If everything distributed through social media were fact, then smelling farts cures cancer, sunscreen causes melanoma, if you don’t support vaccines you are “scum”, and it is absolutely significant that the creator of the Facebook page, I fucking love science, is a woman.
The relationship between social media and the distribution of scientific information is like much of the rest of the internet: a few drops of absolute brilliance , in an ocean of ignorance, vitriol, and misinformation. What sets social media apart from the rest of the information presented in the “traditional media” or internet landscape is the effect that social cognitive theory plays on peoples’ acceptance and emulation of the presented information. Counterintuitively, because information on social media is shared by those whom the reader is either familiar with and relates to, it is given greater credibility and personal relevance than if it had been taken directly from the source. This phenomena can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on what the information is. Furthermore the lack of oversight allows for the slinging of arrows in a very public way at anyone by their dissenters without any requirement of civility. What follows are a few of the many examples of the good, bad, and downright terrible discussions taking place through social media.
The Downright Terrible
Let us begin by imagining for a moment you are a researcher who specializes in the epidemiology of melanoma, a particularly voracious form of skin cancer. You have just published a study about how, despite suncreen’s protective effects, those who wear sunscreen are still at increased risk of melanoma when compared to their non-sunscreen wearing counterparts. Then you discover that there is an article written by Paul Fassa at RealFarmacy.com on how Scientists Blow The Lid on Cancer & Sunscreen Myth making the rounds on Facebook and other social media sites, that cites your research as part its’ pseudo-factual basis. This article states that women who use sunscreen are at a dramatically increased risk of cancer and insinuates that this is due to chemicals in the sunscreen, attempts to discredit the theory that melanoma is caused by sun exposure, and that the fear mongering of the sunscreen industry has actually lead to an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. Sadly, that is exactly what happened in June 2014 to Lindqvist et al. after they published their April 2014 study that examined the correlation between the suntanning habits and cancer incidence in 30,000 Swedish women. Suffice it to say, that there are going to be people who inhabit the social media landscape who after having this article shared with them, will return to the real world and forego the use of sunscreen, and eventually develop skin cancer, a terrible thing indeed. My advice, if scientists blow the lid of something, its probably nonsense or a total misuse of statistics.
While there are certainly bad things happening on either side of any debate, few have been as charged as the social media debate over vaccination. I picked this example in-particular because, while I personally believe that every child (short of those with a valid medical reason) should be vaccinated I also believe that calling someone “scum” over their skepticism of vaccines is not only rude but extremely counterproductive. The Twitter group Antivax Wall o Shame (@AVshame) was set up specifically to insult those who do not believe in vaccines. While shame can be a powerful motivator in many situations, in this instance the crass attitude presented by these individuals is more likely to mobilize those who read the Tweets against the pro-vaccine crowd rather than for them. While they are trying to fight the good fight against those who do not believe in a scientifically valid, safe, and lifesaving medical practice, they are going about it in the wrong way. These individuals are able to hide behind the anonymity of the internet and make an argument against against anti-vaccine advocates that lacks is any semblance of a succinct and thorough argument in favor of their views. My advice, before you post, listen to yourself and if you’d like people to listen to you, show them respect, even when you disagree.
Elise Andrews is the blogger and social media guru behind the I fucking love science Facebook page. She started the page not to distribute information about the state of science and health to the masses but because “[she] was always finding bizarre facts and cool pictures and one day [she] decided to create somewhere to put them – it was never supposed to be more than [her] posting to a few dozen of [her] friends.” She ended up with quite a following though. At the time of this post 17,373,398 people “like” her page. She has taken this social media celebrity in stride and uses her massive following not only to share “bizarre facts and cool pictures” but also to actively debunk many of the downright terrible and horribly inaccurate articles that often make the rounds on social media. Including tearing apart the sunscreen and cancer article discussed earlier with scientific reason and evidence.
However, by dipping her toe into several hot button issues she has also been victim to the insidious side of social media; from the relatively trivial argument over whether the word fuck in her blog title is offensive to the outright hate that she was subject to after it was “revealed” that she was a woman.
Social media can be a great tool to get ahead of an impending disaster or effectively distribute important information. However, that good hinges on the ability of individuals to judge the credibility of the information, and also have an awareness of their biases towards information that is presented to them not from a faceless organization, scientist, or doctor, but from a friend or family member. Finally, they need to get out from in front of their screens and put that information to use.
Special thanks to the creator of XKCD comics for communicating this ridiculous scientific world so succinctly in artistic form and also for allowing the distribution of his works through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. This means you’re free to copy and share these comics (but not to sell them). More details.