Science - November 4, 2010

Social media: should scientists get involved?

Social media such as internet forums, Facebook and Twitter undermine the authority of the expert. Should researchers get mixed up in these online debates?

Poison's what's in it.' 'They say it will make you infertile.' 'I'm told that this can cause miscarriages.'
In 2009, MSN and internet forums were flooded with scary tales about the vaccine against cervical cancer. The experts at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) dismissed these as old wives' tales. However, such stories were largely responsible for the failure of the vaccination campaign against cervical cancer. Only half the number of girls turned up for an injection. Attendance at vaccinations in the Netherlands is usually much higher: ninety percent on the average. RIVM realized afterwards that the influence of internet has been underestimated.
Social media cover all and sundry; including science. Unlike in traditional media, the scientist is pretty much absent, and this enables misconceptions to spread easily through the grapevine. On Internet forums about food, word gets around - without anyone refuting the statements - that food colouring, aroma and flavouring can cause allergies and cancer. Last year, the site insinuated that the vaccine against the Mexican flu was a poison used by the World Health Organization to decimate the world population. This opinion was repeatedly taken up in weblogs and online feedback.
The expert therefore needs to take part in the online debate, says Professor Cees van Woerkum of Communication Strategies. 'I feel that a scientist has the responsibility to utilize his results. As such, he must be able to face up to the people involved and so he needs to know what's being talked about in the social grapevine.'
According to Van Woerkum, researchers are aware that the general public creates a reality which is not based only on reason. 'The social media enable people to share information much more easily. As people continue talking, they also bring in their own experiences and usual concerns. Unlike scientists, they do not draw a clear line between scientific knowledge and any other knowledge they can think of. They heap their knowledge together. And out of this pile comes the truth as they see it.'
Therefore, scientists should get involved in the digital discourse. 'They have to find out why people make certain remarks. This is the only way to make them reflect on what they think and to influence them.'
Digital cafe
Marcel Dicke is an expert who likes reaching out to the public. As professor of entomology in Wageningen, he initiated a huge exhibition on insects, organizes the 'insect and society' lecture series, and travels around the country regularly to give talks and to engage in discussions.
'I purposely stay out of the social media. I don't have the time nor do I want to make time for it. If I see remarks on websites, I would put it down to having been misread and people's short memories. People write very spontaneously there. They come across something during surfing, consider that 'ridiculous' or 'fantastic', and make an instantaneous remark. But the day after, they could have forgotten all about it. This tells us something about how people experience things but there is no exchange of information.'
According to Erik den Hoedt, director of the Public Communications Service of the Ministry of General Affairs, experts such as Marcel Dicke should not take such remarks to heart. The social grapevine is a place for people to let off steam, just like in a village cafe.
'The social media are the digital regulars' tables, the cafes. That's where the world's problems are solved forever over two glasses of beer. Do people really think so simplistically?  Of course not. The world's problems have a social function. In the cafe, emotions are what matters; it's about understanding one another.'
Den Hoedt however feels that the government and scientists have to make themselves heard online. 'But if your message is a controversial one, don't be surprised at the vehement responses. Let people have their social need for togetherness and mutual understanding.'
Dicke the expert has had unpleasant encounters with such emotions. On the Resource website, twenty garden owners reacted angrily because he cast doubt on a new outbreak of destructive snout beetles. The garden owners called Dicke a 'blaaskaak' (boaster) and accused him of smear tactics and pursuit of his own or business economic interests.
Dicke has withdrawn from the online discussion on the snout beetles. However, he does not go out of his way to avoid discussing it either. 'If two garden owners were to show up at my doorstep, I will be pleased to talk to them. I know how distressing it is to have large quantities of leaves in your garden being devoured. But before declaring this as a plague affecting the whole of the Netherlands, I would first have to investigate into it. I would like to explain this to them face to face.'
Old wives' tales are nothing new
Science journalist Hans van Maanen (for De Volkskrant, among others) agrees with Dicke. 'People gossiped in the past too, but it's now done in public. The expert shouldn't get involved. It's better for him to phone and inform a journalist that things are different from what is being proclaimed. This is much more effective than joining the herd.'
Van Maanen stresses that old wives' tales are not limited to this day and age. He points to the fluoride discussion in the sixties and seventies. 'A couple of anthroposophists from 't Gooi started a protest against government plans to introduce fluoride into drinking water. At that time too, all stops were pulled; it was claimed then that Germany already had its first cancer deaths due to fluoride addition. That debate lasted eight years, but it is essentially not any different from the one now.'
'Forty years ago, people were able to unite, even though they didn't have the social media for that. When people feel uneasy, they know where to find one another. The social media may have speeded up this process, but I don't think that things now are different from in the past. The citizen reacted to the government's steps to make him drink fluoride, or to give him an injection. The expert remains faithful to the convincing scientific evidence. And they cannot come to an agreement.'
According to communications professor Van Woerkum, science and the public can see eye to eye, but not before the experts learn how to take the people seriously. 'Where nutrition and health are concerned, countless controversial issues are ripe for the picking. Scientists have to be good at dealing with such questions. You just can't say: that's what you think, but I know better.'
But that's what experts do, warns the science journalist. Van Maanen: 'Many experts are arrogant. They secretly look down a little on the general public. People can sense that and develop an aversion to authority. Someone who has faced a condescending expert three times would already have an enormous disadvantage at the start of the fourth round. You just can't win anymore.'
Bad medium for emotions
Entomologist Dicke therefore does not consider the social grapevine a suitable setting for a debate. 'You shouldn't solve a difference of opinion in the social media. It's the same when you are angry: you shouldn't start mailing because that's a bad medium for emotions.' He finds the social grapevine particularly useful for broadcasting. 'You can sell science through it. Social media - Twitter certainly - can take one-liners. I think that social media are used mainly for advertising. How else can you explain the presence of so many politicians on Twitter? They want to sell their message.
Is this then mainly a one-way traffic? Den Hoedt of government communications sees more potential in social media. He notices that the citizen does finally talk back. 'Being the government, we have for a long time presumed that our advice and instructions are received gladly. We don't get much feedback. There is a difference now in this digital age of social media, web forums and blogs. The citizen talks back and everyone lends a listening ear.'