The following article was originally intended for an Indian publication but I withdrew from the commission because I couldn’t rework the piece according to changes they required, mostly for lack of focus. I thank Karnika Kohli and Shruti Muralidhar for their inputs.
Since the mid-20th century, the news-publishing industry has wielded the most influence on people’s perception of what science is, what its responsibilities and goals are, and what scientists do. The internet changed this by disrupting how news-publishers made money.
In 2012, The Hindu used to sell a copy of its newspaper in Chennai for Rs 4.50 (or so) while it used to cost the publisher Rs 24 to print each copy. The publisher would make up the deficit by soliciting and printing ads from advertisers in different parts of the newspaper. The first major change in this regard was Google and the new centrality of its search engine to exploring the internet. Sites were keen to have their pages ‘rank’ better on search results and began to modify their content according to what Google wanted, giving rise to the industry of search-engine optimisation.
Second, Google AdSense allowed websites to run ads as well as advertisers to target specific users in line with which websites they visited and their content consumption patterns. Third, once Google News started becoming a major news aggregator, news sites re-tailored their content according to its specific needs, including reinterpreting the news in terms of the preferences of Google News and its users.
Fourth, bandwidth became cheaper around the world but especially in India, reducing the cost of accessing the internet and bringing more people online. In response, social media platforms — especially Facebook — began to set up walled gardens to keep these users from leaving the platform and consuming the news elsewhere. And when traffic to sites plummeted, their ads-based revenue came crashing down.
The effect of these ‘gardens’ has become so pronounced that recently, a paper in the journal Experimental Economics found that college students who went off Facebook consumed less news. This conclusion suffixes the belief that most people, especially in the 18-24 age group, consume the news on social media platforms with the notion that they don’t consume news anywhere else.
In another instance, Google at long last become a walled garden proper in August 2019: the fraction of its users who consumed the news on the site itself instead of following a link through to the publisher’s site had breached the 50% mark.
Finally, because the social media made it so easy to share information, citizen-journalism became more appealing, even lucrative. At the same time, social media platforms, which constantly evolve to accommodate their users’ aspirations, began to chip away at the need for public-spirited journalism. As a result, the amount of ‘bad information’ in the public domain exploded even as people become more unwilling to acknowledge that this was all the more reason society needed good journalists.
Obviously all of this is bound to have profound implications for how social media users perceive science. But while this isn’t easy to gauge without a dedicated, long-term study, it is possible to extrapolate based on what we know from anecdotal experiences. Through this exercise, let’s also move beyond the logistics of using the social media well and spotlight the virtues of getting on these platforms that so many people love to hate.
Broadly, social media allows users to organise information in a fixed number of ways but doesn’t give users control over how they are displayed. This limitation is good because the platform sidesteps the paradox of choice and forces users to focus only on what they are saying. But it is also bad because the limitation eliminates diversity of presentation, sometimes forcing users to shoehorn an idea into a note or image when a longer article or an interactive graphic would work better.
Second, social media platforms incentivise some user behaviours over others, which then constrains how users can present scientific results.
These two arcs are united by the fact that these platforms have socialised the consumption of news (and the production as well to some extent). That is, users discover a lot of news these days in social settings, such as in conversation with other users or in the timelines of accounts they follow. Such discovery happens after the news has been filtered through the lenses of others’ interests, encouraging users to follow users whose tastes they like and views they endorse, and stay away from others. This tendency is psychologically rewarding because it contributes to building the echo chamber, which is then economically rewarding for the platform’s owners.
All together, the social media — comprising platforms whose motive is profit and not social and psychological wellbeing — are populist by design. They privilege popularity over accuracy and logical value. In this regard, it would be hubristic to assume that the public perception of science has been separately or distinctly affected by general social-media use patterns.
Then again, these patterns have also helped mature the old idea that public debates aren’t won or lost on the back of strong scientific evidence or clever logical arguments. More generally, science communication in India is becoming more popular at the same time Indians are becoming more aware of the socio-political consequences of our digital lives and worlds. This simultaneity has the potential to birthe a generation of more conscientious and social-media-savvy science communicators that can devise clever ways to work around apparent barriers.
For example, scientists can adapt an app that has been designed to communicate speed, say by allowing users to rapidly compose and share text, pictures or videos, to meaningfully convey changes in that speed. They could highlight how different parts of a long experiment can proceed at different paces: sluggishly when growing a bacterial culture overnight and rapidly when some chemical reactions with it produce results in seconds.
Communicators can also ‘hack’ social-media echo chambers by setting up small, homogenous online communities. According to one 2018 study, such groups can “maximise the amount of information available to an individual” according to their preferences. The study argues that such “homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society”.
Finally, the limits on how users can organise and present information has in fact incentivised those who had stayed away from communicating science for lack of time and/or resources to sign up. Maintaining a blog or writing articles for newspapers can be laborious. Additionally, writing for the press — the historically most common way to communicate scientific knowledge outside of journals — also means using at least a few hundred words to set readers up before the author can introduce her idea.
But if you discover that a paper has made a mistake or that you want to explain how something works, you post a few threaded tweets on Twitter in a matter of minutes and you are done. A Facebook note wouldn’t take much longer. Instagram even gives you the added benefit of using a large visual prompt to grab users’ attention. WhatsApp introduced the power to do all of this from your smartphone.
One remarkable subset of this group is traditionally underprivileged science workers (to use a broader term that encompasses scientists, postdoctoral scholars and lab assistants). While journalists are typically expected to be objective in their assessment, they — like almost everyone else — have been fattened on a diet of upper-caste men as scientists. So in the course of shortening the distance between a communicator and her audience, social media platforms empower less privileged groups otherwise trapped in a vicious media cycle, which renders them more obscure, to become visible.
Of course, some platforms exact a steep psychological price from users of currently or formerly marginalised groups (including women, transgender people, transsexual people, and pretty much everyone that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity) by forcing them to put up with trolls. So their continued presence on these platforms depends on the support of their institutions, other scientists and science communicators. And should they persist, the rewards range from opportunities to change users’ impression of who/what a scientist is to presenting themselves as a more socially just set of role models to aspiring scientists.
Obviously populism has downsides that are inimical to how science works and how it needs to be communicated, such as by falsely conflating brevity with conciseness and objectivity with neutrality. But it is always better to have a bunch of people using the social media to communicate science while being aware of its (arguably marginal) pitfalls than to have them avoid communicating altogether. This also seems to be the prevailing spirit among those scientists who recognise the importance of reaching the people, so to speak.
Science communication is becoming increasingly popular as an interdisciplinary field of its own right, wherein scientists and sociologists team up to determine the general principles of good communication by examining why some stories work so well among certain audiences, how psychological and linguistic techniques could play a part in establishing authority, etc.
These efforts parallel many scientists taking to Facebook and Twitter, posting updates regularly including comments on the news of the day (at least from their points of view) and offering non-scientists a glimpse of what it is like to be a working scientist in India. Easier access to their views also allows science journalists to contact scientists to understand which developments are worth covering and to solicit comments on the merits of a study or an idea.
In effect, Snehal Kadam and Karishma Kaushik wrote in IndiaBioscience, “social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.”
There are many resources to help scientists understand the social media and use these platforms to their advantage — whether to popularise science, find other scientists to collaborate with or debate science-related issues. I don’t want to repeat their salient suggestions (but @IndScicomm is a good place to start), plus I am not a scientist and I will let scientists decide what works for them.
That said, it is useful to remember that the social media are here to stay. As Efraín Rivera-Serrano, a cell-biology and virology researcher, wrote on PLOS, “These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.”