Commissioned by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Zebralog (Berlin) and ITAS conducted a study during 2008 and 2009 of German-language discussions of nanotechnology on the Internet. The English translation of the project's final report, the German original version of which had already been published previously, appeared in August 2010.
The analysis comprised a study - innovative in terms of its contents and methods - into how nanotechnology is viewed by the general public and shaped by society. The focus of the content analysis was on posts in online forums and blogs in which consumers expressed general opinions about nanoproducts and nanotechnology. The study analyses how people perceive the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology and individual nanoproducts, how this perception differs from one area of nanotechnology application to another (e.g. cars, health and cosmetics) and which linguistic images and interpretative frames are used in online discussions of nanotechnology. By examining everyday interpersonal online communication in which people express opinions of nanotechnology of their own accord, the study fills a gap in research into the public image of this field of research and technology.
The study followed a novel approach in a number of respects: the central focus was on German-language online discussions of nanotechnology and, in particular, of various nanotechnology-based products, pursued by people of their own accord. In order to analyse these discussions on the Internet, a methodological approach needed to be designed that would take account of the particular features of this study subject.
These online discussions cover a broad spectrum of topics and product groups, thus reflecting the multifaceted character of nanotechnology as an interdisciplinary technology. The most prominent forums in terms of sheer quantity (with the exception of forums on computer games and shares, which were not investigated for the purposes of the study) are those dealing with vehicles, and in particular with nanosealing for vehicle care. Certain topics such as the use of nanotechnology in foodstuffs, on the other hand, have only very recently become the subject of more intensive discussion. Overall, one has the impression of a discourse that is conducted in numerous places on the Internet and in which competing interpretations of nanotechnology and indeed perceptions of its risks are brought to public attention, yet in which there are comparatively little connections between the individual areas.
The results of an in-depth analysis of the discussion contents, based on around 500 individual posts, confirm in many respects what is already known from surveys and other studies: overall, the level of acceptance of nanotechnology is currently high within the German population. It is noticeable, however, that the beneficial aspects of nanotechnology or of specific nanoproducts are assessed more negatively in a considerable proportion of the reviewed discussion contributions. Clearly, in this particular group of consumers that are active in Internet forums, first generation nanoproducts face acceptance problems less as a result of fears of their risks than as a result of doubts about their benefits. At the same time, an analysis of the online discussions over the course of time shows that both references to risks and negative views of nanotechnology or nanoproducts are increasing.
The project was able to find out more about the views of a sector of the population which is already interested in nanotechnology. Furthermore, it was able to expand the range of instruments employed to investigate the public perception of nanotechnology beyond conventional means such as surveys, traditional media analyses and deliberative methods (such as focus groups). On the Internet, early users of nanoproducts, and other people who already have an interest in nanotechnology, discuss this field of research without being guided by experts and without taking part in an artificial survey situation. Through their availability on the Internet, the results of such discussions also represent a public source of information and opinion-forming about nanotechnology that is likely to attract greater attention in the future.
ITAS played a deputy project leadership role within the project, and was involved in the work throughout all phases of the project.