How Social Media Can Distort and Misinform When Communicating Science

  • 2016-08-19
  • The Conversation

When news breaks – whether the story of a disease outbreak, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster – people increasingly turn to the internet and social media. Individuals use Twitter and Facebook as primary sources for news and information. Social media platforms – including Reddit, Wikipedia and other emerging outlets such as Snapchat – are distinct from traditional broadcast and print media. But they’ve become powerful tools for communicating rapidly and without intermediary gatekeepers, like editors.

The problem is that social media is also a great way to spread misinformation, too. Millions of Americans shape their ideas on complex and controversial scientific questions – things like personal genetic testing, genetically modified foods and their use of antibiotics – based on what they see on social media. Even many traditional news organizations and media outlets report incomplete aspects of scientific studies, or misinterpret the findings and highlight unusual claims. Once these items enter into the social media echo chamber, they’re amplified. The facts become lost in the shuffle of competing information, limited attention or both.