Should Scientists SciJack Trump's Tweets?

Within the last month, an interesting example of science communication has emerged on Twitter. It consists of scientists responding to politicians’ tweets (mostly Trump’s tweets) and “hijacking” the tweets to begin science-related conversations.

Dr. Shaena Montanari, a paleontologist and science communicator, started the trend (and gained 3,000 new followers) when she replied to a political tweet (a tweet directed at @realDonaldTrump) that mentioned velociraptors. She took the conversation in a new direction, sharing dinosaur fun facts and talking about her research and how a government shutdown would impact it. After a few of such tweets, the hashtag “#Scijack” formed, and other scientists began to send their own #Scijack tweets to Trump as well as other politicians and celebrities.

Ada Hagan writes about #Scijack: “[Shaena Montanari’s original tweet] led to a widely read discussion of velociraptors, how big they were (turkey-sized), whether or not they moved in packs (probably not), and even about how Dr. Montanari’s field of paleontology would be affected by a government shutdown (researchers would lose access to the museums and National Parks housing specimens and dig sites—see the Twitter Moment she created for the full conversation).”

Within a few days, some researchers and science communicators were suggesting #Scijack might be an innovative means of scientists’ reaching individuals not otherwise seeking the type of information provided in these tweets. As Ada writes, “[b]y engaging with a thread started by a well-known and controversial figure [aka Trump], she [Montanari] stumbled upon a readership numbering in the tens of thousands. That’s a big audience for a paleontologist, and likely includes many people who had no plans to hear from an #actuallivingscientist that day.”

But is #Scijack, or similar strategies, actually effective in helping scientists break out of their online “filter bubbles,” also known as echo chambers, to reach wider audiences?

In terms of pure numbers, some scientists’ #Scijack tweets might get more views and interaction than if they’d been tweeted straight (not in response to a political tweet and without the #Scijack hashtag). But more viewers doesn’t necessarily mean those viewers are atypical of the types of twitter users already predisposed to following scientists on Twitter, e.g. science-interested audiences. And more viewers doesn’t mean that these viewers’ science knowledge level or positive attitudes toward science are increasing as a result of #Scijack tweets.

Scijack and Echo Chambers 

To the extent that people are not exposed to, or do not consider, diverse sources of information, they may fail to update existing beliefs in accordance with new information and may rely on misperceptions to support their attitudes and behaviors.
— Natalie Jomini Stroud, Oxford Handbook of SciComm, 2017

One way that Scijack tweets, or other social media strategies that “hijack” conversations unrelated to science, might be effective is in breaking out of online echo chambers to help scientists better reach non-experts. Might is the keyword.

For various reasons, audiences in online environments tend to see information and follow individuals who share information that coincides with their pre-existing interests, beliefs and attitudes. Social media can exacerbate this tendency, as people follow and get news primarily through their friends, or people who are like them in many ways.

When it comes to information related to partisan political topics, and when it comes to information on some science-related topics, individuals tend to select or pay more attention to like-minded information, a process called selective exposure. (See Natalie Stroud’s chapter in the 2017 version of The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication). And even when individuals are exposed to information online that doesn’t align with their pre-existing interests, if that information is threatening to their existing beliefs or attitudes, they are likely to find counter-arguments to it or to dismiss the information as hailing from an untrustworthy source, a process known as selective judgment or motivated reasoning.

Can #Scijack tweets truly cross-cut lines of audience differences or help scientists reach audience who aren’t already following science-related information?

Between May 2 and May 3, Shaena Montanari gained roughly 3,500 new Twitter followers. It’s unclear how many of these came from her original responses to Trump’s tweets, and how many came after she was mentioned in a science-themed Twitter moment (although after an initial huge spike in followers on May 2, Montanari’s rate of gaining new followers leveled off again despite her continued “scijacking” of Trump’s tweets). The science-themed Twitter moment might have garnered many more followers for Montanari from an already science-interested audience base.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis.

Using Crimson Hexagon, I looked at the affinities of Montanari’s followers (a proxy of their interests based on the people and organizations that these followers engage with and the topics they talk about) before her first Scijack tweets on May 2, and in the two days following those tweets.

