This is only the latest phase of growing anti-factual tendencies and politicization.
A special set of editorials published in today’s issue of the journal Science argue that social media in its current form may well be fundamentally broken for the purposes of presenting and disseminating facts and reason. The algorithms are running the show now, they argue, and the systems priorities are unfortunately backwards.
In an incisive (and free to read) opinion piece by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the basic disconnect with what scientists need and what social media platforms provide is convincingly laid out.
“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,” they write. “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.”
The most elementary feature of social media that reduces the effect of communication by scientists is pervasive sorting and recommendation engines. This produces what Brossard and Scheufele call “homophilic self-sorting” — the ones who are shown this content are the ones who are already familiar with it. In other words, they’re preaching to the choir.
“The same profit-driven algorithmic tools that bring science-friendly and curious followers to scientists’ Twitter feeds and YouTube channels will increasingly disconnect scientists from the audiences that they need to connect with most urgently,” they write. And there’s no obvious solution: “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.”