SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE PERCEPTION OF SCIENCE

Sinthuja Viyasar

The social media revolution has swept over the internet over the last decade, from personal profiles to breaking news headlines making their way onto newsfeeds and notifications. In our digital age of smartphones and tablets, the adaptability of social media keeps it live and current, and with science jumping on that bandwagon too, its profile can certainly be seen to have profited.

Social media serves as a source of news for billions of people, including science updates and breakthroughs. By way of shared and liked posts and pages, headlines are weaved in between friend’s photos and status updates on newsfeeds, with links leading to extensive articles and science websites embedded within.  Facebook and Twitter are prime examples of the successful gathering of science enthusiasts this way – all you need to do is look at the number of followers of science pages, professionals, publications and television shows to see the popularity of both the people involved in and the subject matter of science. Witty astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has over 2.67million twitter followers and I f***ing Love Science’s taking of the internet by storm is clear from its 18,000,000+ likes on Facebook.

Science presenters and academics are given the same blue tick of approval as media moguls, and the science, environment and technology sections of major news houses often have their own pages and profiles. The beauty of social media is that they rely largely on the opinions of their users, and making this information available to the public not only enlightens the secondary audience, but also encourages them to  get involved in the action. Society, after all, is very good at following trends, and when that trend is a scientific nugget or headline, it spreads like wildfire.

In a society where ‘geek’ can come with negative connotations, seeing that others are publicly interested in science takes the ‘shame’ out of it.. Discussion platforms take it one step further by encouraging conversation and scrutiny. Science is sometimes perceived to be exclusively for a niche audience –the smart and the nerdy — but forums on which users can pose questions and queries allow people of all abilities to get involved and understand better the intricacies of science. Discussions can be found on everything encompassed by the word ‘science’, by everyone from school children asking for homework help to arguments amongst leading academics.

In encouraging debate, not only can help be sought, but doubts can also be aired, with massive consequences. Psmag.com reveals the importance of blogs, twitter and forums in outing fake results published in a stem cell research paper by the notable Nature magazine. By allowing science to be so easily accessible by way of the internet, criticism and conversation is encouraged not only in the spread of information, but also to question the scientific process. There is no doubt a credibility attached to any statement which comes with some scientific validation, thus it in incredibly important that the general public seek credibility in turn from any claim of scientific proof.

Social networks are now pervasive and multi-platform.. Looking beyond big names like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, there are now more specialist platforms like LinkedIn and countless generic and specialised forums discussing everything from photosynthesis to fibre optics. ResearchGate is one example of a social networking site catered specifically for researchers, upon which scientists can upload their papers and studies. Nature reported examples of  several international collaborations born out of it, with scientists working together to fight fungal infections to name but one of many joint ventures, despite never having met. ResearchGate’s value has been recognised in the vast quantities of investment it has received, and similar such platforms (Mendely, Academia.eu) too are following a comparable growth process.

Networks such as these allow those without the means to carry out practical research to still pursue competent research with the sound, practical evidence of other scientists to consult and justify their work., Such methods are still criticised by many scientists scientists, however, especially since papers are often published for free. The nature of social media is such that it can sometime be difficult to sort fact from fiction – one scientist comments on the massive time lapse between the publication of papers and its eventual use by a second party on ResearchGate, calling to question the validity of the new subsequent research paper/project.

A key contributor to the success of social media in promoting science is its obsession with monitoring online traffic, and seeing high viewing numbers further encourages more to become involved. Posts are optimised to draw in the most views and modified based on viewing figures to increase this number. Social networks also make it very easy to follow science by delivering it to us rather than us go hunting for it. When seeing news of the comet landings and biological marvels is simply part and parcel of a daily routine, science becomes integrated in an effortless way that breaks down the barriers between it and those not in the field.  Factual documentaries are often followed up by links to further information and related content by its social media counterpart, making it easy to instantly look further into topics which spark interest. When the knee-jerk reaction of so many at a time of doubt is to ‘Google’ a solution, this is key to the retention of interest in science.

Fashion and celebrity gossip has such a high prevalence in society because of the ease with news and images can be shared. It is fantastic to see social media to be put to far better use as a platform for the spread of news, particularly specialist news. Science was once held at arm’s length by those not in the field, but by relating to the things that we relate to on a daily basis, i.e. social media networks and television/radio programs, it is effectively on the same wavelength as our interest in it. Most importantly, the younger generation are growing up with social media, and with the prevalence of science in it, the next generation professionals are growing up with science, too.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE PERCEPTION OF SCIENCE

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