NSHow does one communicate the fast-moving science of the pandemic to the public? Social media, with its smoldering sms and memes, can seem completely inappropriate.
However, Twitter and other online platforms have become vibrant public arenas for discussion about Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.
At the 2021 STAT Summit, three social media influencers in science reflected on their experience using social media to communicate new scientific findings—and the challenges that came with it.
Here are the highlights:
Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration, said social media has made discussions that typically take place within the scientific community and made them public for all to see.
Scientists sometimes have strong opinions about data, especially early data. “It’s something when scholars get involved in a debate among scholars,” he said. “Now scientists and public health officials are engaged in a debate between scientists and public health officials in public spaces and for all to see.”
He noted that broadcasting these discussions had consequences, as ideas and public perceptions tended to anchor to preliminary and inconclusive results.
Gottlieb cited monoclonal antibodies as an example. Early data on monoclonal antibodies such as Covid-19 treatments have been criticized for being weak on social media; It wasn’t until later that it became clear that the treatments were very effective, after more data had accumulated.
However, monoclonal antibody use remains low — in part, Gottlieb suggested, because of the tepid reaction many people initially saw on social media.
“We can change our perceptions very quickly as scientists based on a new study coming out,” he added. “but [with] Audience, it doesn’t happen quickly.”
Darren Sutton, an emergency physician and ABC News contributor, said he was surprised people were uncomfortable with the idea that science is fluid.
“I think one of the hardest things is helping to convince those who aren’t actively involved in science that it’s an ongoing process,” he said. “Maybe something we learned before may not be useful, accurate, or necessary now.”
Natalie Dean, assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Emory University, said she and other scientists have sometimes been challenged by the sheer speed of information on social media. “Sometimes I really want to sit down with something before I can tweet about it. But if I wait more than a few hours, people have already moved on.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge on social media is misinformation. The rapid global spread of Covid-19 has increased the demand for information about the disease. But it has also led to a tidal wave of people looking to exploit the pandemic for their own purposes, unleashing what the World Health Organization has described as a “massive information epidemic.”
“Obviously we have a huge misinformation challenge,” Dean said.
Algorithms on social media platforms are primed for sharing. The recommendation engines on these platforms create a rabbit hole effect by pushing users who click on anti-vaccine messages towards more anti-vaccine content. Gottlieb noted, “Social media facilitates the development of your own microworld of information.”
Individuals and groups who spread medical misinformation are well organized to exploit vulnerabilities in ecosystems driven by engagement on social media platforms.
“The information they see is very carefully structured to depict certain facts and opinions,” Gottlieb said. To combat this, he believes it is important to find people who can break into these tightly knit communities.
Despite the problems of misinformation, Sutton said social media platforms can be important tools for explaining science as it evolves. He remembered standing without masks in a crowded emergency room with other colleagues and coughing patients at the start of the pandemic, not knowing what was about to happen. Scientists have learned a lot about Covid-19 since then, educating the public along the way.
“As we step into our new normal, and go back to the things we used to do, I think, for me [I will continue] Use these platforms to encourage people to continue to look at science and understand the beauty of science,” Sutton said.