Social media’s impact on scientific journalism

Anthony Whitfield

Communication between the academic world and the general populace has always been vital to both parties for a number of reasons, it builds public trust in the scientific community, allows the distribution of current research and can inspire ordinary people to become extraordinary scientists. Before the dawn of the information age, scientific research in the form of journal articles were translated into easily digestible reading by a select few scientific journalists. Their stories were then distributed into the public domain by a few select “classical networks”, for example news channels, newspapers and magazines. More recently the rise of the internet, and with it social media, has granted anyone the ability to distribute their own interpretations of current research across the globe. Is this a good thing? Could this lead to greater scientific productivity? Or will it simply lead to the mass distribution of misinformation?

There are a variety of social media networks such as: Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and numerous blogging sites. These all allow anyone to spread the work they have produced to the general population. Classical networks also have an online presence. Most news channels will have a website and subscription magazines have online copies that can be read for a discounted price. While it is unlikely that social media will replace classical media as the sole provider of scientific news and the news in general, currently 30% of Americans use Facebook to acquire their news. A further 10% use YouTube and another 15% use their LinkedIn, Twitter or Google+ [1]. So almost half of the American population uses some form of social media to get their news, proving social media as a powerful news distribution platform. Based on a survey conducted in 2013 of all the Facebook users, 37% regularly see a news story about science and technology [1]. This means Facebook is supplying roughly 10% of the American people’s scientific news. It can only be assumed that this information is provided by a mix of purely digital news publicists and classical news networks.

A great example of a purely digital news publicists is IFL Science. IFL is a science and technology news service which has grown in popularity massively mainly due to its utilization of Facebook and twitter to increase its readership. Another example would be the YouTube video channel “In a Nutshell – Kurzgesagt”. They produce animated videos on mainly scientific topics such as the Fermi paradox, the video for which has massed slightly over 3.1 million views in 6 months.

Whether the content is produced by an independent digital news publicist or a classical news network, social media has greatly increased the speed and ease that their content can be accessed. Combined with the fact social media spreads this information for free (or be it with much lower costs than a magazine or newspaper) this greatly increases the readership of any information produced by either media type. New readers stumble across blogs, video channels and articles on their social media “newsfeeds”. This greater level of exposure is sure to lead to more people learning about current developments in the scientific community.

Although many independent digital news publicists create scientifically accurate work there are some who will spread misinformation. This can occur simply through poorly explaining something or through the manipulation of information so that it supports their personal views. Classical media is not as susceptible to this as they enforce stricter editorial measures and have larger teams of experts to help. They also tend to be more impartial and therefore write articles that look objectively at the research done. A classic example of misinformation spreading through the public domain is the results of a study [2] that appeared to show the MMR vaccine caused autism. The anti-vaccination movement were quick to seize this opportunity while the scientific community dismissed these results due to the small sample size. A multitude of larger more intensive studies were carried out which overwhelmingly showed there was no link between autism and the vaccine [3].

Yet the anti-vaccination movement continues and this could in part be due to independent digital news publicists such as “GreenMedinfo”. These sites look very professional and like many news sites have links to the journal articles their stories are based on. But this site also has strong anti-vaccination and anti-pharmaceutical stance.

I decided to find the original paper for one of these articles, which claimed “Coconut oil fights deadly yeast infections” [4]. On comparing with the original paper [5] it’s clear that the author of the “GreenMedinfo” article had manipulated what was said in the journal article to convey their own message.  Cutting quotes from the paper with hearsay in order to convince readers their points are equally valid, when in reality they are unsubstantiated. This shows how easy it is to create believable disinformation which can then distributed to the masses using social media. It is exactly how the myth that the MMR vaccination causes autism still persists, even though the original paper has been formally retracted. It can still be accessed and people use it to make their arguments sound credible. While failing to mention all the evidence against its findings and the flaws in the study itself.

Social media however has one form of defence against misinformation. The simple ability for anyone to comment on an article, share their views and ask questions. This allows people to read an article on a social media site and let everyone else know if they think it’s valid. A few people disagreeing is expected however if the overwhelming majority disagree and highlight flaws in the article then future readers may question the articles legitimacy as well. Many services such as IFL have begun using suggestions from the comments to correct there articles effectively peer reviewing everything that is published.

There are those, however, who seek to purposefully provide destructive criticism, hiding behind the anonymity that the internet provides. They are “trolls”. People who actively seek to slander other people work in order to anger the content creators, effectively bullying them until they cannot continue to create new articles or videos. They can be reported, their accounts can be banned but this rarely stops them. Many content creators have simply no choice but to try and ignore them.

The comments can also be used constructively, allowing debates to take place between readers and can be used to open a direct dialog between content authors and the readership. Something only achievable before through mailing the editor of the magazine or paper. This gets the public involved with science, and allows them the opportunity to learn even more than the article originally offered. For example, the recent black and blue or white and gold dress controversy was only discovered when people commented on the photo and realised they disagreed on the colours. This sparked a huge debate across social media, people asked why it was that people saw different colours. Quite remarkably the scientific community responded and answered there questions through various social medias and even classical medias. This created a whole host of new videos and articles on colour constancy and perception [6].

This goes to show that even though social media does help propagate some misinformation, the majority of the news relayed is legitimate. It has brought the public and scientific community closer together allowing ideas to be freely discussed between scientists, journalists and members of the public. Finally, questions asked by the public can be answered by the scientific community and then that information can be relayed back to the public far faster than ever before.

References

[1] Pew Research Centre, aivlablie at: http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/8-key-takeaways-about-social-media-and-news/

[2]Wakefield, a J., Murch, S. H., Anthony, a, Linnell, J., Casson, D. M., Malik, M., … Walker-Smith, J. a. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637–641. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0

[3] Madsen, K. M., Hviid, A., Vestergaard, M., Schendel, D., Wohlfahrt, J., Thorsen, P., … Melbye, M. (2002). A Population-Based Study of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccination and Autism. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(19), 1477–1482. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa021134

[4] http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/coconut-oil-fights-deadly-yeast-infections-study-suggests

[5] “Manipulation of Host Diet To Reduce Gastrointestinal Colonization by the Opportunistic Pathogen Candida albicans” Kearney T. W. Gunsalus (ORCID)[a,b], Stephanie N. Tornberg-Belanger[b][*], Nirupa R. Matthan[c], Alice H. Lichtenstein[c], Carol A. Kumamoto[b]

[6] http://www.iflscience.com/brain/explaining-perceptions-dress

Social media’s impact on scientific journalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s