How do scientists escape social media's echo chamber?

by - August 11, 2020

One of the joys of social media is that you have control of the content you see. Therefore, aside from advertising space, your feed looks how you want it to. You can choose to fill it either with just your friends and family, with celebrities you admire, cooking channels, fitness videos or wildlife photography. There are communities on all social media platforms tailored to specific interests, and so you can find yours. 

Overall, this is a great thing. It means you can remove toxic content from your feed at will and it means you are never forced into seeing something you don't want to. Equally, it means you can have direct access to what interests you most.

However, for scientists and conservationists, this can be an issue. Communication is a key aspect of research: informing relevant stakeholders and the public of your findings is a crucial aspect of the scientific process. Social media can be a great way to do this. Many scientists use social media as a tool to their advantage, myself included.

But when you look at who is following you, you often see you're in an echo chamber. The majority of your followers are fellow scientists or conservationists, or at least have a keen interest in your field. For conservation, this worries me. The people who don't care about the environment or climate change, or maybe even don't believe in it, are no where to be seen. Essentially, you're preaching to the choir.

Now this can be great. Meeting and interacting with like-minded people is incredible gratifying. I've definitely found it inspiring to know that there are lots of people out there just like me: who care deeply about these issues and wish to help. But these aren't the people who would benefit most from this content. 

I started thinking about this when a friend said she loved my feed, but found it overwhelming and hard to understand sometimes. She's not a scientist and hasn't ever studied conservation or climate change. She has attended protests about climate change and I would count her as someone who cares about the future of this planet and her impact on it. But she self-admits not to understanding these issues. I would wager I'm the only conservationist she follows, and only because I am her friend. 

As she is someone who cares about the issues, this isn't so bad. But what about all the people out there who don't? And not because they're bad or selfish people, but because they simply don't understand them? And maybe they don't understand them because they've never had access to the right information? Understanding how to fix this is one of sciences greatest challenges. 

But the thing is: everyone does have access to the information, because it's all on social media. Of course, social media isn't peer reviewed. In fact there's no review process whatsoever and anyone can post something and claim it's true. But, there is a lot of accurate, clear scientific information shared on social media everyday. A lot of well known scientists are verified and share resources to back up their statements. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they're sharing this to someone who already knows, someone already converted, and not the people who need to hear it most. 

Now, just because something is on social media does not mean everyone who could access it is choosing not to, for whatever reason. Algorithms are designed to show you what you want to see. So if you've never expressed an interest in climate change publicly online before, the algorithm is not going to point you in the direction of climate scientists of activists. The people we need to target are the people who know nothing about these issues already. But how do we reach them if they don't know who we are, and we don't know who they are? How to we break out of the echo chamber? 

I honestly have no idea. I'm very open to suggestions. I always want this blog and my instagram to be somewhere anyone can come to learn about conservation. But I have no control on who clicks on my page. I can't force someone to read this, and the only people likely to click on it are people who already care, either about the topic or me. How do I access everyone else? How do we make people care about conservation?

It should be simple. If we don't tackle climate change, millions, if not billions, will die. Our lives will never be the same and we will all suffer the consequences. The science alone should prompt people to want to do everything they can to stop this from happening. But it's not. And we can't blame ordinary people for this. The gravity of the situation is not effectively communicated and when it is, it's easily dismissed. The actions of governments do not back up the words of science, and if the government isn't taking it seriously, why should you? This is the attitude of a lot of people, about more than just climate change, and I don't blame them for it. How can we?

But if we know this problem exists, how do we solve it?

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