Editorials published in the Science journal presented the argument that social media in its current form may be fundamentally broken now, given the spread of facts and reasons and the purposes of presenting. The authors claim that algorithms are now running the show and the priorities of the system are unfortunately backward.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele highlight the basic disconnect between what scientists need and what social media platforms provide.
The authors say:
Rules of scientific discourse and the systematic, objective, and transparent evaluation of evidence are fundamentally at odds with the realities of debates in most online spaces. It is debatable whether social media platforms that are designed to monetize outrage and disagreement among users are the most productive channel for convincing skeptical publics that settled science about climate change or vaccines is not up for debate.
Algorithms to Blame
The authors write that the same profit-driven algorithmic tools that “science-friendly and curious followers to scientists’ Twitter feeds and YouTube channels” are also responsible for disconnecting scientists from the audiences that they need to connect with the most. The authors report:
The cause is a tectonic shift in the balance of power in science information ecologies. Social media platforms and their underlying algorithms are designed to outperform the ability of science audiences to sift through rapidly growing information streams and to capitalize on their emotional and cognitive weaknesses in doing so. No one should be surprised when this happens.
Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, also has researched on the topic commented that this “is a good way for Facebook to make money.”
Two Ways Scientists Interact With Social Media
In a comment to TechCrunch, Thorp stated that there are at least two distinct problems in the way social media and scientists interact with one another. He further added:
One is that, especially with Twitter, scientists like to use it to bat things around and openly air ideas, support them or shoot them down — the things they used to do standing around a blackboard, or at a conference. It was going on before the pandemic, but now it’s become a major way that kind of interchange happens. The problem with that, of course, is that there is now an enduring permanent record of it. And some of the hypotheses that get made and turn out to be wrong, overturned in the ordinary course of science, get cherry-picked by people who are trying to undermine what we’re doing.
The second is naivete about the algorithms, especially Facebook’s, which put a very high premium on disagreement and informal posts that spread disagreement. You know, ‘my uncle wore a mask to church and got COVID anyway’ — that’s going to beat out authoritative info every time.
Thorp also acknowledged that this is only the latest phase of growing anti-factual tendencies and politicization that can be traced back to years ago. He explained:
I think people tend to get a little more emotional about this without recognizing it’s a very simple thing: The political parties aren’t going to take the same position — and when one of those positions is scientifically rigorous, the other is going to be against science.
He also said:
That’s a political party coming to the realization that it was more politically useful to be against science than to be for it. So that’s another thing scientists are naive about, saying ‘we’re not getting our message across!’ But you’re up against this political machine that now has the power of Facebook behind it.
Brossard and Scheufele make a final assessment of the legendary defeat of Garry Kasparov by Deep Blue – a chess-playing computer system, after which no one dared to outplay computer programs. The authors commented:
The same understanding is now here for scientists. It’s a new age for informing public debates with facts and evidence, and some realities have changed for good.
Source: Pro Pakistani