An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.
The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.
First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media .
Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…” This leads them to ask an important question:
Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…
Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference  where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”
They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:
Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.
I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.
But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.
So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.
We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.
Notes, copied straight from the article:
 M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).
 C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43
 P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)
 P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts