Publish or Perish: How Social Media Helps Scientists Share Research

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” 

– Mark Twain

It’s no surprise the internet is an excellent resource for connecting people and providing easy access to information. Social media serves as an ideal platform for dialogue with its fast-paced interactivity. The black cloud over this useful tool is the fact that fake news is running rampant online. It’s discouraging to think the information most people rapidly consume isn’t always as factual and reliable as they might have originally thought. But how serious is this epidemic and is it even worth the hassle to use social media as a platform to communicate scientific information?

In a recent study, researchers analyzed more than 4.5 million tweets and retweets posted between 2006 and 2017. Their disturbing findings showed fake news spreads faster and farther on Twitter than true stories do. Overall, this data showed fake news was about 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news was. The second part of the study analyzed the impact web robots and computer programs had on the spread of information on various social media platforms. They were pleased to find that bots spread false and true news equally–making humans the main culprit for distributing false information. 
Why exactly might people be more likely to spread tall tales? Some researchers believe that fake news is much more interesting. During my days at Iowa State University, I took a class dedicated to addressing issues in animal agriculture where we explored our perspectives of the most pressing moral and scientific issues facing animal agriculture and developed skills that may come in handy when communicating with those who may have different views. One day during class, my professor said something that really spoke to me–“Fake news will always be more exciting, dramatic, and dynamic than the truth. You need to find unique and creative ways to make the truth about agriculture sexy, exciting, and appealing to those who do not understand. This is the secret weapon to getting people to listen to you.” This same advice can be applied to the communication of science.
So if statistics show that false information is taking over the world of social media and we struggle to make the truth exciting enough for the majority of the population to read and believe it, is the use of social media even worth our time and energy? Clayton Lamb, a University of Alberta Ph.D. student, conducted a research study that found a compelling signal that citation rates are positively associated with science communication through social media. In this era of alternative facts and some mixed messages surrounding science, Lamb believes data-driven scientific information is important because it “offers a light of truth.” He encourages scientists and science communicators to continue to be a part of the conversation. “Twitter is one of the many ways we can help share science with policymakers, other scientists, and the public.”  
If you are currently active on Twitter and advocating for your research or cause, wonderful. Keep up the good work. I challenge you to think of new and innovative ways to combat the encroaching effect fake news has on the communication of credible science. Also, don’t forget to follow CAST on social media and interact with us when the opportunity arises. If you aren’t a tweeter but are intrigued and yearn to know more–reach out to me, CAST’s Communication and Social Media Specialist. I would be happy to provide you with some tips and tricks. 
By: Kylie Peterson

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