In this post, Curtis Martin, an EIUI team member, reports on his Master of Marine Management research about the strategies that individual scientists and marine non-governmental organization communicators use to engage the public in conversations about scientific subjects.
The internet and social media have dramatically changed the way we communicate with one another today. More than four billion people are connected online, with over half of the global population using social media, creating billions of posts each day across a multitude of platforms (www.internetlivestats.com). These numbers are staggering, but perhaps unsurprising in light of the unprecedented benefits that the internet provides for online communication, such as, breaking down geographic boundaries, facilitating near-instantaneous information exchanges, and providing greater access to information than any previous society has experienced. However, the last few years in particular have highlighted a clear juxtaposition between the benefits of online communication and pitfalls that seem to manifest at a rapidly increasing rate. Many conversations frequently and quickly devolve into polarized arguments riddled with anonymous trolling, a so-called “vocal minority” often uses the internet as a platform to feign widespread outrage, and perhaps most dangerously, internet users are able seek out “echo chambers” that reinforce their own beliefs regardless of reality. Such hazards have underscored the importance of information quality, the credibility of information sources, and the methods of information delivery, for trusted online communication.
It is crucial that we address the above pitfalls, as the internet and social media are now our primary information source. We use the internet to stay up-to-date on local and global events, remain informed on political developments, and, ultimately, to help us decide which government decisions and policies to support and why. In this context,howwe communicate online is more important now than ever before. This perspective is particularly significant in the case of communicating scientific information with public policy implications. How are we as citizens expected to influence government decisions in an informed manner without the proper information? How are we as citizens supposed to identify the “proper” information, when virtually any point of view can be supported with online information if we search hard enough? Alternatively, from the communicator perspective: how can scientific information be presented in a way that conveys quality and trust to those who need it, while still sharing information in a format that is accessible for everyone?
Researchers studying the science of science communication have come to at least one clear conclusion: communicators should not assume that members of the public lack knowledge and act like sponges, absorbing information in a passive manner (Salmon, Priestley & Goven, 2017). In other words, an approach that strictly aims to satisfy knowledge deficits is not sufficient. Instead, communicators need to share information in a deliberative manner, encouraging conversations with their audiences. Social media are significant in terms of a two-way communication model because they provide a relatively ubiquitous interface for conversations between communicators and the public. However, research shows that science communicators often have difficulty reaching the general public online, and instead are communicating mainly with people already knowledgeable on the subject (Alperin, Gomez, & Haustein, 2019; Ke, Ahn, & Sugimoto, 2017). This observation has led to calls for more innovative strategies to communicate science on social media (e.g., Galetti & Costa-Pereira, 2017).
This challenge motivated my Master’s research, which culminated in a report, titled, “‘It Feels Like Engaging With a Friend’: Using Interpersonal Communication Strategies to Encourage Science Conversations With Lay Audiences on Social Media” (Martin, 2019). In my study, I aimed to answer the following question: do particular social media strategies encourage two-way conversations between science communicators and public audiences online? To examine this question, I completed a comparison of two communicator groups who promoted science on Twitter and Instagram – one made up of four individual scientists (in North America and Europe) acting as popular science communicators using personal social media accounts, and the other made of up three environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs, local, national, and international) using organization social media accounts. I completed this research in four main steps. First, I followed the Twitter and Instagram activity of the seven communicator accounts for one month, collecting all social media public posts and audience comments. This process allowed me to capture data on the strategies used by communicators, and the levels of audience engagement, particularly the number of comments and conversations on social media posts. Second, I interviewed the seven communicators to find out why they use (or avoid) particular social media strategies. Third, I surveyed audience members who were in conversations on any of the seven communicators’ posts over the month that data were collected. This latter step provided insight into why responding audience members – who I termed “conversationalists” – choose to participate in exchanges with communicators on social media. Finally, I analyzed the social media biographies of the conversationalists to determine whether communicators are engaging people outside of the scientific community.
What I found is very interesting. Starting with the audience analysis, I discovered that all seven communicators were conversing with a mix of scientific and non-scientific audiences alike. In other words, the communicators I studied – particularly the NGOs – are reaching audiences outside of the scientific community. However, the number of comments and conversations taking place is not equal between the communicator groups. The individual communicators received about 10 times more comments on their posts than the organizations (when controlling for number of followers). Additionally, more than six times as many users were in conversations with the individual communicators than with the organization communicators over the month. Moreover, a difference was also observed in social media engagement between the platforms used by communicators. On average, Instagram posts received over twenty times more comments than Twitter posts, and nearly eight times as many users participated in conversations with the seven communicators on Instagram than on Twitter.
