Many scientists and science communicators will march tomorrow in support of science. Others, like me, will support the message about the importance of science from our online spaces.
Whether you are communicating via social media about the March for Science, or just communicating about science and the importance of scientific research in general, here are some evidence-based tips for how to best communicate science in social media environments.
Why Use Social Media?
The web and social media are primary public sources of news and information about science today.
Today, the internet is U.S. adults' top source of news and information about science and technology. For 67% of U.S. adults, the internet is also their top source of specific information about scientific issues. These users are also increasingly relying on non-journalistic online sources, such as blogs and social media platforms, as their primary sources of information about science (Kahle, Sharon & Baram-Tsabari, 2016; Brossard, 2013). Use of online sources to access scientific information (vs. TV, etc.) is also associated with more positive attitudes toward science (Brossard & Scheufele, 2013).
As of 2015, two-thirds of Americans adults are using at least one form of social media, based on data from the Pew Research Center (Social Media Usage: 2005-2015). Young adults are increasingly using visual social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram, shifting away from use of Facebook (Brossard, 2016, PDF).
Social media can enhance knowledge dissemination.
Many researchers have highlighted the ability of social media to deliver more scientific information more quickly and accessibly to citizens than ever before. "On average, the reach of individuals—the number of connected others that they can influence, increases considerably [with online networks]. Further, this reduction in the effort needed to reach out to others increases the number of occasions when individuals act on their natural impulse to share knowledge and pass along information they consider useful and timely to others in their social network. Together, this results in an enormous increase in the extent of influence through knowledge-sharing and information transfer in online networks,” (Subramani & Rajagopalan, 2003, p. 301).
However, misinformation also spreads quickly via social media, and can be difficult to counteract. It's important to, as much as possible, prevent the appearance of misinformation online in the first place (e.g. read an article thoroughly before you re-tweet, fact-check before you disseminate original information, etc.)
Social media can boost your research impact.
Tweet your research papers. Highly-tweeted research papers also tend to be more highly cited by other scholars (Darling et al., 2013; Eysenbach, 2011). “[B]eing mentioned on Twitter amplifies the effect of interactions with journalists and other non-scientists on the scholar’s scientific impact," (Liang et al., 2014).
What Platforms Should I Use?
You should also consider your science communication goals before you decide on a social media platform to use. Different social media platforms have different functionalities related to having conversations with others, sharing, curating content, forming groups or communities, real-time interaction, self-disclosure (or the extent to which users on that network tend to reveal their identities and information about themselves), and the types of expected relationships between users (e.g. being "friends" on Facebook vs. following strangers on Twitter). You should consider what types of features you might need from a social media platform to accomplish your science communication goals. For example, are you looking to network and spread information in ways that a professional network built upon weaker, diffuse ties between individuals (like Twitter) would best enable? Or are you looking to form more intimate relationships with particular citizens for an outreach project in ways that a Facebook group might best enable?
What Should I Post?
There aren't any hard and fast rules about the types of content that science communicators should be focusing on to be effective. However, here are some suggestions based on research studies exploring the types of content users tend to engage with more, or the types of content that might have a greater positive impact on their attitudes toward science.
Make it about humans.
A study found that discoveries referencing people (using words referencing humans/people) are more likely to be shared. Specifically, readers were 5% more willing to "share" a scientific summary that used words referencing humans/people than a summary that didn't reference humans (Milkman & Berger, 2013).
Even if your science doesn't directly impact people, you can still make stories about your science be about people. One way to do this is to be a character in your own science stories. What motivated you to pursue a particular research question? What does it look like, feel like to be you, as a scientist, on a daily basis? What struggles have you faced as a scientist, and how did your perspective change as a result?
When communicating via social media, be yourself. This is the best way to show lay audiences that scientists are human - they are people, too. It seems like a silly point to make (of course we are humans!), but recent research highlights that while people think of scientists as very competent or intelligent, they don't necessarily see them as warm or relatable. What's more, when it come to public trust in scientists, judgments about scientists’ warmth, for example how moral, honest and open they are, likely supercede judgments about their intelligence or competence. "[W]armth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions,” (Fikse, Cuddy & Glick, 2007, p. 77).
