Science is Democracy: The Impact of Twitter’s Discovery Algorithm and Discoveries on Scientists’ Social Media Efforts
The last few weeks have not been easy for the micro-messaging service. After Musk laid off staff, the site has repeatedly malfunctioned as the remaining engineers have struggled to keep on top of issues. Musk wants to encourage accounts to return to the platform, which was previously banned. Some reports, including one from researchers at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, say abuse is rising on the platform (see go.nature.com/3vcgpfw).
On 11 December, Musk wrote on his personal account that his “pronouns are Prosecute/ Fauci” in an apparent attempt to mock and malign the departing director of US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci.
It is one of the reasons that I would not be able to know so many scientists without it. It gives you opportunities no matter where you are and increases democracy in science.
These studies and more point to the conundrums that Twitter poses for scientists and other users. The main focus of the platform is to retain people’s attention and engagement. Accordingly, Twitter’s discovery algorithm (which surfaces heavily discussed or shared messages on people’s timelines) “prioritizes a very particular type of content”, says Renée DiResta, who studies social networks and misinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory in California. She says that people with no institutional credentials can capture public attention by commenting on a particular topic.
Information scientist Stefanie Haustein at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who has studied the impact of Twitter on scientific communication, says the changes show why it’s concerning that scientists embraced a private, for-profit firm’s platform to communicate on. “We’re in the hands of actors whose main interest is not the greater good for scholarly communication,” she says.
It has also given an influential voice to people who might otherwise be excluded, and has helped to broker support networks for those who don’t see people like them in their own departments, says Sigourney Bonner, co-founder of the #BlackinCancer community and a PhD student at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Institute. She says that before she started her own, she didn’t meet a black woman with a PhD. Movements united by hashtags — from #IAmAScientistBecause to #BlackInTheIvory — have often seen Twitter acting as a rallying point for discussing key problems in academia, such as racism, sexism, harassment and bullying.
In a widely shared study from 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge studied Twitter and found that false news stories on the site spread much faster than do true news stories — possibly because, they reported, the false news items had more ‘novelty’ than the true news6. The false news also tended to arouse emotions such as fear, disgust and surprise.
Manoel Horta Ribeiro is a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and he is working on a project that examines hate speech on social media.
The idea of Twitter as a great democratizer also doesn’t always match reality, DiResta adds. Accounts that have a lot of followers have a bigger following than average experts on the platform.
Musk has personal views that have concerned many scientists, as well as the fact that he fired many people who worked on moderation. The scientists noted that on Nov. 23rd, it was announced that it would no longer enforce its misinformation policy. Hate speech on the platform has been reported to be increasing in areas such as climate science.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of talking in school science classes about the process of doing science, and explaining to people how the social process of science operates,” he says. “When you actually see science in the making, it looks very, very different.”
How to make a social network work for real-time scientific collaboration: comment on Akin Ünver on Twitter after the February 6 earthquake
After Musk mocked Fauci, Bergstrom locked his own account. “You can’t have meaningful and productive scientific collaboration on a platform run by [a] right-wing troll who denies science when its results are inconvenient to him and just simply to hear his audience cheer,” he wrote on Mastodon.
“We’ve been having conversations about if Twitter is now a safe place for our organization to exist, because of the way it’s changing,” says Bonner. “At this moment in time, I don’t know.”
If it has too many people and the right people, then a social network is doomed. It requires millions of people to move from one place to another. Even if that happens, she says, you need to rebuild the same networks and structures that existed on Twitter — which is proving hard because of the way that control of Mastodon is distributed across servers, making it difficult for those who were on Twitter to reconnect.
Even though he has a lot more followers on the social media site, the stuff he posts is getting about the same amount of engagement as on Mastodon.
The platform is not the only one that needs trained scientists to give expertise and point people to the best sources of evidence based information. In her reply to Bergstrom, Greenhalgh argued that people like him were still needed and that she felt obligated to continue with her work. I’m staying.”
Akin Ünver has been using Twitter data for years. He is an investigator of some of the biggest issues in social science. He had to set aside time so that he could aid relief efforts in Turkey and Syrians after the devastating earthquake on February 6.
Aid workers are racing to rescue and provide aid to those who have been left homeless by the tragedy. nver is a computational social scientist at zyein University in Istanbul, and he states that the ability to collect real-time data with the help of the social networking site is very useful.
