Research Article: Practices and promises of Facebook for science outreach: Becoming a “Nerd of Trust”

Date Published: June 27, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Craig R. McClain

Abstract: Arguably, the dissemination of science communication has recently entered a new age in which science must compete for public attention with fake news, alternate facts, and pseudoscience. This clash is particularly evident on social media. Facebook has taken a prime role in disseminating fake news, alternate facts, and pseudoscience, but is often ignored in the context of science outreach, especially among individual scientists. Based on new survey data, scientists appear in large Facebook networks but seldom post information about general science, their own scientific research, or culturally controversial topics in science. The typical individual scientist’s audience is large and personally connected, potentially leading to both a broad and deep engagement in science. Moreover, this media values individual expertise, allowing scientists to serve as a “Nerd of Trust” for their online friend and family networks. Science outreach via social media demands a renewed interest, and Facebook may be an overlooked high-return, low-risk science outreach tool in which scientists can play a valuable role to combat disinformation.

Partial Text: Over the last year, a new political and cultural climate arose in which the prevalence and dissemination of “fake news,” “alternate facts,” and “pseudoscience” rose considerably. The proliferation of “fake news”—the fabrication of sensationalized stories that imitate the style and appearance of real news articles and are published on sites that mimic legitimate outlets [1]—is likely a reflection of the fact that an increasing proportion of the public get their news through social media. Nearly 62% of adults in the United States in 2016 received news from social media, up from 49% in 2012 [2]. The necessity for scientists to engage with the public online is perhaps greater than ever, and over the last decade, scientists have seen increasing calls, from both within and outside the field, to engage with the public [3–5], especially through social media [6–9]. The ease, time, and financial costs of starting a social media account, combined with the potential for very large audiences, makes social media outreach seem very promising. But it’s a big leap from creating a social media account to building a high-profile social media presence buoyed by original content and an engaged audience, which often requires a long-term commitment [9].

The role of Facebook as a source of news and information has become increasingly important as the rise of “fake news” has made clear. Over 66% of Facebook users receive news shared through the site—higher than any other platform except for Reddit [2]. Despite the expanding influence of Facebook, it has received far less attention as a tool for science outreach than Twitter and blogging [8, 9, 13–23]. Indeed, few surveyed scientists believe Facebook is an effective form of online science communication [24]. A sentiment echoed in a study on an institutional Facebook page that concluded “Facebook pages do not offer appropriate social context for learning.” [25]

Academics appear to interact with Facebook often—nearly 40% in science and engineering and over 50% in social sciences, arts, and the humanities visit daily [31]. An additional 40–50% are aware of the sites but do not visit regularly [31]. A more recent study finds that 82% of respondents used Facebook [24]. Facebook, in terms of awareness and usage, only falls behind research profiling sites such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and Linkedin for scientists and engineers [31]. More recently, however, scientists appear to be more heavily favoring the use of Twitter [24].

This study adds to prior work suggesting that scientists appear to be heavily represented on Facebook and many use it regularly to connect with people outside of science [24, 32]. Prior research suggests many scientists already believe in the utility of Facebook to share science with personally connected and interested colleagues, family, and friends [24]. But despite this belief and overall usage of Facebook, the survey results here suggest scientists are still missing a rich opportunity to discuss science with the nonscientists in their networks by actually posting and engaging with their networks. The sample sizes here are limited, but if these results here are representative of the larger population of scientists on Facebook, many scientists may not be taking advantage of the platform as an outreach tool. Here, I argue that Facebook represents an unparalleled and overlooked opportunity.

Realizing the promise of using Facebook for science outreach may require overcoming cultural and technical barriers. Funders may not consider sharing science on a personal Facebook account as a legitimate form of science outreach. Public outreach is part of the broader impacts statement required for a National Science Foundation grant. But reviewers are likely to prefer that research-related content be shared via a blog rather than a personal Facebook account, even though the audience on Facebook is likely to be far greater than the traffic of most fledgling blogs. Another potential issue—and one that could help resolve funders’ hesitation to value social media outreach—is the difficulty of evaluating engagement. Metrics for Facebook are needed that quantify the quality and quantity of engagement with scientific content posted to Facebook. Currently accessing Facebook data is difficult and can often incur a fee. To convince scientists and their funders that it’s worth the effort to counter the proliferation of pseudoscience where it’s most widely disseminated, we need both serious conversations about the legitimacy of personal Facebook accounts for science outreach and the metrics to gauge their success.