Between February 2017 and May 1, 2017, Twitter users who engaged with Montanari’s tweets (replied to them, retweeted them, etc.) talked about science and technology 9x as much as those who engaged with Trump’s tweets did. Between May 2 and May 3, Twitter users who engaged with Montanari’s tweets talked about science and technology 6x as much as Trump’s Twitter engagers. Based on this, it does look like Montanari’s Scijack tweets gained attention from Twitter users not as “into” science and technology as her existing followers are. But overall, the individuals who engage with Montanari’s tweets are still extremely science-interested compared to those who engage with Trump’s tweets.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis. Affinities of Twitter users engaging with Montanari before May 2, compared with those engaging with Trump tweets.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis. Affinities of Twitter users engaging with Montanari before May 2, compared with those engaging with Trump tweets.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis. Affinities of Twitter users engaging with Montanari on May 2 and May 3, compared with those engaging with Trump tweets.

Screenshot from Crimson Hexagon analysis. Affinities of Twitter users engaging with Montanari on May 2 and May 3, compared with those engaging with Trump tweets.

Did Shaena Montanari break out of science echo-chambers on Twitter with her Scijack tweets? Perhaps. But those users who subsequently followed her on Twitter and shared her tweets were likely science-interested (or even dino-interested) to begin with – which is why echo chambers and social media go so well together. 

Scijack, Education and the Deficit Model

Many of the #Scijack tweets posted in May 2017 were informational in nature. #Scijack-ers tweeted fun facts about animals and other conservation and science-related trivia.

The informational nature of these tweets has both pros and cons. On the plus side, some of these tweets were fun (and funny), scientific and non-partisan enough to be educational while not spurring viewers to counter-argue the information on the grounds of their political beliefs, for example.

On the other hand, we know from lots of science communication research that science facts, while they are potentially educational and can raise awareness of issues where previous knowledge is absent, are unlikely to change people’s attitudes toward or perceptions of science. The assumption that introducing information will lead to people developing more informed attitudes based on what science has to say on the subject, aka the information-deficit model of science communication, is largely a very bad assumption. In other words, people often don’t process scientific information rationally.

That doesn’t mean that tweets delivering fun science facts can’t attract attention from science-interested audiences and teach them something in the process. But it does mean that tweeting science facts isn’t the best strategy if you are trying to change attitudes, especially when it comes to politicized scientific topics such as climate change. In fact, people who possess high levels of scientific knowledge and reasoning ability are often more polarized in their attitudes toward or opinions about climate change. These individuals know enough about the issue to effectively argue against scientific information pointing toward the existence, causes and negative consequences of climate change, for example.

Which brings us to the next potential issue with Scijack tweets. Recall the process of selective exposure and selective judgement we talked about earlier. These processes explain why you might avoid reading this blog post, counter-argue the points I bring up, or find reasons to label me as an untrustworthy source, if what I’m writing runs against your pre-existing beliefs, your deeply held values or your cultural identity. According to Natalie Jomini Stroud, there are ways to overcome these processes, but simply providing more information isn’t necessarily one of them. Better strategies include increasing trust in science (for example by humanizing scientists), and emphasizing scientists’ commitment to scientific values such as observation and falsifiability. While talking to people about new science, warning them about potential attempts by others to provide misinformation or politicize that science, or warning them about sources of misinformation, may also help inoculate them (yes, like a vaccine) against such future attempts.

Where Scijack tweets are political in nature, the danger is that Twitter users not sharing the Scijack-ers' political beliefs have all the more reason to avoid, counter-argue or dismiss the credibility of the information provided in these tweets. This is more true if Scijack-ers take a specific stance on a scientific issue that appears to be politically motivated or prescriptive in terms of policy-based solutions.

I'm a Scientist: Should I Scijack?

If your primary goal is to enhance your reach to Twitter users who don’t follow you but are potentially interested in science, Scijacking may be a fun way to reach new people. Just don’t assume that you’ll be changing any attitudes, especially if you are tweeting about a publicly polarized science issue like climate change, with your Scijack tweets. That is, unless you are going beyond providing facts, by for example engaging new Twitter users in meaningful, relevant-to-them, two-way conversations about our current scientific knowledge, what it means in terms of what matters to us as humans and the implications of that.

While humor may help make people more open to scientific information, responding to Trump tweets in humorous or sarcastic ways might have unintended impacts on Twitter users’ perceptions of scientist Scijack-ers, especially if they find these tweets to be inappropriate or politically motivated. I think anyone sending #SciJack tweets should be aware of potentially unintended consequences, and think carefully about how the information they provide could be interpreted by others who don’t share their views.

Why did Shaena Montanari Scijack? 