When the announcement came, researchers were already feeling unmoored as a result of changes at Twitter after billionaire Elon Musk bought the company last October. Ünver says that since then, his data requests using the API have yielded some worrisome glitches. For example, a program that uses earthquake-related keywords in Turkish doesn’t always return all of the tweets that he sees on his own Twitter feed — even if he searches with the exact words of the tweet. And a few times, he has spotted duplicate tweets in his data. “Both problems are new,” he says.
Since then, researchers have been anxiously awaiting further details of Twitter’s plans. The date that free access is due to end has been pushed back twice: first on 8 February, and then in an announcement on 13 February that said the new platform would be unveiled in “a few more days”. Furthermore, key information about a proposed new payment plan is missing, says David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The company says that it will offer tiered pricing, with the cheapest version costing US$100 a month for “low-level” access. But it hasn’t said what that will entail. “People can have different orders of magnitude in their imagination as to what ‘low-level’ means,” says Lazer. If they are pricing corporate customers differently, academics will not be able to afford it.
The rapid change in policy will cause difficulties for some large European Union-funded projects, whose proposals were written with the assumption that API access would remain free, says Ünver. And prices could quickly mount if each researcher on a project had to pay the monthly fee.
Claes de Vreese, a political communication student at the University of Amsterdam, says that the move runs against the spirit of the EU’s Digital Services Act. As a very large social-media platform, Twitter could eventually be compelled under the legislation to ensure data transparency and access for researchers.
It could cause more data difficulties if the access is restricted. De Vreese says that his colleagues have been frantically collecting data since word of the API change broke. Over time, he says, limiting access to new information could render the field over-reliant on previously downloaded data sets.
Before the Twitter announcement, Lazer’s lab had gathered enough data to crank out a few academic papers, including one that looks at the impact of Twitter’s interventions, such as banning certain users, after a mob attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. He says that work can’t be replicated in the long run. If there is another insurrection, researchers won’t be able to study it in the same way.
Mapping the environmental impacts of food production on global scales: from chicken feed to teplizumab treatment of type 1 diabetes
Farmed chicken and salmon are among the most sustainable meats available, but they still exert intense environmental pressures on the hotspots where farming is concentrated. The first study to map their impact on a global scale found that, by some metrics, chicken farming is more efficient than salmon farming: it yields 55 times more food per year because chickens grow to full size faster. While habitats and species negatively affected by farming on land tend to decline, marine wildlife which is disturbed by farming tend to recover. The fishmeal that is used in the making of chicken feed is taken from the ocean.
The atmosphere in pre-industrial times contained sulfur particles that were cooler than we had thought. Researchers examined Greenland ice cores to study the pristine Arctic atmosphere. They found that volcanoes are a major source of sulfur emissions, even during decades without major eruptions — in fact, dormant volcanoes belch out a lot more sulfur over those time spans than do active ones. Sulfate aerosols have a net cooling effect but can give diminishing returns. So, if natural levels are higher than we thought, we might have overestimated the cooling caused by human particulate pollution, perhaps by as much as half.
When the antibody treatment teplizumab became the first drug that can delay the onset of type 1 diabetes (T1D), it was “a huge, huge step forward for the field”, says Aaron Kowalski, leader of a T1D research organization. People who have not yet developed symptoms can be helped by the stopping of T cells from destroying pancreas cells with teplizumab. Now scientists are looking for similar drugs to treat other autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Identifying people who might benefit from such therapies remains one of the biggest challenges: pre-symptomatic signs of these diseases aren’t yet well defined, and there’s no consensus on the best way to screen people.
How social media affects young people’s mental health: Why we need to engage with science instead of science, but why we must engage with it anyway
Many climate scientists think that solar-geoengineering research comes with unacceptable risks, but we must engage with it anyway, argues Katharine Ricke. “Shunning this research is riskier than studying it,” she writes. Private companies are already conducting rogue experiments, despite the fact that we have little evidence on efficacy or the risks to weather, agriculture, human health or other living things.
“We are a complete mobile research unit,” says pollution researcher Steve Allen about his long-term collaboration with his wife, Deonie Allen. Working together with a romantic partner has clear benefits: you share the same passion for science and understand each other’s challenges and stresses. Finding two jobs in the same location can be challenging when you share a speciality. “It’s true we wake up talking science and go to sleep talking science,” says Steve. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Why is there no scientific consensus on how social-media use affects young people’s mental health? What researchers are missing is that sensitivity to online content changes according to a person’s stage of development. In their study of more than 17,000 adolescents aged between 10 and 21, they found that spending more time on social media predicted decreased life satisfaction a year later — but only in participants entering puberty and at the age when they first left home.
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