The chronic growing pains of communicating science online

Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele at Science: “Almost a decade ago, we wrote, “Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate”. Since then, the footprint of subscription- based news content has slowly shrunk. Meanwhile, microtargeted information increasingly dominates social media, curated and prioritized algorithmically on the basis of audience demographics, an abundance of digital trace data, and other consumer information. Partly as a result, hyperpolarized public attitudes on issues such as COVID-19 vaccines or climate change emerge and grow in separate echo chambers.

Scientists have been slow to adapt to a shift in power in the science information ecosystem—changes that are not likely to reverse.The business-as-usual response to this challenge from many parts of the scientific community—especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields— has been frustrating to those who conduct research on science communication. Many scientists-turned-communicators continue to see online communication environments mostly as tools for resolving information asymmetries between experts and lay audiences. As a result, they blog, tweet, and post podcasts and videos to promote public understanding and excitement about science. To be fair, this has been driven most recently by a demand from policy-makers and from audiences interested in policy and decision-relevant science during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, social science research suggests that rapidly evolving online information ecologies are likely to be minimally responsive to scientists who upload content—however engaging it may seem— to TikTok or YouTube. In highly contested national and global information environments, the scientific community is just one of many voices competing for attention and public buy-in about a range of issues, from COVID-19 to artificial intelligence to genetic engineering, among other topics. This competition for public attention has produced at least three urgent lessons that the scientific community must face as online information environments rapidly displace traditional, mainstream media….(More)”.