Science and Social Media: An Uneasy Relationship

Twitter – or as it is now called, X – has never been the biggest social media platform, but it has always been the most important for sharing ideas. “The world’s town square”, as Elon Musk likes to call it, is the go-to place for world leaders and thinkers to share their thoughts and ideas. It is also the place for scientists to have their say. This runs from famous scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson to smaller niche accounts that have carved out a following by offering their insight into everything from understanding data to climate change.

blackboard chemical formulas

As you might expect, there is also a lot of pushback against scientists on social media. Climate change, of course, is becoming a hot-button topic, and many experts are hounded on the platforms. Other issues like gender and vaccinations also see scientists receive criticism for offering opinions. The publication Nature wrote about it last year, covering the widespread abuse of major scientists and the limp attempts by social media platforms to combat it.

Science is rarely simple

In society, generally, our perceptions of scientists can be somewhat warped. Depictions in popular culture, be that in depictions of Einstein on screen, Doc Brown in Back to the Future, or games like Professor Clank’s Combinator, lend themselves to fostering the idea that scientists are all eccentrics, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet, more importantly, pop culture has also promoted the idea that science can be communicated in bite-size chunks, say a tweet.

various formulas on blackboard

Indeed, beyond the idea of pushback on scientists as a cultural phenomenon in an increasingly fractured world, there is also a structural problem. The brevity of social media posting is ill-fitting for scientific debate. Trying to whittle down complex ideas into a short-form post is difficult, and it leaves the poster open to criticism, which often goes unchecked. The fast-paced nature of social media posting often sits uneasily with scientific facts too. Ideas meant for long-form discussion aren’t suited to be glanced at and scrolled past.

Meme culture can lead to misinformation

There is generally a meme culture on social media, which can deteriorate into the lampooning of science. A typical example might be someone pointing to the fact that it’s very cold outside in July, and therefore climate change is a hoax. The engagement some of these posts get is huge, and they can come from the accounts of prominent journalists, often going unchecked. The confusion of the ideas of “weather” and “climate” is typical in the pattern of short-form social media debate, reducing a complex subject to a post about what you see when you look out your window.

There have been attempts by social media platforms to address the issue. For instance, X has promoted the use of “Community Notes”, which effectively act as a rebuttal medium for misinformation. To be fair, Community Notes works as intended, and it will regularly act to ridicule those who post scientific misinformation. There are, however, two problems. First, Community Notes only allows for a brief riposte, which is again difficult when conveying complex information that warrants detailed analysis. Secondly, it’s simply not prominent enough to fully counteract the initial post. We are all scrollers, and many will but glance at the initial post without looking for auxiliary information.

Social media is probably the most representative technology of the internet and information age. And, as we have seen, scientists and institutions are increasingly using it to convey ideas, their studies, and personal beliefs. Back in January 2023, Science Direct released an article that claimed, that contrary to the hoped-for explosion of scientific ideas, social media may act as a hindrance to scientific learning. The article is worth reading, as it acutely conveys the uneasy relationship between science and the most common way of communicating ideas in the 21st century.

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