huhhow do you communicate the rapidly evolving science of a pandemic to the public? Social media, with its short messages and inflamed memes, doesn’t seem like a perfect fit.
And yet, since the start of the pandemic, Twitter and other online platforms have become vibrant public squares for discussion of Covid-19.
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 Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said social media has sparked debates that usually 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 one thing for scientists to have a discussion among scientists,” he said. “Now scientists and public health officials are in public conversation between scientists and public health officials and everyone is seeing it.”
Broadcasting these debates has had repercussions, he noted, with ideas and public perceptions tending to become entrenched in preliminary and inconclusive results.
Gottlieb cited monoclonal antibodies as an example. Early data on monoclonal antibodies as Covid-19 treatments were criticized as weak on social media; it was only later, after more data had been collected, that it became apparent that the treatments were highly effective.
And yet monoclonal antibody use remains low — in part, Gottlieb suggested, because of the lukewarm response many people initially saw on social media.
“We can change our perceptions as scientists very quickly based on a new study that comes out,” he added. “But [with] the public, it doesn’t happen that fast.”
Darien Sutton, an emergency medicine physician and contributor to ABC News, said he was surprised at people’s discomfort with the idea that science is liquid.
“I think one of the hardest things is convincing those who aren’t actively involved in science that it’s an ongoing process,” he said. “Maybe something we learned earlier isn’t useful, accurate, or necessary now.”
Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Emory University, said she and other scientists were also sometimes challenged by the sheer speed of information on social media. “Sometimes I really want to be part of something before I can tweet about it. But if you wait more than a few hours, people have already moved on,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge on social media is disinformation. The rapid global spread of Covid-19 has created a huge demand for information about the disease. But it also ushered in a tidal wave of people looking to exploit the pandemic for their own ends, leading to what the World Health Organization has described as “massive infodemic.”
“Clearly we face a major disinformation challenge,” Dean said.
Algorithms on social media platforms are ready for engagement. Recommendation engines on these platforms create a rabbit hole effect by pushing users who click on anti-vaccine messages to more anti-vaccine content. Gottlieb noted that “social media facilitate developing your own information microcosm.”
Individuals and groups spreading medical misinformation are well organized to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven ecosystems on social media platforms.
“The information they see has been put together very carefully to reflect certain facts and certain opinions,” Gottlieb said. To counter this, he believes it is important to find people who can break into these close-knit communities.
Despite the misinformation issues, Sutton said social media platforms can be important vehicles for explaining science as it evolves. He recalled standing in a crowded emergency room without a mask at the start of the pandemic, coughing patients, not knowing what was coming. Scientists have since learned so much about Covid-19 and have taught the public along the way.
“If we step into our new normal, and we go back to the things we used to do, I think, for me [I will continue] using these platforms to encourage people to keep looking at science and understanding the beauty of science,” said Sutton.