“The data support the impetus for researchers to be active on social media to act as stewards of high quality neuroscience communication.” - “A Light Switch in the #Brain”
This month, researchers from the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia and from the British Columbia Institute of Technology, including lead author Julie M. Robillard, published a brief communication in Neuroethics on how science is discussed on Twitter. The study essentially finds that researchers "own" the conversation about optogenetics on Twitter.
The study involved a content analysis of a sample of 1,000 tweets mentioning optogenetics (using the hashtag #optogenetics) between 2014 and 2015.
The authors of this new study found that those who tweet about optogenetics, “a technique aimed at the control of specific neurons,” are primarily academic researchers who tweet about the applications of optogenetics and link to news articles as well as peer-reviewed scientific journal article sources.
Of sampled Twitter accounts that mentioned optogenetics (2,043 unique users), more than half belonged to individuals, or 58% of all the accounts. Of these, nearly half or 48% belonged to scientists. Many of these scientists, nearly a third, identified themselves as neuroscientists. Another 7% of the individual Twitter accounts belonged to science communicators, 5% belonged to physicians, 2% to science or medical students, 2% to general students and 1% to psychologists. From this data, we can see that most of the individuals mentioning optogenetics on Twitter are science-interested users who are likely fairly sophisticated in terms of scientific knowledge.
A quarter of the Twitter accounts (25% of all accounts) that mentioned optogenetics belonged to organizations, including news groups (20% of the organizations), medical and technology companies (15% of the organizations) and science organizations or societies (9% of the organizations).
“Social media content may include inaccurate portrayals of the applications of new biotechnologies and thus may cause users to have unrealistic expectations of the impact of these scientific discoveries.” - “A Light Switch in the #Brain”
According to previous studies and news commentaries, social media channels, particularly certain channels and on certain topics, are infamous for spreading misinformation, hype and false hope in scientific “cures” and “breakthroughs.” But this study found that a majority of tweets mentioning optogenetics link to robust information and are neutral as opposed to overly positive (e.g. hype) in tone. A majority of tweets (80%) in the sample contained a link: 32% these linked to a news article (almost all of them classified as science news) and 15% linked to a peer-reviewed scientific journal or journal article.
Only 1% of the tweets were negative in sentiment, for example presenting optogenetics as a “scary” technology.
“UK researchers read and write #brain activity with light [LINK] #neuroscience #optogenetics #imaging.” An example tweet from the study “A Light Switch in the #Brain”.
However, there were some cases in which tweets about optogenetics weren’t as accurate as they perhaps could have been. Many of the sampled tweets mentioning optogenetics also mentioned medical research applications (48%), but a minority of those tweets or only 20% mentioned that the research involved an animal model vs. clinical research. Perhaps the character limit for tweets contributes to users leaving out important contextual information about research studies related to optogenetics.
“Analysis of content about optogenetics on Twitter reveals that: 1) academic researchers and technology companies are the main contributors to the discussion; 2) research findings dominate the discussion through links to peer-reviewed articles; and 3) the tone of the discussion is generally neutral.” - “A Light Switch in the #Brain”
Robillard and colleagues write that their findings point to the importance of scientists and science communicators being active in discussing research discoveries on Twitter. “The general trend seen in this study suggesting a relatively accurate portrayal of optogenetics-related discoveries may speak to the promise of social media as an appropriate tool for information dissemination when stakeholders involved in the process of the research participate in the conversation,” the authors write.
However, the findings of the study are likely not representative for other scientific topics, especially topics discussed by broader sets of audiences. This study only analyzed ~1,000 tweets from a one-year period that mentioned optogenetics. Just using the technical science term "optogenetic" as the main search query in a Twitter API for this study likely limited the resulting Twitter users to those with an interest in or in-depth knowledge about this biotechnology. Also, scientific researchers accounted for a large percentage of the users who wrote these tweets. The relative accuracy, number of links to research papers and neutral tone of #optogenetics tweets is likely reflective of a niche expert community sharing information about this field of science on social media. But do these tweets reach outside of a small community of users interested in optogenetics? Even if they do, broader audiences don’t seem to be participating in discussion about this biotechnology.
Do the findings of this study indicate that by participating in social media, researchers can protect discussion of a particular area of science against misinformation? Or do they indicate that researchers and science communicators are only talking to one another about this topic on social media? I would suggest the reality is more of the latter. However, that doesn't mean we should underestimate the power of positive scientist-public interactions on social media to promote accurate and critical discussions of research online.
The key here is whether meaningful interactions between scientists and adults who are not scientists or expert science communicators are actually occurring on social media, or whether discussions of scientific research on Twitter are simply echo-chambers. In this study, I would like to have seen more data on who the researchers tweeting about optogenetics were interacting with around this topic on Twitter.
I asked the lead author on this study, Julie Robillard, to answer a few questions about her research.
Me: What is optogenetics? Is this a often discussed topic on social media?
Julie Robillard: Optogenetics is a technique that involves genetically modifying brain cells to make them responsive to light. You can then activate or inhibit these cells simply by shining a light on them. It is a very powerful technique because it allows researchers to manipulate the activity of very specific subsets of brain cells and see the impact of that manipulation in real-time. Like most emerging biotechnologies, we noticed it was increasingly being talked about in both traditional and new media.
Me: What prompted you to analyze tweets related to optogenetics?
Julie Robillard: My lab had previously conducted studies of the discussion around other biotechnologies on social media (e.g., gene therapy, stem cells) and results from this type of research can inform how we as researchers discuss our findings. Since optogenetics is fairly new and is often associated with mind control, we were curious to see how it was portrayed on social media.
Me: You found that in tweets about optogenetics, "academic researchers and technology companies are the main contributors to the discussion" and "research findings dominate the discussion through links to peer reviewed articles." Can you comment a bit on these findings? Is this just a matter of the optogenetics only being discussed on Twitter by scientists?
Julie Robillard: We found that a large variety of individuals and organizations participate in the discussion about optogenetics on Twitter. There were neuroscientists and tech companies but also individuals who identified as physicians, science communicators, students, and others, and organizations such as advocacy groups or news groups.
Me: Other studies have found that social media serves to spread misinformation. Why do you think your study indicates a more positive outlook on social media for science communication? Does the subject matter, and number of scientists tweeting about that subject matter, make a difference?
Julie Robillard: I think both the subject matter and the users taking part in the discussion do make a difference. Though translational applications are on the horizon, optogenetics is still largely a research tool and not a therapy like stem cells or gene therapy, and so this has implications for the nature of the discussion. Scientists taking part in the discussion also helps mitigate hype and sensationalism.
Me: Based on your findings, why is it important for scientists / science communicators to be present on Twitter?
Julie Robillard: It can be valuable for scientists to be present on social media because in today's world, with the millions of users on Twitter and Facebook, these platforms represent an unprecedented opportunity for dissemination and knowledge translation. By directly contributing to the conversation, we can ensure our findings are adequately represented and we have the opportunity to engage with the broader community of individuals who share an interest in science.
What do you think? Can involvement of scientists in online discussions about emerging biotechnologies help steer these conversations toward robust scientific information and away from sensationalism, hype or backlash?