In our dataset, the Open Access articles received more online attention then Closed Access.

On Twitter, we collected 5465 tweets from 3756 unique users. Based on the information provided in Tweeter bio’s, and as categorized by Altmetric, approximately 73% were from the general public, 15% from scientists, 5% practitioners and 7% scientist communicators. This distribution seems to demonstrate a public commitment and interest in engaging with scholarly work on this topic.

Using social network analysis it was possible to observe that members of the general public who engaged with research in this area formed isolated micro-clusters, while communicators of science and scientists working in public policies and health form clusters that mark their authority on the subject in their social networks, evidencing the role of these professionals in forming opinions in these spaces.

When analyzing the content of Altmetric’s Facebook data, the mentions of scientific articles gain a political dimension because they are related to the public policies present in political-partisan groups or networks; particularly vocal in a moment of polarization and pre-election in Brazil.

“For the reactionaries who support, without any scientific basis, the argument that Bolsa Família encourages 'poor people to make a lot of children' to earn more resources of the program. Let's study and do SCIENTIFIC research before talking nonsense, as Ney Matogrosso has.” [3]

Although the Bolsa Família Program is a controversial subject that divides public opinion about it, there has been no incidence of attacks against the academic work collected in the sample, showing that science is still considered a legitimate information agent, even addressing a controversial issue in a polarized political moment [4].

The scholarly work on BFP is not interpreted as fake science, according to the sample collected.

In addition to the anti-vaccine, flat earth and creationism movement (a subject that currently enjoys a high profile due to the growth of a religious group in the Brazilian congress), what other issues that delegitimize science have repercussion in social networking sites? A qualitative study using altmetrics can help us analyze and respond to this question.
1. In 2016, a parlamentar coup impeached the presidente Dilma Roussef because she had concealing a budget deficit by borrowing from a state-owned bank. See more: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/01/world/americas/brazil-impeachment-coup.html
2. A special issue about the parlamentar coup in Brazil will be lauched this month in Contracampo journal: www.contracampo.uff.br
https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/maia-afirma-que-bolsa-familia-escraviza-as-pessoas-22296779 In portuguese.
3. In 2014, Ney Matogrosso, a Brazilian singer, criticized the BFP during an interview to a Portuguese TV show. https://www.terra.com.br/noticias/brasil/em-portugal-ney-matogrosso-critica-bolsa-familia-e-copa,13e49faf83ce5410VgnVCM3000009af154d0RCRD.html – in Portuguese
4. This research, developed with Ronaldo Araújo and Janderson Toth, will be presented at 9th Confoa Conference and is available in Portuguese language at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325999516_Altmetria_e_a_analise_das_condicoes_de_interacao_em_torno_de_artigos_sobre_politicas_publicas_uma_incursao_metodologica