What is causing the large discrepancy in social media engagement between the communicator groups? When I integrated all of my data – including the social media data, interviews, and survey responses – I discovered that the individual communicators are implementing five interpersonal communication strategies more effectively than the organization communicators, leading to greater audience engagement in conversations on social media.
First, the individual communicators post selfies about three times as often as the organization communicators. Selfies included images, as well as videos, most of which are posted on Instagram (using both Instagram posts and Instagram stories). The individual communicators mainly post selfies to portray themselves in a personable way. Second, the individual communicators post on topics unrelated to their main communication objectives about three times as frequently as the organization communicators. In other words, the individual communicators often post about topics outside of science. The individual communicators use these “off-topic” posts to make their social media content more relatable to their audiences. As a third strategy, the individual communicators employed more conversational phrasing in social media posts than the organizations. The individual communicators used less formal, more authentic language, similar to that of audience members, than the organizations. The individual communicators also use positive words one and half times more often than the organizations, and more than twice as many personal pronouns in their posts. This style is practiced mainly to convey trust and approachability to audiences. Another tactic relates to responsiveness. The individual communicators are far more responsive to comments on their social media posts than the organizations. For the individual communicators, actively responding is a means of forming engaging relationships with their audience. Finally, the individual communicators prioritize Instagram as a science communication platform – especially Instagram stories – whereas the organizations mainly communicate via Twitter.
The individual communicators apply the five interpersonal communication strategies more effectively than the organizations, and the audience survey that I completed helps to explain why these strategies result in more social media conversations. The frequent use of selfies by the individual communicators makes them quite familiar to their social media audiences, and audience members are more likely to participate in conversations with communicators they know. As one of the survey participants stated: “I prefer to know the person I’m engaging with.” Off-topic posts by the individual communicators make the communicators more relatable to their audience, which encourages audience participation in conversations. For example, a survey participant commented: “It is interesting to read about a person who is going through the same things in life,” which highlighted the participant’s interest in more than the scientific content posted by the communicator. Through the use of conversational language, the individual communicators are perceived as more approachable. This sentiment was best expressed by a survey participant who noted that interacting with one of the individual communicators “feels like engaging with a friend.” Furthermore, one of the individual communicators emphasized that responsiveness and success in forming relationships with audience members can encourage sustained conversations over time, allowing exchanges to be “ongoing…very ongoing.” Finally, the survey revealed that more engagement occurs on Instagram than Twitter largely because Instagram is viewed as a more conversational platform than Twitter. One survey participant plainly stated: “Instagram … allows easy and efficient communication with people, businesses, and organizations.”
The results of this study highlight important implications for how we can think about science communication online, as well as more generally. Two science communication pathways have emerged from my findings and numerous previous studies. In the first pathway, beginning with social media communicators who use more formal – or more traditional – social media strategies in online communication, the communicators are not likely well-known to their audiences. The less conversational language can prevent audiences from relating to the science-only content and relationships do not develop between the communicators and audiences. Ultimately, this communication pathway is transmission-based, where information flows from communicator to the audience, and stops there. Alternatively, when more interpersonal communication strategies are used, relationships are formed between the communicators and their audiences, encouraging audience members to respond, and therefore creating the two-way/conversational science communication pathway that is thought to be most effective.
What is most exciting about the results of my study is their relevance for science communication as a whole. Because the interpersonal communication strategies discussed above relate to howscience is communicated, rather than whatinformation is communicated, they can be implemented by a wide variety of science communicators sharing information on many topics, instead of being limited to particular issues. Furthermore, the interpersonal communication strategies that encourage two-way conversations are not restricted to digital environments. Science communicators can apply interpersonal strategies in more traditional settings – such as stakeholder consultations or public meetings – to generate sustained conversations over time, and ultimately contribute to more effective science communication.
Alperin, J. P., Gomez, C. J., & Haustein, S. (2019). Identifying diffusion patterns of research articles on Twitter: A case study of online engagement with open access articles. Public Understanding of Science, 28(1), 2-18. doi:10.1177/0963662518761733
Galetti, M., & Costa-Pereira, R. (2017). Scientists need social media influencers. Science, 357(6354), 880–881. doi:10.1126/science.aao1990
Ke, Q., Ahn, Y.-Y., & Sugimoto, C. R. (2017). A systematic identification and analysis of scientists on Twitter. PLOS ONE, 12(4), e0175368. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0175368
Martin, C. (2019). “It feels like engaging with a friend”: Using interpersonal communication strategies to encourage science conversations with lay audiences on social media.(Unpublished master’s report). Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Salmon, R. A., Priestley, R. K., & Goven, J. (2017). The reflexive scientist: An approach to transforming public engagement. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 7(1), 53–68. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0274-4