A conversation about Scijack wouldn’t be complete without Montanari’s perspective on the motivations behind this Twitter trend and its impact for her. So I sent her a few Q&A questions, to get her take on this science communication strategy.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your background, what you do, and your approach to sharing science on Twitter?

Shaena Montanari: I'm a paleontologist and science writer. I've always loved Twitter and have been using it for many years. I love reading about science news and promoting cool research, talking about my own work, and also making friends on there.

Q: How would you describe your current audience on Twitter? (Before #scijack... and now after #scijack)

Shaena Montanari: Before it was probably mostly people who followed me from my writing at Forbes or friends in the science and paleontology communities. Now, post-last week's tweet [sent on May 2], I think I have more followers from outside the scientific realm, and also followers spanning a wider array of political opinions.

Q: How did "SciJack" come to life? What prompted you to start responding to Trump tweets with science facts? What was your original approach to crafting these tweets? Can you give some examples?

Shaena Montanari: All by accident. I read a Trump tweet last week and waded into the mentions. A comedian had made a joke involving dinosaurs so I responded with a joke in turn. It went kind of viral (The original exchange can be seen here and I started getting hundreds of replies and thousands of new followers. I thought to myself that this was the first time I've been able to get out of the "scientist Twitter bubble," so maybe I can have some good conversations there. 

Some of my Twitter friends thought it would be fun to do this more often and give it a name, calling it "#Scijack"... like I said, I didn't mean for this to happen so I said, yeah go for it! Whatever makes people have fun. Plus, it is innocent and educational most of the time. Personally, I like to make jokes, so if I'm going to do it, I'll do some word play or something. It is sort of a funny way to mesh paleontology and politics for me, two things I care a lot about!

Q: What were you expecting / hoping to achieve through your #scijack tweets? Did this change over time?

Shaena Montanari: I had no expectations since I did not really mean to start a movement, but I guess my general goal is to just to give new people an insight into the life of a paleontologist and let them ask me questions. I have access to a wider audience now, which is awesome. The mentions in Trump tweets are usually pretty toxic, so most people have told me they like reading a dinosaur fact in there because it makes them smile. 

I'm not naive and I know I'm not winning the hearts and minds of those who are staunchly anti-science or anti-evolution, but it is cool to give people the opportunity to ask questions to a scientist they wouldn't normally interact with, and most seem to enjoy that aspect. 

Q: What positive benefits have come from the #scijack tweets in your opinion? Have there been any drawbacks?

Shaena Montanari: I’ve definitely talked with a much wider array of people [on Twitter] than before. But that also means there are drawbacks – some people decided to target* me (just your regular garden variety insults), but hey, that's Twitter. I tweeted the other day that I'd like to do an Instagram Live to answer paleontology questions and I had a few hundred people say they are interested, which I don't think would have happened before last week. It has been interesting to organically grow a following like this, all from something that was just a silly joke. 

*Editor's Notes: This may be reflected in sentiment of engagement with her tweets on May 2. A lot of social media attention will also often bring some negative attention. On May 12 most of the engagement on Shaena Montanari’s tweets was neutral in sentiment (46%) while 35% of the engagement was negative and 17% was positive according to Crimson Hexagon sentiment analysis. On average over the last year, 28% of the engagement on Montanari’s tweets has been positive.

Q: What kind of responses have you received based on #Scijack tweets? 

Shaena Montanari: Mostly positive, like I said. Some good conversations. Personally, I've only done about three [#scijack tweets] since last week, including the original – I only do it if I can think of something amusing, educational and/or funny to say in reply. I think at the end of the day it helps me and others realize that even if we differ in political opinions, most Americans care about similar topics. We *can* all get along if we have rational conversations... and no matter what, we all care about dinosaurs. 

As Shaena points out, dinosaurs might be the perfect topic for #Scijack tweets – they aren’t political in nature (I hope, lol!), and “dinosaur science” is one of those science topics that has universal appeal. Fun dinosaur facts in reply threads to Trump tweets have the potential to attract the interest of people across lines of political difference, as opposed to tweets featuring science on more politicized topics. But the individuals who followed or interacted with Shaena as a result of her dinosaur tweets are mostly likely naturally science-interested, as indicated by the Crimson Hexagon affinities results. They might not be scientists, as Shaena points out, meaning that this Twitter activity might have helped her break out of simply talking to other scientists on Twitter. But they are likely much more interested in science than the typical Trump follower.