Narrowing the Nano Discourse? The Web Changes How And What Citizens Learn About Emerging Technologies

Ladwig, Peter; Anderson, Ashley; Brossard, Dominique; Scheufele, Dietram; Shaw, Bret
Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin, Madison 53706, USA

Audiences for science and technology news in traditional news outlets are shrinking, and recent data suggest that citizens increasingly turn to online sources for information about emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology. This raises a number of related questions. How do they approach this wealth of online information about nanotechnology, i.e., what kinds of keywords searches are most frequently used by citizens? And what kinds of content are they likely to encounter, based on these searches? As

Based on analyses of Google Keyword data, Google Suggestions data and nano related Web sites content data, our results suggest that the terms audiences search for and the content they encounter during these searches increasingly shift the public debate about nanotechnology away from economic or scientific considerations. Instead, the web is directing the public toward a framing of the issue around health and medical considerations. This may have an impact on public’s perception of the science and the range of its applications. In 2009, Google users are searching less for economic terms relating to nanotechnology than they were in 2008, and current Google suggestions highlight more health-related than economic terms. Plant biotechnology experienced a similar trend as U.S. media coverage initially focused on technological and economic development, but, by the late 1990s, focused on health and ethical risks. Although this shift in frames did not affect regulatory policy, it slowed industry growth. The trend we are seeing in online searching and content of nanotechnology could adversely affect future investments in nanotechnology in a similar fashion.

Figure 1: We searched for “nanotechnology” and several other keywords on Google and analyzed the content of the resultant websites by searching for a set number of words/link on the sites. We found that overall, most online nanotechnology content is health themed.