Is social media good for science?
Platforms like Twitter have a major impact on scientific discourse, but is it for good or for ill?
The social media platform Twitter was recently purchased by the worlds richest man, Elon Musk. This takeover has proven controversial, as have many of the things Musk has said and done since the takeover.
As a result, many scientists have left the platform in protest, or declared their intentions to do so. All this noise and a personal break from the platform over the holidays has left me reflecting on what social media (SoMe) brings to science, and whether it would be better off without it.
Ultimately, I think it depends on whose behalf we are asking - the public, or scientists themselves.
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Social media is bad for science
SoMe platforms make money predominantly through advertising. The longer you are on the site, the more adverts you see. This motivates companies to develop algorithms that show you things you like. However, more than this, the algorithms show you things you engage with. Engagement is driven by strong feelings - good or bad.
Say you have a deeply held, positive opinion about X. If someone posts,
“I think X is amazing - how could anyone reasonable ever think differently?”
You are likely to engage with this post by “liking” it and sharing it.
On the other hand, if someone posts,
“There is no question X is appalling. Anyone who likes X should feel deeply ashamed”
You are also likely to engage with this post by commenting to express your negative feelings. The stronger the sentiment and the more polarising the topic, the more engagement it gets, and the more the algorithms will boost it. High engagement encourages more posting of the same nature, and the cycle continues.
Studies have also shown that engagement is driven by attacking an “out group”. This is most obvious for politics. You get more engagement for posting, “Hey the other political party really SUCKS”, than , “Hey our political party is really AMAZING”. This can work for any issue.
Take Covid-19. You guarantee engagement by posting something like,
“It’s time everyone woke up to the fact that all those who supported/opposed lockdowns have blood on their hands - it’s high time they were held to account”
This issue of what gets attention and boosted on SoMe is the fundamental cause of two major threats SoME plays to science:
SoMe algorithms run directly counter to the scientific process
It should be obvious that the kind of posting shown above is not conducive to constructive debate about the pros and cons of lockdowns. Scientific debates should be dispassionate assessments of data and their implications which take into account varying levels of uncertainty. These types of conversations become impossible to have on SoMe, as the comments which get amplified are guaranteed to be the opposite.
Bold, polarising statements containing insults to those who disagree with you get boosted to the top of the algorithm. As time goes by the debate degrades and just becomes more polarised.
Trash science gets amplified
The kinds of scientific articles/opinions that get amplified most are those which are controversial and extreme. Most good science is neither of these things, because by nature it is incremental.
This problem gets worse when science is being weaponised in the name of ideology. Covid-19 has provided some of the most extreme examples, with SoMe being full of “studies” showing that either Covid-19 was some sort of hoax or non-issue, or that Covid-19 causes some sort of immunodeficiency and even in the post vaccine era it is going to wipe out the human race. These kinds of posts garner huge amounts of engagement because they are so extreme (also because the people engaged in these communities are deeply embedded and highly motivated).
This problem has become worse now that Covid-19 is no longer at the top of most peoples agenda. The rational middle has largely been abandoned as people move on, whilst conspiracy theorists on either side battle it out over topics which most of us would find it hard to believe could ever be taken seriously.
Similar things can be noted in regards to vaccines, and SoMe has been a huge boon to the antivaccine industry. It is no coincidence that the most prominent “antivaxxers” all sell their own “alternatives”.
These issues can be overcome by most scientists, as the trash science sticks out like a sore thumb and can largely be ignored. The same is true for the most rancorous debates - although it is disheartening seeing colleagues engage with unprofessional behaviour in the name of SoMe clicks (you can read more about the hidden curriculum of science twitter here).
The main problem is arguably for the general public. The maximum exposure they get to science on SoMe is either bold, polarising, and reductionistic takes on complex issues, or just total trash.
Social media is good for science
It’s certainly not all bad! The benefits SoMe brings to science are immense. It’s hard to summarise them all, but I will highlight things I think are most important.
Speed of dissemination
Studies and data which might lie dormant for months on the desks of scientific journal editors are now getting published to thousands of interested colleagues at the click of a button. Huge networks of people are tuned in and listening. This also means feedback is immediate too. There have been numerous examples of journal articles being exposed as fraudulent or containing serious errors due to open peer review occurring on Twitter during the pandemic.
If you are interested in a particular scientific field, chances are that some of the greatest minds and knowledge in the world are online and available for a chat. I have made connections with some of my heroes on Twitter. Due to being engaged in the community I have had many opportunities for collaborations, invitations to give international presentations and more. Even better, I’ve made friends with some great people and learnt a huge amount from them.
This third point is both good and bad. A big reason many scientists have not left Twitter since the Musk takeover (as distasteful as they may find it) is that Twitter has a disproportionate influence over the news cycle. Journalists find many (or most) of their sources from Twitter. If all that is left are conspiracy theorists, who will they ask? It is important that scientists engage with the media in their domains of expertise, or else journalists will eventually end up asking people who do not have expertise, but think that they do.
Twitter should perhaps not have as much influence over the news cycle as it does, but that is unlikely to change in the near future. Scientists have a responsibility to engage with the world and its processes as they are, not as they wish they were (we can always work on making it more the way we think it should be in the meantime).
Ultimately, all of these things are good for scientists. The third is good for the general public if scientists choose to engage responsibly, otherwise it is bad for everyone.
As an oversimplification, I would suggest that SoMe is generally good for science, but the balance is more favourable for scientists than it is for the public.
The public disproportionately see trash science and scientific debate which is rancorous, extreme and reductionistic, as this is what gets most amplified by their algorithms. Worse, they may think they are getting a good general impression of the broader scientific discourse when they are not. Of course on the plus side, they do also get access to world class scientists who might otherwise seem hidden and inaccessible in their academic ivory towers, which is a huge benefit.
Scientists, if using the platform wisely, get rapid access to information and open peer review, world class networking opportunities, and the opportunity to influence the news cycle on their domain of expertise. On the flip side, they will have to be willing to tolerate some trolling and exposure to some of the worst behaviour of their colleagues. Thick skin is required.
Whatever your opinion, SoMe isn’t going anywhere. If you are a scientist, you can endeavour to make it the best place it can be. If you’re a non-scientist, you benefit most if do your best to discern the good from the trash. Find trusted sources, and stick with those who express uncertainty and seem open to hearing opposing opinions.
We can only play the cards we’ve been dealt. Let’s do it wisely.
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One of the things that I find it necessary to remind scientists about from time to time is that much of their research is paid for by the public, either through taxation or donation. Public engagement is not an act of altruism where scientists condescend to explain their work but an essential condition for sustaining the material base of the whole scientific enterprise by convincing the public of its value to them. Social media, particularly Twitter, can be a bruising experience, but it has a reach beyond any scientific journal or popular scientific magazine and the ability to present unfiltered accounts of research and scientific debates.
Thanks very much for this interesting article; I think I will use it in my new undergrad course on social media in biology/ ecology.