H ow does one communicate the fast-moving science of a pandemic to the public? Social media, with its short messages and inflamed memes, would seem an imperfect fit.
And yet Twitter and other online platforms have become vibrant public squares 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 of using social media to communicate new scientific findings — and the challenges that came with it.
Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, said social media has taken debates that usually play out within the scientific community and made them public for all to see.
“Scientists sometimes have strong views on data, especially early data. It’s one thing when scientists are engaging in a discussion among scientists,” he said. “Now scientists and public health officials are engaging in a discussion among scientists and public health officials in public and everyone is seeing it.”
The broadcasting of these debates has had consequences, he noted, with ideas and public perceptions tending to get anchored to preliminary and inconclusive results.
Gottlieb pointed to 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 accrued, that it became clear the treatments were highly effective.
And yet utilization of monoclonal antibodies remains low — in part, Gottlieb suggested, because of the tepid reaction that many people initially saw on social media.
“We can change our perceptions very quickly as scientists based on a new study that comes out,” he added. “But [with] the public, it doesn’t happen as quickly.”
Darien Sutton, an emergency medicine physician and contributor to ABC News, said he was surprised by people’s discomfort with the notion that science is fluid.
“I think one of the hardest things is to help convince those who are not actively involved in science that it’s an ongoing process,” he said. “Maybe something that we learned to do before may not be helpful, accurate, or necessary now.”
Natalie Dean, an assistant professor in biostatistics and bioinformatics at Emory University, said she and other scientists have also sometimes been challenged by the sheer speed of information on social media. “Sometimes I really want to sit with 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 misinformation. The rapid global spread of Covid-19 created a huge demand for information on the disease. But it also ushered in a tidal wave of people looking to exploit the pandemic for their own purposes, triggering what the World Health Organization has described as “massive infodemic.”
“We are clearly up against a big misinformation challenge,” Dean said.
Algorithms on social media platforms are primed for engagement. Recommendation engines in these platforms create a rabbit-hole effect by pushing users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more anti-vaccine content. Gottlieb noted that, “social media facilitates developing your own information microcosm.”
Individuals and groups that spread medical misinformation are well-organized to exploit weaknesses of the engagement-driven ecosystems on social media platforms.
“The information they are seeing is very carefully curated, to portray certain facts and certain opinions,” said Gottlieb. To combat this, he believes it’s important to find people who can break into these tightly knit communities.
Despite the problems with misinformation, Sutton said social media platforms can be important vehicles to explain science as it evolves. He recalled standing maskless in a busy emergency room with other colleagues and coughing patients at the beginning of the pandemic, not knowing what was about to come. Scientists have learned so much about Covid-19 since then, and have taught the public along the way.
“As we step into our new normal, and we get back to the things we used to do, I think, for me [I will continue] using these platforms to encourage people to continue to look at science and understand the beauty of science,” Sutton said.