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Social media is at odds with science: research

Articles published in the journal Science presented the argument that social media in its current form can now be fundamentally broken, given the dissemination of facts and reasons and the purposes of presentation. The authors claim that algorithms are now running the show and that the system’s priorities are unfortunately outdated.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele highlight the fundamental mismatch between what scientists need and what social media platforms provide.

The authors say:

Rules of scientific discourse and the systematic, objective and transparent evaluation of evidence are fundamentally at odds with the reality of debates in most online spaces. It is questionable whether social media platforms designed to monetize outrage and discord among users are the most productive channel for convincing skeptical audiences that the science of climate change or vaccines is not up for debate.

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Algorithms to blame

The authors write that the same for-profit algorithmic tools that are “science-friendly and curious followers of scientists’ Twitter feeds and YouTube channels” are also responsible for disconnecting scientists from the public they interact with most. The authors report:

The cause is a tectonic shift in the balance of power in scientific information ecologies. Social media platforms and their underlying algorithms are designed to outperform the scientific public’s ability to sift through fast-growing streams of information, taking advantage of their emotional and cognitive weaknesses. No one should be surprised if this happens.

Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of magazines, has also researched the topic, noting that it’s “a good way for Facebook to make money.”

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Two ways scientists interact with social media

Commenting on TechCrunch, Thorp stated that there are at least two different issues in the way social media and scientists interact. He further added:

One is that, especially with Twitter, scientists like to use it to chat things up and openly air ideas, support them, or shoot them down — the things they used to do while standing around a blackboard or at a conference. It was already going on before the pandemic, but now it has become an important way in which that kind of exchange takes place. The problem with that, of course, is that there is now a permanent, permanent record of it. And some of the hypotheses that are made that turn out to be wrong, that are rejected in the normal course of business, are picked by people who try to undermine what we do.

The second is naive about the algorithms, especially Facebook’s, which place a high value on disagreement and informal posts that spread disagreement. You know, ‘my uncle wore a mask to church and still got COVID’ – that will beat authoritative information every time.

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Nothing new

Thorp also acknowledged that this is just the latest stage of growing anti-fact tendencies and politicization that can be traced back to years ago. He explained:

I think people tend to get a little more emotional about this without acknowledging that it’s very simple: the political parties won’t take the same stance — and when one of those stances is scientifically rigorous, the other will oppose science.

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He also said:

That is a political party that comes to realize that it was more useful politically to be against science than to be for it. So that’s another thing scientists are naive about saying ‘we’re not getting our message across!’ But you are up against this political machine that now has the power of Facebook behind it.

Brossard and Scheufele make a final judgment on Garry Kasparov’s legendary defeat by Deep Blue – a chess computer system, after which no one dared to beat computer programs. The authors noted:

The same understanding is now available to scientists. It’s a new era to inform public debates with facts and evidence, and some realities have been changed forever.

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