Covid-19: here is the era of scientific influencers on social networks!

Dernière mise à jour : 29 juil. 2020

By Fatéma Dodat and Gautier Davesne

Note : This article was originally published in French on La Conversation.

Image Source : Pixabay

During the pandemic, science has more than ever invaded social networks. Science communicators and "popularizers" have gradually woven their web on these consumer networks and have been encouraged in scientific journals as prestigious as Nature.

While some of them were already very popular, such as The Pharmafist, others such as Trevor Bedford and Samantha Yammine saw their influence increase during the crisis. A look back at this phenomenon and the issues at stake for research and society.

Currently at the end of our PhD, we are aware of the importance of social networks to increase visibility and promote information related to research in our respective fields. The pandemic has highlighted the power of these networks in crisis situations and has raised issues inherent to their use, which we discuss here.

Science on Social Networks

Although the pandemic has exacerbated the popularity of science on social networks, science has been an important part of social networks for a number of years. In a survey conducted in 2015, 47% of scientists belonging to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said they discover new scientific studies and discuss them through social networks. At that time, they mainly used so-called "professional" or "specialized" networks such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Academia.

These social networks are mainly platforms for exchanges between scientists of the same discipline. In recent years, the rise of popular science, offering visibility and grant opportunities to laboratories, has led scientists to colonize "mainstream" networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

This trend has gradually spread to other platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and even TikTok and Snapchat. The choice of social network is determined by the target audience and age group.

During the pandemic, TikTok, a social network that is very popular among adolescents, was used by various organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Red Cross, as well as some governments, to provide reliable scientific information on Covid-19 and to promote instructions on barrier gestures in a playful way.

A tool for research

The pandemic has illustrated both the need for international scientific collaboration and the power of social networks in terms of the rapid flow of information. Although the overall results of this collaboration will be assessed later, an acceleration in the promotion of knowledge about the coronavirus was observed during the crisis, particularly on social networks.

With 330 million users per month, including a significant number of scientists and epidemiologists, Twitter accelerated the sharing of the entire genome of the first virus sequence, no less than 10 days after the announcement of the pandemic. This data sharing enabled the development of the diagnostic assay for Covid-19, whose protocol was released a few days later on the same platform.

The use of these "mass media", frequently used for studies, polls or surveys, was also solicited in the context of this crisis. In April, the Delphi Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University used Facebook to investigate symptoms associated with Covid-19. The purpose of the investigation was "to predict the number of cases that hospitals will see in the coming days and to provide an early indicator of the progress of the epidemic and the successful flattening of the curve," says Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Limiting the drifts

The occupation of science on the networks is also intended to diminish the influence of trolls and conspiracy theorists, who peddle theories related to pseudo science, sowing doubt and misinformation among readers and, worse, trying to convince them.

Between March and April, Facebook warned about nearly 90 million Covid-19-related contents on its platform, in order to prevent readers from accessing the original content. This content was associated with misinformation about the coronavirus or "miracle cures". One of these remedies recommended, among other things, consuming cow excrement and urine to protect against Covid-19.

One of the main biases found in these networks is cherry-picking, which consists of extracting a specific or partial element from a scientific study - often outside its original context - in order to corroborate its purpose.

One of the many examples is the Facebook posting, noted by Radio-Canada, which states that Covid-19 "is not pneumonia," but actually thrombosis. This publication, shared more than 19,000 times, reportedly extrapolated the results of a study of 38 patients, whose authors note that the "data strongly support the hypothesis proposed by recent clinical studies that Covid-19 is aggravated or related to coagulopathy and thrombosis".

Faced with the multiple aberrations inherent in social networks, a duty of communication has been assigned to scientists. As Samantha Yammine, PhD in Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto and scientific communicator, points out in the journal Nature: "Scientists have a responsibility to communicate effectively and compassionately [about the coronavirus].

The challenges involved

During the pandemic, researchers, who traditionally work in a slow process rather than the immediacy of social networks, rethought the way they communicate research. Many preliminary - sometimes questionable - results related to Covid-19 have been posted on pre-publication platforms.

This new approach, which is part of the collective effort to make progress on the virus, has nevertheless had its drawbacks. Some publications, which were not peer-reviewed and lacked solidity, were relayed on social networks and picked up by the traditional media.

Some scientists accustomed to social media, such as the ecologist Steve Midway, point out that scientific communication on these networks is a demanding discipline that requires a good mastery of the art of popularizing, without altering the scientific facts. Some platforms, such as Twitter, encourage the publication of short texts to be read and taken up. Nevertheless, some scientific statements require nuance, which in turn requires great caution in the way content is promoted.

Since this involvement does not suit all researchers and is time-consuming, most government scientific institutions and personalities, such as the Chief Scientist of Quebec, call upon specialists in communications and media relations, who are responsible for building the strategy for disseminating information and scientific outreach.

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