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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

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Is Facebook killing science news?

I’ve observed that the coverage of genetics and evolution in mainstream media has become worse over the last several years. It seems that social media, especially Facebook, may be contributing very negatively to that trend. In The Daily Beast, a report by Tanya Basu looking at patterns of social media sharing of science news: “Study: We F**king Love Lousy Science on Facebook”.

The headline is a bit unfair, I think, because the popular page “I F**king Love Science” actually carries a lot of science news stories. Its reporting and selection of stories to promote may not be ideal, but it would be hard to categorically say it is different from mainstream sources like The Daily Beast, Newsweek, or LiveScience for accuracy and scope.

The real problem is our Facebook friends. Now that Facebook promotes friends and family posts, whatever science you see is pretty much what they like and share. And it’s crap.

The problem is, it’s crap even when it comes from “top scientific thinkers and pop-culture icons”…

Second, you might think that getting access from top scientific thinkers and pop-culture icons might help drive serious science coverage and conversation. Indeed, astrophysicists like Tyson, Michio Kaku, and the late Stephen Hawking are the leading pages followed by Facebook users. But little of their content is original, and in fact, much of it is either generated from other sources or might not have anything to do with specific scientific discoveries at all.
That trend is made worse by groups like Smart Is the New Sexy, whose links were found to be “far afield from science topics.” That, in fact, illustrates a huge problem with Facebook “science” posts: For many of them with health or nutrition bents, advertising and promotions can sometimes form a dominant majority of content.

Ugh.

Look, few of us who write about science on blogs and social media are getting paid for this kind of work. That means that a lot of people who are writing about on blogs and social media are using their writing as a hustle to get paid for other things.

For some of us, we get paid for the occasional article, or even a whole blog, written for a mainstream outlet. That kind of work is frustrating to me, because not everybody can read what I write for many mainstream outlets, so I don’t do as much of that kind of writing as I could. But it’s respectable and often worthwhile, because mainstream outlets continue to have substantial readership that benefits from accurate science writing.

So where are the social media sources of science news getting their funding? Big personalities make it through simply being famous – lectures, tours, paid TV appearances, book sales. A good social media strategy for this kind of celebrity is just to spread things that their followers will share and spread.

Science media disseminating their work via your friend and family network have very low-paid writers or aggregators. They rely on clickbait, click-through lists, and using (or stealing) science images and video content without their context. Non-media groups that are “science-adjacent” on social media are selling things or supporting a sales network: supplements, treatments, etc. Meanwhile, there are the “true believers” who share contrarian science theories, or stories about mainstream scientists being wrong.

What can anyone do about this?

Help to bring attention to science writing that is accurate and not sensationalist. Stop and think for a moment before you share science news, to make sure that it actually is science and not a sales pitch or clickbait. Help to create high-quality science resources such as photos and videos, that are curated by real scientists and not click farms. Build something.

If you’re a scientist, stop allowing your institution or funder to issue press releases that you haven’t personally vetted. Let your voice be heard when a science media outlet gets your field of research wrong.

If you do nothing else, if you are a scientist, you need to develop some self-awareness of when you are acting like a crank. You have professional colleagues who have devoted years of effort and training to engage the public effectively in their work. Try talking with them.