Tackling Scientific Misinformation on Social Media

Author: Nicolette Rigg

With much of our lives spent online, it is not surprising that social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become popular platforms for scientific communication. These platforms offer many benefits, including up-to-date (even up-to-the-minute) communication of new research and ideas. They can be a great way to expose oneself to and learn new information on a wide range of topics, often in an easy-to-digest format. Better still, with platforms like Twitter, you are just a tweet or direct message away from having the unique opportunity to ask questions and discuss ideas directly with the scientists who completed the research.


However, at the same time, social media can significantly contribute to the spread of misinformation. Misinformation travels rapidly and widely on social media, and false narratives and “fake news” are among the most popular. Below are some points we feel are important to consider when using social media outlets as news sources. Feel free to share these tips with family and friends!


1. Think Critically

  • Strive to think critically about what you are seeing and posting to avoid participating in the spread of scientific misinformation. Before sharing things, practice due diligence and consider the following: check what other sources and reputable websites say – this is especially important when using internet platforms. The information should exist in more than one place. It is improbable that a random Instagram or Snapchat advertisement would contain secret information that cannot be verified elsewhere.
  • Be cognizant of the source of information and whether they stand to benefit or profit from it. Influencers and even on-air practitioners play a large part in the spread of misinformation and often get paid to promote products and ideas that may not be rooted in science or are misleading.
  • Be wary of catchy headlines. Oftentimes, scientific research can be publicized in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect the findings of the study. Get to the root of the research before sharing!

2. Step Outside Your Echo Chamber


Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to fill our lives with people who are similar to us and who share our values and views. The same is true with social media. Social media amplifies our confirmation biases; we watch videos and follow accounts that we enjoy and often these reflect and affect your views on many things. Not to mention, most platforms have built-in algorithms specifically designed to tailor what and who we see based on what we like and the accounts we follow.


When checking other sources, look at ones that both support and oppose the original information. Stepping away from the computer or your phone can also help you process the information presented and identify your own biases. Think for yourself! Try and allow the opinions you form to be your own and not just that of your social groups.

3. Look for Retractions or Corrections


Corrections and retractions often do not get as much attention or are not as accessible as new and publicized research studies. Even when corrections are noted, we regularly still maintain a bias towards what was learned first. The latest information does not invalidate our thoughts, even when we know the original report to be untrue.


Prior to posting about new research, take a second look at the article again to make sure no corrections were made. Many databases with search options will also present retracted publications simply by searching “retracted article”.

4. Don’t Jump to Conclusions

 

Reading too much into something you see or jumping to conclusions without finishing an article or post can also be a significant source of misinformation spread. The ability to share information as quickly as we do makes it easy to mindlessly share a post or meme without understanding it in its entirety, contributing to the spread of misinformation. Before you share, be sure to read the entire article and get the whole story! 


As graduate students, we are fortunate to have been taught to think critically and to recognize good sources of information. Accordingly, we can fight the spread of misinformation by remaining vigilant and helping our friends and family learn to do the same!