So when communicating about your science or scientific issues via social media, it can be effective to communicate to lay audiences that you share their interests, their morals and their values, and that you have the public good in mind, not just science for science's sake (or other less benevolent agendas).
Related to this - actively incorporate diverse voices into your science messages. Lay audiences are also diverse, and will respond better to messages about science in which they can see themselves (e.g. not just older, white male scientists).
Faces engage us.
People like to read science stories about humans, and they like to see human faces. Researchers at Georgia Tech found that Instagram photos with faces are 38% more likely to receive likes and 32% more likely to receive comments than photos without faces (Bakhshi et al., 2014, PDF]. Don't always leave yourself out of visuals portraying your science, even if it feels funny taking science "selfies" in the lab or field.
Being a warm or benevolent scientist, and thus a scientist who warrants more public trust, also means being transparent and honest about the scientific process. Scientists who are transparent about methodological, experimental or other scientific errors or limitations in their research via blog posts are perceived as more trustworthy (or “warm”) than those who don’t admit such mistakes (Hendriks et al., 2016). Don't be afraid to tell lay audiences what science doesn't know.
"[O]ne way to advance laypersons’ knowledge about science could be to emphasize limitations and patterns of conflicting evidence, instead of playing them down."– Winter et al. 2015
Depending on your audience, you should avoid and/or explain scientific jargon in order to improve accessibility of your science communication. Explain any jargon or complex scientific terms that you use on social media - even if they are commonplace to you. Avoid scientific terms that have different meanings for lay readers than they do for scientists.
In my own research, I've found that a majority of science blog readers read for entertainment, or to satisfy curiosity, for fun, for the good writing, etc. Especially to cater to readers who aren't formally educated in science, entertain with fun facts, visuals, humor, popular science content, and storytelling (Jarreau & Porter, 2017).
Take photos and videos, and use them in your social media stories.
Photo and video use and sharing in social media environments is on the rise. Accessible visuals can increase attention to and understanding of complex science information. Visuals can also prompt others to share your social media content, giving it a greater reach.
When sharing science or information on scientific issues, try to link to additional resources, background information, reliable sources of additional information, etc. Social media users who consume science content are often doing so to find information on specific scientific topics that they can't find elsewhere, such as in the mainstream media (Jarreau & Porter, 2017). By curating and linking to your information sources, you may help these users find the specific information they are looking for, and they may be more likely to follow and share your content.
What Will People Share?
Emotion = Shares.
When it comes to social media sharing, stimulating emotions (awe, anger and anxiety) and surprise increase the likelihood that viewers or readers will share a piece of social media content. Positive content also elicits more sharing than negative content (Milkman & Berger, 2013).
“Sharing emotional content is one way to enhance social bonds. It produces a shared experience for the transmitter and recipient and increases cohesiveness. For example, if something makes someone angry, sharing it with someone else may make that person angry too, and the shared emotional experience will draw both members of the pair closer together,” (Milkman & Berger, 2013).
Highlight the surprising, unexpected or entertaining aspects of the science you are communicating. “People are more likely to share surprising, interesting, or otherwise entertaining content,” (Milkman & Berger, 2013). Readers may be more likely to share interesting, surprising and unexpected things in order to enhance their reputation among friends and others.
High Informational Value = Shares.
People tend to share information they find particularly useful (Milkman & Berger, 2013) or of high informational value. Research on Twitter has shown that content that has meaning for a broad audience and has the potential to impact people’s attitudes or behaviors is retweeted more often. More specifically, people are more likely to re-tweet content that is relevant to many people, is unexpected, or that sparks or relates to controversy or negative consequences (Rudat et al. 2014).
Appeal to readers’ curiosity.
