Science and Social Media, a Tricky Relationship

Science and Social Media, a Tricky Relationship: Antibiotic Resistance and Fate

How much of the science you see on your wall do you really trust? A recent article, called “How social media can distort and misinform when communicating science” from ‘The Conversation’, focussed on the relationship between the public’s perception of complex and important topics like antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and how much related information they read and shared on social media. What it revealed probably won’t surprise you if you hold healthy skepticism over some of the things you see pop up in your Facebook or twitter feeds.

In a nationwide survey, we found that the more frequently respondents reported posting and sharing any information online to social media, they were increasingly likely to be highly misinformed about AMR. This suggests that those individuals most active in contributing to social media were actually propagating inaccurate information.

The study found that members of the public with high levels of traditional media consumption and high levels of posting online content were more likely to be misinformed and misuse antibiotics. If you divide your facebook friends into those who post once in a blue moon, and those whose fingers seems to be permanently attached to their devices, the latter camp are more likely to be misinformed. And because they post more often, your view is likely to be skewed as a result.

Interestingly it found no significant link between those who mainly use social media for news, and levels of misinformation/misuse. In fact increased levels of online media consumption actually decreased levels of misinformation. Perhaps frequent online readers become more attuned to spotting when something isn’t quite right (usually the point when people start trying to sell you stuff).

People who had high levels of fatalism were significantly more likely to post misinformation online than those with low levels of fatalism. In fact the more they posted, the higher the proportion of their content that was misinformed. So if you have a friend who staunchly refuses to walk under ladders, maybe take their posts with a pinch of salt.


The media phenomenon known as ‘scienceploitation’ is a common sore in science communication. It is when a legitimate scientific field is misrepresented, usually by over-simplification, to appeal to the general public and attract more attention. This is more commonly known online as ‘click-bait’; and it is used to draw more traffic to a website. This leads to the massive imbalance in favor of information that’s more concerned with views than with accuracy. This study analyzed particular traits to find who was most likely to be highly misinformed. What they found was that younger people were more likely to be highly misinformed and misuse antibiotics as a result. As were men compared to women. After this, personality factors were taken into account, fatalism in particular. Fatalism is the belief in fate and that one’s future is predetermined by religious or spiritual entities. Fatalism was associated with being 1.32 times more likely to be highly misinformed and 1.35 times more likely to misuse medications. Yet, it may not be all social media’s fault. Traditional media makes it 1.48 times more likely someone will be highly misinformed. Suggesting that facebook and twitter may not be the biggest culprits when it comes to misinformation.

           Tackling scienceploitation is not an easy task and hasn’t got any obvious solutions. Ironically, the main problem is with people’s overwhelming trust in individual studies. Every scientist knows that science is a rigorous system of testing and re-testing. Unfortunately, this is often lost on the public. When an individual or an organization find a study that states something exciting or controversial, they will often stick to that one study. When in reality it takes much more than just one study for an idea to be a fact. This way of thinking leads to people forming ideas that can have the potential to be harmful, as is the case with AMR. Studies like this will enable science communicators to target areas of disparity between people’s perception and the facts. When the cause of the disparity is identified, only then can we make plans to readdress issues and re-inform people in light of new information.

Animation infographics

To summarise their findings on AMR and social media tendencies (especially fatalism, believing in the idea of fate), a team at Boston University produced a smart infographic video to present and explain their findings; it’s called Media, microbes and misinformation. You can watch it below

Media, Microbes, and Misinformation from Bitfactory on Vimeo.

It’s a clear, well designed video that gets straight to the point. It uses a good mix of traditional line graphs and charts, in combination with a few more original ways of presenting the facts. For example, the video is particularly good at separating and displaying the difference between what their data showed and displaying it’s relevance, I’m referring to the misinformation and misuse section right at the beginning of the video using images to define what they mean by them.

Clarifying any terms or important phrases your audience will need is key to a good infographic animation, you can’t guarantee that they will look them up so it’s always good to explain them from the beginning. One reservation I do have about this video is that it some data sections aren’t very explicit with their numbers, in particular the section about age. There are no numbers on the bars to clarify the differences leaving it rather open to interpretation. Simplicity is good to have in an animation like this, but some details can be too important to miss.

How social media can distort and misinform when communicating science

Workshop on misinformation and the media –