Science and Social Media

Science has a large, growing presence on social media, increasing its popularity and accessibility to users of all creeds, for better or worse.

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Science is often regarded as an inaccessible topic with its lofty jargon and esoteric unsolved problems. Dare to whisper the words “organic chemistry” and students will scurry away from you in fear. Thanks to social media, however, the perception of science as a hard-to-understand subject is dissipating, as hobbyists and educators alike are taking to the small screen. From posting basic infographics about the COVID-19 pandemic to making videos with in-depth explanations on complex quantum computing, scientific presence on social media is both evolutionary and revolutionary.

Science initially became more accessible after educators posted course materials and fun facts on platforms such as YouTube. They then used sites such as Facebook and Instagram and began to gain traction and reach a wider audience through the liking, commenting, and messaging features. Photo-based platforms, such as Instagram, were unique in making science accessible. An article published by the Pew Research Center in 2018 indicates that rather than including walls of text and lofty amounts of information, the use of simplified vocabulary and a focus on visual aspects, such as graphs, cartoons, and drawings, have made science easier for the average viewer to internalize.

This trend continues onto the latest social media platform: TikTok. TikTok’s user interactions are unique from other kinds of social media. The “For You” page, or the FYP, has videos tailored to a user’s unique interests, ensuring that they see the content they want. Users can scroll through the FYP endlessly, with new posts popping up one after the other. Features, such as filters, challenges, and commonly used backing sounds for videos, make video patterns and memes catchy and easily recognizable to viewers. The short length of TikTok’s videos is also highly conducive to a fast-paced spread of information. Limited to a maximum of one minute, content creators condense nuanced topics through visuals and dialogue without using up too much time.

TikTok is also responsible for spreading science on social media—for better or worse. The high-speed spread of information means that more users are likely to hear about topics they would otherwise never cross paths with. Sometimes, the sources of information are from museums, such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s TikTok page. The most popular aspect of this page is a man named Tim Pearce, the Assistant Curator of Mollusks. His videos often charmingly pair scientific information about snails with corny but lovable puns. The reaction has been positive, with users commenting, “Every snail joke that shows up on my feed immediately brightens my day,” and “Tim is the only thing holding my sanity together.”

Educators known throughout classrooms have also taken to TikTok, with the most popular examples being Sal Khan and Hank Green, who are already well-known through their signature profiles Khan Academy and Crash Course, respectively. Hank Green is especially known for responding to seemingly ridiculous video prompts and comments, such as, “If there’s so much of it around, why can’t we just eat grass?” and uses it as a humorous and educational opportunity for all. Sal Khan explains the process behind his videos and his inspiration behind starting an educational platform and emphasizes making education accessible for all, a sentiment he spreads to his followers.

Though the spread of information on social media platforms can appear casual and fun, as with Tim Pearce, Hank Green, and Sal Khan, it can also appear in more technical and formal forms. TikTok user and professor of Psychology at San Diego Mesa College Dr. Inna Kanevsky, affectionately known as Dr. Inna by her approximately 860,900 followers, is known for her technical take on science and dedication to scientific integrity. Her followers tag her in psychology videos, which she proceeds to verify or debunk information depending on their veracity. Dr. Inna divides her videos between explaining psychological concepts, such as conditioning and development, and pointing out misinformation, such as eye-catching but false “psychology facts.” Through both kinds of content, Dr. Inna consistently mentions the scientific method as she arrives at a more accurate answer.

While there are users dedicated to correcting misinformation, it unfortunately runs rampant and is responsible for fooling thousands of gullible users. It is easy for users to misinterpret journal articles and spread their false interpretations to an otherwise ignorant audience. The spread of scientific misinformation is most evident regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. While some information seems trivial, with overbearing family members frantically sending cures involving garlic, ginger, and dubiously sourced vitamin supplements on WhatsApp, they may also contribute to larger social issues, such as the public's unwillingness to wear masks. Many anti-mask users on TikTok have used the platform to post themselves spraying water through their masks, apparently displaying their “failure” and “uselessness.” Despite the several flaws with such reasoning, the sentiment spread like wildfire.

The fast-paced nature of social media makes misinformation frighteningly popular. Users quickly absorbing information will believe it as soon as they see it, without verifying it through more reputable sources. Scientific misinformation has also been used to justify racial bias and hatred, with more bigoted users manipulating and converting inconclusive and difficult-to-interpret data into content that is easy for otherwise ignorant users to view. The easiest way to forego the risk of misinformation is for users to perform their own research using a number of trusted sources. We cannot count on a personalized Dr. Inna for every post, comment, and video, but we can learn from her methods of checking research and arriving at our own conclusions from source material.

From light-hearted videos to more technical content, science is having a social media footprint. The rise in accessibility puts users in a unique place, reducing the difficulty of learning about science and heightening the responsibility of having good judgment. The presence of science on social media is sure to change scientific interpretation and participation across the world for everyday users, students, and educators alike. However, it is ultimately our job to make sure we consume such media responsibly.