Abuse and falsehoods erode the public square of science

As the world faces existential problems such as pandemics and climate change, Australian scientists are facing a dilemma about the best way to connect with the wider public.

Many researchers with valuable insights are leaving one social media platform but are uncertain where to connect with the public amid what they perceive as an increase in fake news and misinformation.

A survey conducted by Cosmos and the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) sought to learn how scientists in Australia and New Zealand were using social media a year after Elon Musk shifted the digital landscape through his US$40bn purchase of Twitter (now called X).

More than 100 scientists participated in the survey. While preliminary, it found most who used X had either reduced or ended their participation on that platform.

And although X has typically been seen as the platform of choice to share material online, all scientists surveyed who use social media professionally maintain a LinkedIn account. About 45% of those who use the career-focused social media platform do so at least once a week. This compares to 70% of scientists surveyed who use X for professional purposes, and of those just 40% use it at least once a week.

Among other findings around the use of social media accounts by scientists:

  • Most operate social media to connect with peers and colleagues, and to engage with the public.
  • About 75% of those with an X account had reduced their usage or stopped using the platform entirely in the past year, while more than 25% had increased their use of LinkedIn.
  • Around 62% had been subject to good-faith criticism on social media; 35% had been subject to abuse.
  • 80% had witnessed fake news, misinformation or disinformation related to their area of expertise in the past year, mainly on X and Facebook, but also YouTube.

Social media was seen as a positive means of sharing information and connecting with peers on a global scale. The scientists, who are all voluntary members of the AusSMC’s expert database (and so are willing to provide expert comment to media organisations) largely agreed social media offers an opportunity to provide their expertise to the public.

Time, resourcing and training were seen as the main limits to having a more active – or effective – social media presence.

But scientists also identified the challenge of conducting their public presence safely.

A loss of community amid X’s demise

In October 2022, Elon Musk walked into the offices of X (then Twitter) hauling a sink.

“Let that sink in”, read his tweet.

Sadly, what has seemingly sunk in for many scientists is a new reality that X is no longer the ‘public square’ many want it to be.

Most scientists view changes implemented at X in the last year as fracturing the online scientific community, leaving uncertainty as to where such a network could be re-established.

“Twitter has really gone down the drain, but everyone split off into different directions and I’m not sure which one to join,” one anonymous respondent to the survey said.

Another observed that, since the change at X, “professional social media is in a limbo of sorts. BlueSky [is] picking up but it feels more like an echo chamber of scientists and misses the wider public and media interaction so far. Mastadon [is] too hard for people to use and [Instagram] Threads didn’t take off.”

For those only now considering putting a ‘toe in the water’ to improve their public profile, the risk of abuse is seen as a major barrier to bringing their expertise to public discussions.

Many survey respondents also voiced concerns about the erosion of abuse safeguards.

“I am regularly told by colleagues and/or media trainers that it is a good idea to have an account on X,” said one. “However, I have avoided setting up an account for two reasons… the amount of time needed to curate and regularly post and the level of vitriol/trolling/abuse and associated impacts on mental health that I see/hear about from colleagues.”

The demise of X and its community of scientists isn’t restricted to Australia and New Zealand. Earlier this year, the journal Nature ran a global survey which found half of scientists had reduced their use of the platform, and about 7% had ceased using it altogether.

But scientists understand the value in sharing their work with the wider population – wondering where to go next is a consistent theme and one that Associate Professor Michelle Riedlinger, a digital science communication researcher at QUT, says is being widely expressed.

“For some people, Twitter has been a place where they find a community that they find nowhere else, and this is true of early career researchers right through to people who are trying to advocate and build communities around evidence-informed decision making,” Riedlinger tells Cosmos.

“[There are] all sorts of places where they find like-minded people in other spaces online. But I think Twitter’s been a particularly good place to do that.”

Dr Rahul Barmanray, an endocrinologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital whom specialises in diabetes, is one of many who have begun using other platforms – particularly LinkedIn – instead of Twitter to connect to peers.

“It’s where the people I was communicating with went,” Barmanray told Cosmos.

“That’s been the loss, the ability to have discussions with members of the non-academic, or the non-professional, institutional public.”

Not a fun place to be

Increasingly, the risk of abuse and vilification is considered repellent to people participating in public social media discourse. It’s no different for the science community.

These behaviours have taken their toll on many scientists. Climate change and COVID-19 were the most-cited themes that prompted abuse from the wider public.

While the public was the most frequent source of abuse, scientists also spoke of ‘peer-to-peer’ vilification. One scientist said they withdrew from social media after a colleague supported comments made by one social media ‘troll’ against their work.

Gender was a persistent theme as well.

While men and women were similarly represented in the sample, women often described being subject to gendered vilification.

Dr Kathryn Shine is a journalist who teaches news writing at Curtin University. Earlier this year, she led a team from Curtin and ANU researching experiences by experts across all disciplines who appear in the media. She says gendered abuse has been a common concern.

“When we asked them to give more details about the nature of that harassment, only the women referred to it been very personalised, often sexualised, gender-based, quite explicit,” Shine says.

“The tone of it, it’s very nasty, whereas for the men it was perhaps more likely to be attacking what they had said, rather than them personally.”

Shine says while experts believe they have a role contributing their knowledge to the public, more needs to be done to prevent them being subjected to abuse.

Co-existing in an environment that gives equal billing to falsehoods spread by non-experts is also a cause for concern. While the public was identified as the most common source of mis and disinformation, around two-thirds of scientists saw notable public individuals and bots as being responsible for distributing falsehoods.

“I would say, scientists, undoubtedly have good reason to be concerned about this sort of information environment,” says Emeritus Professor Brian Martin, a social scientist at the University of Wollongong whose work specialises in the impact of attacks on experts.

“My recommendation would be to learn about the communication environment, learn about the tactics that are used against outspoken scientists, either the ones who are had the backing of their institutions or those who don’t have the backing of their institutions who are taking an unpopular line.”

Next year, the AusSMC is set to relaunch a training platform to help scientists develop the skills required to navigate social media safely.

“I think anyone who’s been on social media wouldn’t be surprised that there is misinformation and disinformation,” says Lyndal Byford, AusSMC’s director of news and partnerships.

“It’s a concern if scientists don’t see engaging with the public as a significant and important use of their time and expertise. As for the best way to engage with the public, I think it’s reasonable that many scientists are coming to the conclusion that social media is not the best way to do that.

“This survey really shows that scientists are crying out for more support in this space, both in how to use social media, and how to set themselves up to do it safely. AusSMC is developing resources to give scientists tools and the tips and the advice that they need to set themselves up to engage safely on social media, and also to know what to do and how to respond if they are abused online.”

Cosmos approached X for comment but received an automated response. Meta referred us to its policy blog.

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