The Hidden Curriculum of Science Twitter
Scientific discourse on twitter is a dumpster fire. It doesn't have to be.
I use twitter a lot, almost exclusively in a professional capacity. On balance it has brought more positives than negatives, but we all know that disagreements frequently trend towards being hostile or can even become personally abusive.
Whilst “trolling” from anonymous accounts is par for the course, what is more distressing is how frequently this comes from other scientists or professionals. Some people are just rude. But some people use the platform poorly, or concede to tendencies promoted by social media algorithms. This, we can do something about.
No one teaches you how to use twitter well. Here is my attempt at uncovering some of the hidden curriculum, or unwritten rules of scientific engagement on twitter1.
To put it more simply, how to not be a jerk.
There are some important points to note whenever you engage with other professionals on twitter.
Focus on the issue, NOT the individual. This is the golden rule. Most of the toxic environment on SoMe could be avoided with this single piece of advice. Starting a reply with “I think this idea is wrong because xyz” is helpful. Starting with “You are an idiot for saying xyz” is offensive. People even go to the extreme of writing long threads attempting to discredit or character assassinate people who disagree with them. This is shameful. It makes everyone look bad, especially the author.
If you find yourself more frequently discussing the character flaws of individuals, or groups of people than discussing issues of substance, you are part of the problem.
If you feel angry, do not tweet. Reading something you disagree with can stimulate strong feelings of anger - it is supposed to. Twitter will actively show you these things because it generates more engagement. Do not react. This is the most direct route to hostility where you are more focussed on demonstrating how bad the other person is than arguing an issue.
Be aware of power imbalance. Punching down is always bad, and can slide into bullying. This goes for senior academics or doctors to their juniors, but also goes for follower counts. These unwritten rules are much more important if you have 100,000 followers than if you have 100, because the harm you cause is much more substantial. With power comes responsibility - on twitter as well as real life.
Once you are blocked, move on. Sometimes discourse breaks down or becomes too hostile, in which case it sadly becomes necessary for academics to block each other. Once this happens, move on. Discussing someone you have blocked is petty and hurtful, and leaves them no right of reply. If they are posting things which you disagree with, you are free to discuss the ideas and the issues with it, but avoid naming or directing people to the person you have blocked, or has blocked you.
How to disagree
If someone states something you disagree with on twitter, there are good and bad (and really bad) ways to engage. We start from the position that the argument is in good faith and not overly fraudulent, demonstrably factually false, or harmful (the latter being somewhat open to interpretation, but is often used as an excuse to attack the individual rather than engage constructively).
Quote tweets are violence
This is one of my favourite quotes from statistician Darren Dahly. Replying to something you disagree with by using a quote tweet (QT) is dangerous. It is frequently used performatively to deride the original poster to your own audience of followers. At it’s worst, this tactic is used to trigger a “pile on”, where your own followers click on the original post in order to comment abusively or negatively.
As a general rule, once you have several thousands of followers, you should avoid using QT to reply in disagreement with another account unless you have an excellent relationship with them. It is often perceived as an act of aggression: the response of someone who has no interest in listening to a reply, or is simply looking to pour fire on the heads of those they disagree with.
Screen shots are insidious
In an attempt not to amplify a particular tweet, or to avoid notice of the individual being discussed, an identifiable screenshot of the tweet in question might be used instead. This is very poor practice. It amounts to gossip, giving license to other tweeters to openly deride or discuss the person in question behind their back.
If a tweet raises a particular issue of substance which is problematic, then using a screenshot which has been de-identified is a preferable way of addressing the issue rather than simply discussing the individual who made the tweet.
Occasionally when accounts have blocked each other, one may use a screenshot of the other account from behind the block. This prevents the other account from knowing they are being discussed or from being able to reply. This is particularly unpleasant.
To reply, just reply
The gold standard if someone says something with which you disagree, is to reply directly to their post. This has the best chance of creating constructive engagement, particularly if the original poster has a lower follower count. If you feel you are making a particularly important point, you may wish to retweet (RT) yourself, so the tweet appears in your followers feed.
If the original poster has many followers (particularly if they are aggressive) then you may try to avoid getting piled on yourself by starting a new thread of your own, stating the issue and why you disagree, for example:
“Some people are stating xyz. I believe this is wrong, here is why…”
This is known as sub-tweeting. If you have a good relationship with the person you disagree with, you can tag them in the thread or draw their attention to it in a different way in order to get them to engage. Be aware of drawing negative attention towards them which may become abusive.
Studies of social media show us that the best way to drive engagement is to attack an “out group”. Instead of making your own case, you will get more clicks by insulting those you view as opposing you. This feedback and reward system is what generates so much hostility.
Try to fight the urge to name and attack “out groups” (for example, “covid minimisers”, “covidiots”, “covidians”, etc). This includes straw-manning the supposed positions of these groups, or worse, straw-attributioning them, where instead of the position, you attack the weakest possible interpretation of the values or character of the people in the group.
The virtuous bully
Some of the most aggressive actors on twitter defend their actions by saying their argument is so important that it is beyond the need for civility. This a poor excuse for rude and unkind behaviour, and what’s more it is actively harmful to the cause. Semmelweis provides us with an important lesson. He was correct about the need for handwashing and disinfection prior to delivering children, and found it difficult to convince the establishment of his case. In his frustration he began insulting them, calling them “irresponsible murderers”, and, “ignoramuses”.
This almost certainly contributed to the establishment further dismissing his ideas, which would have saved countless lives had they been accepted earlier. It is not difficult to understand that calling people murderers does not engender confidence in you, or your ideas.
If your science is correct but your communication is poor, you harm your own cause.
The red lines
The following are generally considered unacceptable under almost all circumstances. This includes sharing/amplifying tweets including these actions, which is as bad as tweeting them yourself.
Overtly offensive language. Swearing, insulting or demeaning language is off the table. It is never OK to tell someone to f*ck off, call them stupid, pathetic etc - just as in real life.
Threatening or intimidating. This can include direct threats to get people in trouble with superiors or funders, direct physical threats to harm people, or indirect threats (e.g. I wouldn’t feel safe being recognised if I were you…).
Tagging employers. Tagging in peoples employers (or regulatory bodies such as the General Medical Council) is petty and pointless, and can be seen as an example of being threatening or intimidating. If you have legitimate professional concerns, raise them through official channels.
Doxxing. Publishing identifiable (if anonymous) or private information (email, phone number, address, location etc) about other account with malicious intent is a gross violation of their right to privacy and completely unacceptable.
We are all human, and getting frustrated, being facetious or sarcastic etc come with the territory. However, if we want our time on twitter to be useful, if we want our engagement to reflect well on science and it’s institutions, and most importantly, if we want to act in kindness and endeavour to be the best version of ourselves, we should aspire to engage in ways which are positive and productive. Not hostile, aggressive, or offensive. Hopefully knowing a bit more about the hidden curriculum can help us get a step closer towards this ideal.
I’ll end with these final words of advice.
Strive to set forth strong, positive versions of your own scientific arguments. Argue against the strongest positions of those you disagree with. Do it in good faith and with good humour.
Most importantly, don’t take twitter, or yourself, too seriously.
I am no authority on the ethical or moral framework of scientific engagement on twitter, and I am sure I have broken these rules on occasion myself! They are simply the framework under which I try to engage productively and avoid contributing to a toxic atmosphere, to the best of my ability.