The internet has become our main information source, particularly noticeable during the pandemic. Currently, over half of the global population is online, with billions also using social media. We now have access to an enormous volume of information, but its quality ranges from helpful to harmful, especially on important scientific and political topics.
An example of how social media platforms (in this case Twitter) are now frequently used for communicating scientific and policy information.
During the recent US Presidential Election and since, misinformation (false information shared without poor intentions) and disinformation (false information shared to mislead people on purpose) about climate change, voter fraud, and more has been circulated widely online. We are in the midst of a global pandemic due to the COVID-19 virus, where each day we ask people around the world to trust experts, while many – including key political leaders – create and spread mis/disinformation. Furthermore, public policy planning on other matters continues, with governments calling on citizens for their thoughts to inform decisions.
All of these issues beg the question: how can we effectively share important scientific and political information online?
Research shows that rather than pushing information out in a transmission-style manner, two-way conversations with each other are more helpful, where information flows back and forth, rather than only in one direction. However, science communicators have struggled to encourage such conversations online, including on social media.
With the understanding that social media practices can affect how people engage with social media posts shared by science communicators, our goal with this study was to identify communication practices that encourage two-way conversations between science communicators and people on social media.
To achieve this, we:
- Analyzed the social media activity of seven recognized science communicators (four individual communicators in North America and Europe and three representing environmental non-governmental organizations at local, national, and international levels)
- Interviewed each of the communicators to understand their social media methods and motivations
- Surveyed people who interacted with social media posts shared by the communicators to find out what encouraged audience engagement in conversations
We found that the ways the communicators used interpersonal communication strategies was important for encouraging two-way conversations. Specifically, communicators who made themselves known and relatable on an individual level to establish relationships with their audience members via social media were more successful in creating two-way conversations.
In practice, this meant the use of more selfies (images and videos), more non-scientific or “off-topic” content shared alongside scientific information, more personal pronouns in posts, and responding to as many audience comments as possible.
Additionally, we found that Instagram, and especially Instagram stories, provide communicators with many options to help them apply interpersonal strategies throughout their social media activity.
Overall, the results of this study show that a combination of interpersonal communication strategies, and their application throughout the social media activity of science communicators via the features of the social media platforms, especially in Instagram, play an important role in determining audience participation in two-way conversations, and ultimately affect how audience members engage with communicators over time.
These findings can be applicable to diverse communicators, subjects, audiences, and environments (online and offline) in initiatives to promote awareness and understanding of science. Furthermore, effective communication can equip people better for participation in important decision-making processes that affect their daily lives, and lead to more effective public policy.
To learn more about this study, read the paper published open access in PLOS ONE:
Martin, C., & MacDonald, B. H. (2020). Using interpersonal communication strategies to encourage science conversations on social media. PLOS ONE, 15(11), e0241972. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0241972
Author: Curtis Martin