Posted by: bluesyemre | February 11, 2022

Science and social media


Long before the pandemic, scientists began flocking to social media, sharing ideas, thoughts, and information. But it is undeniable that the pandemic has boosted the visibility and engagement of scientists on many platforms, especially Twitter. Has this been good or bad for science? The answer is both.

On the positive side, social media can be a good way to collaborate on scientific questions quickly and transparently, and along the way, many outstanding scientists have been introduced to the public. It’s also a good way for scientists to let off steam when the pressures of hard work and a skeptical public pile up. On the negative side, these wide-open forums allow forces bent on undermining science to cherry-pick the debates. In this week’s issue of Science, commentaries about “Science and social media” explore these matters, which have become central to the scientific enterprise. As the authors make clear, scientists must give more consideration to the impact and inner workings of social media to use the medium effectively without inadvertently causing misunderstanding and being gamed by hyperalert trolls.

The pandemic has brought these tensions to the fore. For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication has pointed out that instead of stating that “masks work,” scientists should have been saying “masks help” because they can’t completely prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those who communicate science may tend to be drawn to absolutes out of fear of seeming indecisive. However, there’s a trade-off. An anti-masker who grudgingly wears a mask in public and catches COVID-19 could gleefully claim that fact as evidence that the scientific consensus is wrong. Though the scientific community should have learned this lesson, the hashtag #MasksWork still screams across Twitter. Similarly, the hashtag #VaccinesWork means to scientists that vaccination induces an immune response that decreases disease severity, but to some of the public, it may mean that vaccination completely prevents infection. Now, antivaxxers are using breakthrough infection cases with the Omicron variant to sow doubt.

Other problems arise when the give-and-take tumult of scientific discussion unfolds in the public eye. Science is an honorably self-correcting process. Interpretations are revised and sometimes experimental results are found to be incorrect, and conclusions are modified. The system does a good job of converging ever closer to the truth, but the record of these changes, often preserved indefinitely on social media, provides material for agendadriven naysayers to paint scientists as flip-floppers when they’re just doing what scientists are supposed to do.

When conspiracy theories proliferate on social media, particularly about the pandemic, scientists sometimes use humorous posts to scoff at the claims. The highest engagement in my own personal Twitter account occurred when charlatan Scott Atlas (who was an adviser to President Trump) tweeted that many scientists supported the dangerous Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated for letting severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spread. I replied to Atlas and said, “No they’re not. I would know.” The fact that this tweet far outperformed anything else that I posted on the pandemic—comments backed by authoritative research—reflects how hungry folks are for a break in the tension. Of course, these kinds of exchanges can be taken out of context, which can make scientists appear out of touch with a doubting public.

The overarching problem is that the algorithms used by the social media companies actively discourage authoritative information—disagreement and outlandish statements result in more engagement. This point is discussed compellingly in the Perspective by Brossard and Scheufele. Most scientists don’t appreciate how public resistance to facts can be amplified by inanimate algorithms, rather than by living conspiracy theorists, that reinforce what people choose to engage with.

What to do about all of this? At next week’s virtual annual meeting (17 to 20 February) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science), I’ll be moderating a discussion among four outstanding scientists and communicators who are on the front lines of these challenges: Jane Lubchenco (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), Joelle Simpson (Children’s National Hospital), Katherine Mack (North Carolina State University), and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (University of Pennsylvania). I’ll be asking these leaders what the scientific community should be doing to leverage the power of social media to foster greater understanding of science and more constructive exchange of ideas. Tune in for an enlightening conversation.

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