A Complicated Web: The Benefits and Challenges of the News and Social Media in Promoting Awareness of Research-Based Information

Massive changes in communication activities due to the rapid rise of social media and transformation in the traditional news media over the past decade have both increased opportunities for researchers to disseminate the results of their studies as well as presented challenges because of the plethora of information channels. Although information can potentially be transmitted through the science-policy interface more easily than previously, information transfer is still not a straightforward process. Nevertheless, the news media and social media provide important pathways for research evidence to reach decision makers. In this post, we briefly describe several characteristics of the news media and social media reported in recent research.

Key Findings from Recent Research

i) Social media is becoming a preferred platform for communicating scientific evidence

Social media is faster, more efficient, and more inclusive for discussion than the traditional news media, making it a preferred platform for dispersing and discussing scientific information (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Tools, such as blogs, allow scientists to report their findings directly to citizens without passing through a journalistic filter (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Social media support real-time reporting, which allows information to travel faster and more broadly than ever before (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). It is also easier to tailor a message for the public when it is possible to gauge public sentiment through social media scans (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). In this sense, social media facilitates two-way communication, which is important in helping individuals relate to and engage with a topic (Dijkstra & Gutteling, 2012; Lee, VanDyke, & Cummins, 2017). For example, scientists can respond directly to questions from the concerned public (Tandoc & Eng, 2017), which helps build trust with citizens and enables science to affect behaviour and voting decisions (Lee et al., 2017). Social media also helps to facilitate a horizontal shift in environmental policy creation wherein many actors can share information and resources to form policy (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015). Just as the news media allows for indirect interaction between actors and places increased pressure on politicians (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015), social media can take this one step further with more direct interaction.

ii) Concerns about the nature of social media and news media

As people rely increasingly on social media and other online sources for their access to information, concerns have appeared about the potential dangers of social media. Different terminology and interpretations can lead to different camps of thought about a topic. For example, a survey conducted in England found that the term “global warming” tends to be used in dialogue outlining human causes of the phenomenon, whereas the term “climate change” is more often linked to natural causes (Tandoc & Eng, 2017; Whitmarsh, 2009). This terminology difference could lead to a division in the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Division of views is often discussed as a potential side effect of social media use. People who use social media platforms tend to engage only with people who share their views. They can then filter their sources and connections until they are surrounded by opinions that match their own, creating silos or echo chambers that are devoid of any challenging dialogue (Harvey et al., 2017; Kent, 2013; Tandoc & Eng, 2017). What Crow and Boykoff termed the “cultural politics of climate change” is a key example of this silo phenomena (2014, p. 2). The large number of actors with individual interests, such as the American political communications consultant, Frank Luntz, and his deliberately politicized scientific debate, have reinforced existing biases and have increased the public doubt about climate science (Lee et al., 2017; Nisbet, 2005), adding to the polarization of the issue (McCright & Dunlap, 2011).

This silo effect is not only caused by individuals. Different media outlets may also present issues in totally different frames depending on their funding or readership base (Harvey et al., 2017; Stoddart & Tindall, 2015). For example, political and media polarization have surrounded climate change dialogue in North America in the past 10-15 years, with the two processes happening in parallel and reinforcing each other over time (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015).

iii) Concerns due to the external factors to social media and news media

Concerns have been raised that the news media’s shifting role and changing importance may have more of an impact on the activities about which it reports than ever before. A study by Stoddart and Tindall (2015) indicated that Canadian national newspapers do not cover the complex scope of multilevel climate governance and policy. The newspapers did not pay adequate attention to non-state actors in climate policy networks, such as corporations and environmental organizations, or the policy responses at the local or provincial levels (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015). The two national newspapers included in the study, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, also tended to report climate change through different frames (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015). This uneven representation could fuel public debate and create more distrust towards other information sources.

Social media and public policies show a relationship of an increased mutual influence. For example, policy makers have been shown to exhibit greater secrecy after the advent of sites like Twitter and Wikileaks, which are used to expose missteps in policy and negotiation processes (Lester & Hutchins, 2012). Policies may also affect the development and growth of social media and its impacts among citizens through increased regulation, as seen in the recent case of Julian Assange and Facebook data security. Personal interest and subjectivity are also important factors. For example, the climate change denier blogs illustrate how misinformation can be used to advance personal and corporate interests and shift public understanding about climate change (Harvey et al. 2017).

Limitations in Current Understanding of Social Media

More holistic research in this area is needed. For example, because of the difference between online and offline communication, research on climate change communication should expand to offline communication in order to achieve a broader understanding of public opinion (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Twitter has often been used for research about social media because its short messages are publicly available and can be analyzed by hashtag groups (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). However, Twitter users do not represent all social media users. It is also not generally feasible to analyse all social media sites, especially when some sites emerge and decline on a regular basis (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Therefore, developing a more holistic understanding of social media is required in order to enhance communication and understanding.

Better understanding of various other aspects of social media is also needed. First, studies about social media have often been reliant on biased or self-selected samples. People rarely post neutral opinions, meaning that results can be skewed towards more extreme views (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Second, more research is needed on the legal and ethical issues of government agencies participating in politicized discussions with the public and the consequences of both action and inaction in this regard (Lee et al., 2017). Third, many studies on climate change rely heavily on western contexts. Climate change is a global issue and, therefore, it is important to capture the diversity in non-western media and political systems to understand the role of social media more broadly (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). Achieving a holistic view while paying attention to the details about conducting social media research are key areas for improved understanding about communicating research evidence.

Takeaway Points

It is still unclear if social media are the answer to problems in the communication of scientific evidence or if this media simply create more layers of complexity. Self-interest is often at play in the use of media, social or otherwise. It is therefore important to identify the stakeholders who participate in the creation of any article, tweet, opinion piece, etc. Pimm and Harvey (2000) identified three key criteria with which to evaluate the credibility of scientific studies: (i) follow the data, (ii) follow the money, and (iii) follow the credentials. Harvey et al. (2017) have suggested a fourth criterion to add to the list: follow the language.

Context is key factor when presenting information. Harvey et al. (2017) indicated that two groups (in their study, climate science advocates and deniers) can use the same information to reach entirely different conclusions depending on how the information is framed and presented.

Two-way dialogue is key in social media discussions on complex topics. People are more likely to engage in science if they find the topic relevant (Lee et al., 2017). Today, scientists have an unprecedented ability to make science more relatable to citizens by reaching out and communicating directly with them. This strategy could potentially increase citizens’ trust in science, which is particularly important for politicized issues, such as climate change (Lee et al., 2017). Information no longer follows a linear trickle-down path from researchers to policy makers, to the media, and then to the public (Tandoc & Eng, 2017). People are sharing information and misinformation amongst themselves at high rates. Harvey et al. (2017) have asserted that scientists have a professional and moral obligation to try to counter misinformation when the implications of not doing so are dire. Undoubtedly, this recommendation will require more work moving forward and could benefit from tools like Kent’s (2013) rules for a productive dialogic social media space.



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Authors: Scarlett Kelly and Kaitlin Stansfield


This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.


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