How to Communicate Effectively as A Scientist on Social Media

Science communication or #scicomm is a part of science. Here’s how to communicate science effectively using social media.

By Sheeva Azma

Most scientists are not used to promoting themselves. We’ve all learned that the facts speak for themselves. However, the truth is that one thing that is missing from science is effective communication of science results. Most scientists do not learn how to communicate their findings effectively to the public as part of their scientific training. That’s unfortunate, because being able to explain your complicated science to someone who doesn’t do science for a living is one of the most important skills a scientist can have.

What is Science Communication or SciComm?

Science communication is a part of science. It involves communicating your science to stakeholders, such as:

  • The general public
  • Lawmakers (local policymakers, Congress, etc.)
  • The media
  • Scientists in your field
  • Scientists not in your field
  • Anyone with a Twitter account anywhere in the world

Social media makes effective science communication super easy. Read on to learn about using social media for effective science communication.

Why Use Social Media for SciComm?

The truth is that, thanks to the internet, more and more people are connected to mainstream media and other news sources via their smartphones. We live in a 24-hour news cycle, and yes, especially in a pandemic, that news can include a lot of science.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The bad news is that most people, and that includes most journalists, are not scientists. Scientists may tend to avoid social media because they see it as a waste of time. Or, they may use it to chat with their fellow colleagues, completely ignoring the tremendous opportunity they have to communicate science with the general public and get more people interested in science.

Perhaps the best benefit of a social media presence for scientists in a pandemic is the opportunity to dispel anti-science myths.

Perhaps the best benefit of a social media presence for scientists in a pandemic is the opportunity to dispel anti-science myths. Scientists typically don’t concern themselves with things like public relations, but having a Twitter account is a great way to promote the truth and shutting down misinformation while helping people become less afraid of science. In fact, as Ronnie Das and Wasim Ahmed at the London School of Economics write, social media has been a great tool to help combat the “infodemic” of misinformation living in a COVID-19 world.

Keep reading to learn more about how to communicate science to the public effectively using social media.

How Should Scientists Use Social Media?

It’s not difficult to set up a social media account. However, the difficult part is getting it right. Here are six tips I have learned from seven years in science writing that can help scientists have the most effective social media presence.

1. Pick one social media platform and do it well (I recommend Twitter).

Between their many responsibilities in research, teaching, and just regular life, scientists don’t have a lot of time. They also may not have a big budget, like a company might, to start a dedicated social media presence. My best advice here is to pick one social media platform and to focus all your attention on running that platform extremely well.  You can always expand later.

I find that Twitter is a great place for scientists and science communication. Because many people are constantly checking Twitter for the news, it can be a great place to chat about the scientific aspects of the news and dispel fake news and misinformation. Scientists can use Twitter to talk directly to the mainstream media, the general public, and other scientists and medical professionals — all at once.

As the authors of this guide to getting started on Twitter as a scientist write:

Twitter is a tool that facilitates decentralization in science; you are able to present yourself to the community, to develop your personal brand, to set up a dialogue with people inside and outside your research field…

Cheplygina, et al., 2020

2. Learn how to explain your science succinctly. 

The most important skill you need for having a science social media account is the ability to explain your science in a straightforward manner. This may take some practice. Here are a few ways you can explain your science in a more easy-to-understand manner.

Being able to explain the science in a simple, succinct manner is an essential skill for building a social media presence. #scicomm

3. Think of yourself as a PR person for science.  

Many scientists may find it against their nature to run a Twitter account that promotes themselves. The best thing a scientist starting out on social media can do is to think of themselves as a public relations (PR) person for science.

The goal of a scientist’s social media account should be to promote science.

Scientists on social media don’t have to talk about how great they are all the time, but they do have to talk about science. This can include discussing the importance of ongoing research studies, explaining research in simpler terms, and providing important takeaways for their social media followers. This takes some practice, but is a great way to promote engagement with science and science literacy, which is the dream of all scientists.

4. Tackle misinformation.   

Dispelling myths is perhaps the greatest benefits that a scientist can bring to social media. Not only are your tweets calling out misinformation likely to get lots of shares and retweets, they also help achieve the broader goal of getting more people to adopt a critical thinking mindset. This could not be more important in a pandemic in which people are constantly faced with science that they may not readily understand.

laboratory scientist
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

5. Don’t feed the trolls. 

If you grew up in the age of the internet like I did, you’re familiar with the phrase, “never read the comments.” Said another way, when communicating on the internet, it’s important to be able to tune out the noise and focus on what’s most important. Anyone can post anything on the internet, and for scientists, that can be the most maddening thing about it.  While a main goal of your social media presence should be to dispel myths and promote facts, you don’t want to spend a lot of time arguing with random anonymous people on the internet.

One unspoken rule of maintaining a social media presence is, “don’t feed the trolls.”

If the trolls get too out of hand, consider using the muting function on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It can be a waste of time and energy to confront these people. Instead, and comment on overarching anti-science themes without engaging with combative followers directly. Don’t quote these people in your tweets, either — it will give them a platform for their misinformed opinions.

6. Use social media scheduling tools.

The ideal social media presence would both post original content (for example, links to scientific content which are explained to a general audience) and engage with followers (replying to people, sharing social media posts, etc.). 

If you’re pressed for time, you can use an automatic social media scheduling tool to post for you while you are running experiments, teaching, or otherwise busy. I use Recurpost, which is a free tool that allows you to schedule social media content to post to a variety of social media sites.

Additional Resources for Scientists on Social Media

Here are a few other resources for scientists using social media for science communication:

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Most scientists are not used to promoting themselves. Many scientists may feel that the facts will speak for — and promote — themselves; yet, as we’re learning in the pandemic, the facts can get buried if scientists and science communicators do not do a good job of communicating science to the public.

Scientists can use social media sites like Twitter to promote scientific truths and help others develop an appreciation for critical thinking. Effective science communication can be as simple as setting up a Twitter account to talk about science and dispel myths and fake news in real time. A SciComm blog can be a great companion to a social media account for more longform articles explaining important concepts — and, used in conjunction with social media, can amplify the impact of research.

The key to success in social media strategy for scientists — or for anyone — is to start small and grow over time. Social media can connect scientists to policymakers, media, and the general public. An effective social media strategy for scientists can help improve their science communication skills and boost the public’s science literacy — all of which maximizes research impact. It’s a win-win!

satellite
Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

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