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Twitter and science communication: what's next, Mr. Musk?


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The Conversation

Ignacio López-Goñi

Full Professor of Microbiology

Many of us have incorporated social networks into our daily routine as a means of obtaining information. In addition to their immediacy, they have the advantage that, until now, they did not involve any cost. And that makes them the preferred option for many young people. As I was once told by a student, "e-mail is for old people".

Twitter is one of the most popular social networks, with hundreds of millions of users worldwide.

As it allows sharing short messages, including images, videos and links to other sites on the Internet in a fast way, well used it is one of the most professional channels for scientific communication. Nowadays practically all scientific publications and societies, most of the centers of research, universities and many researchers use Twitter for their professional work .

Direct means of communication with scientists

During the covid-19 pandemic, Twitter demonstrated its potential. Among other things because it facilitated the dialogue between the world of research and the more traditional media.

That dialogue was core topic because, within a few months, there were tens of thousands of scientific articles on SARS-CoV-2 and covid-19 disease. There were more articles on the new coronavirus than on malaria, for example. Among all that immense jumble of information, it was difficult to distinguish between errors, misinterpretations, provisional truths and quality science (the solution to the pandemic). Therefore, many science journalists informed themselves and communicated with scientists around the world.

On Twitter we are tribes and, if we choose well the accounts we follow, it can become an excellent source of information. For example, if we followed Tulio de Oliveira (@tuliodna), director of the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform in South Africa, during the height of the pandemic, we could find out about the appearance of the omicron variant in real time and first hand, long before the news appeared in the media.

Lies fly... literally

Regardless of their veracity, news on Twitter has a global and immediate diffusion. In fact, in parallel to the pandemic, a huge amount of hoaxes and lies were spread, mainly through social networks.

This phenomenon was so widespread that the WHO described it as a "massive infodemic", the "other pandemic" of misinformation. It also warned of its dangers, especially because it prevented the public from accessing reliable information about the disease. Many of these hoaxes were related to scientific and health issues.

It is true that social networks have played in part a nefarious role in the transmission of hoaxes and lies during the pandemic, and that this has even caused deaths. But it has also been shown that, in order to combat pseudoscience, it is essential that scientists themselves use social networks to communicate science outside academia. Their presence in social networks influences public opinion and has meant in many cases a reliable source of information in a status crisis like the one we have experienced. For a researcher "being" on social networks, especially Twitter, is no longer a waste of time.

Things change if Twitter is paid

Elon Musk has bought Twitter, he is definitely its new owner. As soon as he arrived, he fired the main managers and dissolved the committee administration. And he has also expressed his willingness to charge verified profiles.

We do not yet know how this story will end. Twitter, well used, is an excellent professional tool . It would be a pity if it ceased to be useful for science communication and knowledge dissemination . Let us not forget that a better informed society is a freer society, more difficult to manipulate and more democratic.