Drumming up curiosity is something that science stories are often great at. Stories about science that establish a mystery or "great unknown" appeal to readers' curiosity and drive them to seek answers. “By creating a gap between what a person knows and what she wishes to know (information gap), curiosity becomes a powerful motivator that can stimulate sustained interest. [...] Scientific research is inherently investigative and often has an element of mystery that can serve to stimulate curiosity by creating an information gap that communicators should use to their advantage,” (Yeo, 2015; p. 10).
Tell a story.
Science stories are more understandable, more interesting, and more engaging than scientific information that doesn't exist within a narrative structure (Dahlstrom, 2013). Narratives are also intrinsically persuasive, and can make scientific information much more compelling. Tell stories in order to capture and keep your audience's attention, whether in an Instagram caption, through a visual or video, or in a blog post. Storytelling may be difficult within a single tweet, but effective science communicators may have an ongoing narrative in mind as they share content on Twitter.
Stories have plot, characters, suspense and conflict. But at their core, stories are about internal change within characters. Lisa Cron writes in her book Wired for Story: "A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. [...] “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about."
In great stories about science, the adventure, the scientific discovery, the journey in the science lab or field to answer an important research question, leads to an internal change as the result of conflict overcome. This is the secret of storytelling. A story asks characters to change and grow, and so the scientists in our stories (which may be ourselves) must change and grow, discover new things about themselves and overcome challenges that force them to adopt new perspectives.
There's also evidence that scientific research papers that use a narrative structure in their abstracts have greater impact on scholarship than papers that don't use such a structure. "Of the narrative elements we tested for, the use of sensory language [appealing to the senses and emotions of the reader], conjunctions [signifying cause and effect, contrast, or temporal ordering], connectivity between sentences, and appeal (or plea) to the reader all positively and significantly influenced citation frequency," (Hillier et al., 2016).
For greater impact, tell a story that elicits a “flow” of different emotions throughout the story (Nabi & Green 2014).
How Should I Approach Creating Content?
Know your audience.
In targeted communication situations, successfully disseminating information or getting a message across “hinges on the ability of the recommender to accurately predict the recipient’s interests and preferences,” (Subramani & Rajagopalan, 2003). Even further, knowing the audience’s prior knowledge, interests, beliefs and values are key aspects of effective science communication, because these factors have also been shown to influence public perceptions of, attitudes and behaviors toward scientific issues.
- Jarreau, Altinay & Reynolds, 2015
- Corner et al. 2014 (Influence of values.)
- Pew, 2015
- Druckman & Bolsen, 2011 (Attitudes toward emerging technologies.)
- Sturgis & Allum, 2004 (Influence of prior knowledge).
- Ho et al., 2008 (Role of audience values, ideology and deference to scientific authority.)
Share that which you value, or are passionate about.
This goes back to emotion, and to the fact that we tend to share content more if it stimulates our emotions, especially positive emotions. If you aren't passionate about what you are sharing, then others likely won't be either.
Establish your credibility.
Audiences will use the perceived credibility of a science blogger, Twitter or Instagram user as a heuristic when evaluating a scientific message. Establish your credibility by stating your credentials/affiliations clearly (in your Twitter/Instagram bio, for example), being transparent about and citing your information sources, and respecting your audience’s intelligence (Jamieson & Hardy, 2014; Yeo, 2015). Indicators of warmth (morality, openness, benevolence, sociability, tolerance, sharing the audience's values) can also increase your credibility or trustworthiness in the eyes of your audience.
Find your niche and add value.
Science bloggers tend to find topics more worth blogging about if the topics relate to their scientific expertise, and if they feel they have something unique to add to the conversation around those topics. Science blog readers in turn are often motivated by finding information in science blogs (written by scientists) that they can’t find anywhere else (unique information seeking) (Jarreau, 2015; Jarreau & Porter, 2017).
The same approach might apply to other forms of social media. Social media users likely follow scientists on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram in part for their unique scientific expertise, for their perspectives on specific scientific topics, and for their personalities or personal insights.
More Reading: 10 Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach