Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Ryan Hill.

Like it or not, social media is here to stay- and science needs to take advantage of this.

Social media is a core method of communication within modern society. Breaking news is made instantly available to everyone connected all around the globe. You are no longer confined to your own town, city or workplace to meet like-minded people. The world is now one huge social interaction in which people from all backgrounds can interact. There are still many criticisms of the lack of physical interaction between people and the ability of the keyboard warrior to make someone’s life a misery in complete anonymity, but surely these criticisms are small compared to the overall advantage of a fully connected world?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of social media is its accessibility. People of all backgrounds have equal access to content, as well as the ability to create content of their own. Musicians and artists have long exploited this fact to showcase their work to the world, discover the work of others, and form collaborations. Why should scientists not also do this? Small research groups can publicise their work for free, showing the world what they have achieved. Another small research group from the other side of the world can then see what progress has been made by people they would not necessarily meet within their own professional circles. The two groups may even share a similar goal to which they can collaborate increasing the size of each other’s workforce without the need for further recruitment.

Social media has a large youth demographic with 36% of Facebook users in the USA as of January 2016 being between the ages 13-29[1]. These are the ages in which key choices are made for an academic career. Options are chosen for GCSEs and A-Levels, University courses decided and career paths embarked on. Many of these choices are influenced by what excites and interests. A strong social media presence that showcases the advances in the scientific world will serve to excite the new generation into STEM fields. It will show the career prospects and current events in science and the excitement that surrounds them.

There is a great deal of interest in science being stirred by the increasing amount of television shows such as Horizon, Planet Earth, and Wonder of the Universe. However, another medium that has grown to great popularity over the years is YouTube. It’s the source of 819,417,600 hours of content ranging from music videos to How To demonstrations.  It has become a key source for educational purposes with many tutorials and demonstrations being available, something I (and many other people) have taken advantage of throughout my academic career. It offers a medium to give clear discussions of a topic with well worked out examples and useful visualisations or derivations without the constraints placed on television shows, like budgets, number of viewers, or time limits. The material is the creator’s discretion. Many scientific institutions such as IBM have already taken great advantage of this platform for publicising their work and their institution as a whole. But many educational channels have become extremely popular amongst the community with channels such as Sixty Symbols, Veritasium, and Smarter Every Day offering interviews, demonstrations, experiments and discussions about many aspects of science.

The range of educational backgrounds for social media users means not everyone has the scientific “training” to read through and assess scientific papers. Someone with great interest in science may not have had the opportunities to pursue academic science, or opted instead for work or apprenticeships, so they do not have any exposure to scientific literature. Undergraduate scientists on the other hand are constantly required to read around their subjects and research topics. Over time analytical skills are developed which help notice key points in articles, assess the style of writing, and form opinions on its credibility. The journalistic style of social media articles allows the public to remain up to date on new science as easy as sport. The language is often more familiar and takes the time to explain key aspects unlike published papers which usually require prior knowledge.

By having articles available on social media, the stories can be shared by one person to the rest of their online network. This can then be shared further and further, sometimes reaching a status known as “viral” when many people are all discussing this at once. Not only does this expose articles to greater audiences than a scientific journal, but it also sparks debates and discussions among the public. A recent example of this is the male contraceptive[2]. A promising new contraceptive for men was halted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to several side effects including acne, depression and fertility issues. Huge controversy followed as these side effects are also reported for female contraceptives yet they are still readily available. This is an issue which would warrant a discussion in itself but the important point for this article is what followed. Social media erupted with articles discussing the event, blogs that discussed these articles and the comment sections were rife with lively debate. And while these debates were mostly opinion based, false facts were soon highlighted by other users. This allowed a greater understanding of the topic to be attained by the general public without the need for in depth research. Obviously in an ideal world, everyone would fully research a topic before forming an opinion but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. But at least people are aware of an issue which would probably have passed blindly by without the social media reaction.

However, a major issue is that while leading research can be shown to the world, so can questionable and non-peer reviewed works. While public knowledge and awareness are being increased in many cases, they can also be easily distorted. Many false and damaging claims can be made which the average person may be unable to distinguish, leading to an inaccurate representation of where science is. Oftentimes it is not the article which causes this confusion, but the title being designed to entice readers (clickbait). An example of this is an article written at the end of 2015 by a prominent Facebook science page, IFLS, titled “Germany Just Successfully Fired up a Nuclear Fusion Reactor”. This title seems to suggest that nuclear fusion has been cracked, the energy crisis solved- wonderful times ahead! However, in reality, as the article explains, they had only (I use the term “only” comparatively here) suspended plasma for the first time. While this is an important step in the research, it is by no means a working nuclear fusion reactor. Providing the reader had actually read the article this would be made clear, but the use of a clickbait title may have caused some people to take it on faith that that is what was achieved. Despite the ease with which the article could be read, it is not a guarantee that it will be read.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of social media is the keyboard warrior. The anonymity that is provided online allows people to comment and post, in some cases particularly hateful things, without consequence. This can often lead to discussions being reduced to nothing more than an argument, a series of insults, or the creator can simply feel unappreciated and quit the endeavour entirely. This serves nothing more than to halt and damage the understanding of science in the public. But this is an issue which persists in all online resources, not just scientific. It is a fundamental flaw with society that one can only hope will be corrected in the years to come, so that the online world can become a place for real discussion.

But social media is a good thing, both for science and the general public. While there are people that serve only to insult, there are many more who seek to educate, inspire and entertain. We no longer rely solely on news outlets to provide us with information that may be biased; we can instead have open discussions and learn viewpoints from each other. We can communicate with people on the other side of the world to make new and exciting advances and collaborations. The next generation of scientists have access to cutting edge research, as well as material to educate them on said research no matter their educational background. Current issues become a public debate rather than opinion pieces in a tabloid. Providing people take full advantage of the articles presented to them and use the resources responsibly, science can only benefit from this global interaction.

[1] Distribution of Facebook users in the United States as of January 2016, a. (2016). Facebook: U.S. user age demographics 2016 | Statista. Statista. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/187041/us-user-age-distribution-on-facebook/

[2] Association, N. (2016). Male contraceptive injection works – but side effects halt trial. New Scientist. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2110729-male-contraceptive-injection-works-but-side-effects-halt-trial/

[3] Germany Just Successfully Fired Up A Nuclear Fusion Reactor. (2015). IFLScience. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from http://www.iflscience.com/technology/germany-just-successfully-fired-their-nuclear-fusion-reactor/

 

 

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

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