Social media is a key tool for scientists seeking to communicate new research quickly and transparently. But, because of its curated, algorithm-driven design, social media also shelters hyperpolarized public attitudes on scientific issues, letting these attitudes emerge and grow in separate echo chambers.
Unfortunately, scientists – among others – have not yet adapted to this online environment, argue Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard in a Perspective in Science’s “Science in the age of social media” special issue, published earlier this year.
“Since the early days of the internet,” wrote Scheufele and Brossard, “the scientific community has had a very spotty track record of harnessing the full potential of online communication tools to reach beyond an audience that already follows science and meaningfully connect with those who disagree with or feel disconnected from science.”
Scientists often “live in their own science-centric bubbles on social media platforms,” said the Perspective authors.
What do scientists risk by not communicating outside their own groups? Not every person on Twitter, one of the most popular platforms for science communication, will be interested in a good-faith discussion, after all. Is there any point in trying to reach out?
“I think what is to be gained is that a larger group of folks will learn that science can improve their lives,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals. Doing this work also stands to inform public debates with facts and evidence, he noted.
However, scientists seeking to present their findings to new audiences should be prepared for challenges, Thorp said.
“A lot of people that we need to reach think religion or politics are more important,” said Thorp. “They are only going to access the parts of science that don’t conflict with their highest priorities.”
In a Science editorial from late 2021, Thorp discussed those challenges.
“You frequently hear the idea that a science communication course should be a required part of graduate training,” said Thorp. “But asking someone to be a skilled science communicator after taking one course is like asking someone who has taken a course in chemistry to discover a novel reaction.”
Advice for Reaching New Audiences
How then can scientists – especially those who want to communicate information that may inform individual decision-making on key issues, or influence policy – reach an audience beyond those already receptive to their work?
Scientists seeking to expand their reach beyond echo chambers should take a close look at their existing tweets, said Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Potential followers will look at what someone has posted before to get a sense of their openness to dialogue, she said.
Brossard recommends scientists try their best to separate their personal and professional lives.
“Scientists should keep their strongly held values out of the Twittersphere if they are using the platform to communicate about their science,” said Brossard. “Very often you see individuals using the platform both as a personal account and as a professional account, which really muddies the water.”
Reaching beyond echo chambers on Twitter requires a commitment of time even before tweeting about the value of your work, according to Scheufele, the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It necessitates building relationships with those who hold different views – work best done in non-crisis times, he said. This can include messaging such individuals, engaging with their content or promoting or retweeting their good-faith questions about scientists’ tweets.
Inevitably, some scientists who take on tweeting beyond echo chambers will encounter pushback, which usually comes in two forms: disagreements rooted in facts and trolling. Responding in the former cases is worth doing, said Brossard. She urges scientists to focus on responding to such pushback via a short, polite, well-constructed thread, linking to supporting research wherever possible.
When it comes to push back from trolls on social media, however, Brossard recommends that researchers “let this kind of feedback go.” It’s quite possible the critic is tweeting in hopes of gaining an algorithmic boost from the resulting response, she said.
Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist and frequent Twitter user, says that positive Twitter interactions start with respect.
“Discussions can be useful,” Mack said. “Arguments generally cannot. It’s very easy to fall into a position in which your most powerful incentive is to be visibly right — to triumph over the other party.”
Mack recommends that scientists approaching discussions on Twitter should focus on respecting communities rather than winning arguments.