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Communicating Science Online

The introduction of novel communication technologies has heralded a new era of communication, marked by increases in media choice and overall use of technology by citizens. Different media surround us, enabling individuals to choose their own content and assisted by algorithms that provide recommendations based on past behavior. As media options have proliferated, media have become less “mass” and more individualized (this is known as media fragmentation). We watch television, surf the web, listen to music, and read news online, often on a daily basis. And we do this on multiple mobile and web-based devices, through any channel we choose. As of 2015, two-thirds of American adults use at least one form of social media. Globally rates are lower, though approximately 75 percent of adult internet users use at least one form of social media.

As of 2015, two-thirds of American adults use at least one form of social media. | AAAS


While scientists have long used the internet for scholarly collaboration, more recently public audiences have begun turning online for information about science. In 2006, television was still the primary source of science news for most Americans (41 percent), and only 20 percent of all Americans went online for scientific information. According to the National Science Board, approximately 47 percent of Americans looked to the Internet for news about science and technology in 2014, a notable shift. To find information about specific scientific issues, the proportion of public audiences going online in the same year was the highest ever observed (67 percent). Similar data for Europe and Asia is not collected as regularly, but television and traditional newspapers seem to remain much stronger sources of news in those regions. As individuals increasingly seek information online about science and technology issues, public communication of science via online platforms becomes an ever more important opportunity to facilitate dialogue between science and society.

The use of social networking sites to access information compounds the challenge of media fragmentation: algorithms in social media (and online media more generally) “learn” from our media use habits and reinforce echo chambers by presenting us with information that is consistent with our opinions and attitudes. When citizens lack opportunities for broader discussion and interaction on scientific and societal issues, polarization becomes a concern. This section provides strategies for online communication to help address this issue.

Strategies for Online Communication

In this section, explore ways to apply the goal-audience-message framework to social media. This page contains best practices across platforms, and subsequent pages provide guidance on selecting platforms and getting started. For more information about communicating online, watch our Engage the Public with Social Media mini workshop video.

Defining Your Audience and Selecting the Right Platform

Selecting the Right Platform

The Pew Internet Project offers insights on user demographics for various forms of social media. This information can help you define your audience for your online communication.

Considerations are outlined below to help you decide which platforms are best suited to your goals. Strategies and more in-depth information can be found at each weblink. Keep in mind the audiences each platform may afford you as a communicator.

  • Website
    • Serves as a credible source for public access to your research and expertise
    • Opportunity to present in-depth information
    • Most limited for actively engaging with public audiences as a standalone platform; however, you can incorporate additional social media platforms within a website
    • Typical Audience: Individuals with more positive views about science and its place in society, as well as higher self-reported levels of knowledge about science
  • Blog
    • Serves as a more informal, casual web-space that you can dedicate to a particular topic or set of topics
    • Opportunity to communicate with people about a given topic rather than just disseminate information
    • Most in-depth and informational platform to communicate scientific topics in a conversational manner
    • Typical Audience: Publics already interested in and knowledgeable about science
  • Social Media
    • Serves as real-time, interpersonal communication
    • Opportunity to engage directly with a wide range of audiences
    • Maximum potential for public engagement through a variety of connected platforms
    • Typical Audience: Ubiquitous among younger adults; common among adults for science news consumption

Online and Social Media Strategies

An image of a cell phone screen showing icons for popular social media apps such as a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Using social media strategies for public engagement and science communication often involves employing multiple connected, complementary platforms. This may mean maintaining a presence on Twitter and Facebook, and perhaps other social media as well (e.g., YouTube, Instagram, blogs), to help build your social media presence. However, scientists have to make decisions about which social media platforms best fit their goals. For example, Facebook can be useful for self-branding, while Twitter may be conducive for conversational purposes.

Scientists should consider these factors outlined in Sara K. Yeo's Public Engagement with and Communication of Science in a Web-2.0 Media Environment when creating social media strategies, including considering which social media platforms to use.

Identity. Credibility has been shown to be an important factor in public engagement and science communication. Therefore, presenting yourself as a credible source of information is an important aspect of public communication. One way scientists assert their credibility on social media is by making connections to their affiliated institutions in their social media profiles (e.g., Twitter profile of Tracey Holloway, an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Conversations. The pace and dynamics of conversations differ across social media platforms. Twitter, for example, can facilitate real-time discussion of issues, while other, slower-paced platforms demand less immediate attention. Scientists often identify time constraints as a barrier to their participation in public engagement activities. Conversations that demand immediate attention in order to keep up with them, such as those on Twitter, are often limited in other ways (for example, by what one can convey in 140 characters). As a result, some discussions move to other media to allow for more extensive dialogue while demanding less constant attention. Moreover, discussion on social media may include multiple users. The involvement of other experts and communicators can reduce the burden on individual users.

Sharing. Social media is inherently interactive. Sharing content can initiate discussion and lead users to build relationships. Virality, or the probability that any content item will be shared online (though not necessarily to the extent that it has ‘gone viral’), has been found to be influenced by emotions, particularly awe, anger, or anxiety. The likelihood of sharing content is also influenced by surprise.

Relationships. Relationships — the connections between users within a social network — are the essence of social media. When selecting and using a social media platform, it is important for scientists to consider their goals for building relationships and the structure and flow of networks. The structure of a network refers to how many connections a user has and their position within any given network. For example, scientists involved in citizen science may want to create smaller networks in which their position is more central, whereas those who wish to reach as many laypersons as possible may want to be part of larger networks. The flow of networks describes the strength of the relationships, which will also be influenced by your communication goals and audiences. While it seems intuitive to prefer stronger ties, weak ties can have greater reach than strong ones, as they often link individuals across different networks.

Reputations. On social media, users often rely on endorsements to gauge reputation. Used in this way, reputation can be a characteristic of content as well as users. Endorsements come in different forms, depending on the platform, such as likes on Facebook, retweets or favorites on Twitter or number of views on YouTube.

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