November 21, 2018

The Science People See on Social Media is Not-So-Much Science



Many allegedly science-related posts and ads really have little if anything to do with actual science.


By Paul Hitlin / 03.21.2018
Senior Researcher
Pew Research Center


Millions of people see science-related information on their Facebook feeds or elsewhere on social media, but the kinds of science stories people most likely encounter are often practical tips with “news you can use” or promotions for programs and events rather than new developments in the science, engineering and technology world.

Science-related Facebook pages draw millions of followers, but only about three-in-ten posts feature new scientific discoveries

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations – for example National Geographic and the Discovery Channel – along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Some of the key findings from this analysis:

Millions of people follow science-related pages on Facebook.Multiplatform organizations have taken advantage of Facebook’s capacity to reach large numbers of followers on a new platform. For instance, as of June 2017, National Geographic had 44.3 million Facebook followers, Discovery had 39 million and Animal Planet had 20 million.1

These 30 science-related Facebook pages each have 3 million to 44 million followers as of 2017

At the same time, “Facebook-primary” pages have arisen in a relatively short time and built impressive audiences. This illustrates the degree to which social media have transformed the media landscape, making it easier and cheaper for those with few resources to provide unmediated content and garner followings. For example, a single enterprising writer built the Facebook page IFLScience in 2012, which has grown to 25.6 million followers and a staff of approximately 15. Social media have also provided a platform for prominent science figures such as Stephen Hawking2 (followed by 3.9 million users on Facebook as of June 2017), Bill Nye (followed by 4.8 million) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (followed by 4 million).

New scientific discoveries are covered in 29% of the posts on these pages. Each of these 30 science-related pages has its own distinctive flavor. Still, a few common themes emerged from a detailed content analysis of a random sample of 6,582 posts published in the first half of 2017.

About three-in-ten posts across top science-related Facebook pages feature new scientific discoveries

While these 30 Facebook pages with a self-described focus on a science-related area cover a range of topics, just 29% of the Facebook posts from these pages had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries. Some pages used a new-discovery frame in the bulk of their posts. For example, that was true of ScienceAlert, IFLScience, NASA Earth and New Scientist. But that framing was rare on other pages. Across the 30 pages, other frames were evident when researchers coded a representative sample of the posts. Fully 21% of posts featured the practical applications of science information, relying on a “news you can use” frame. Another 16% of posts were promotions or advertisements for media or events, 12% of posts were aimed at explaining a science-related concept, and the remainder used some other frame.

The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period.

The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post.

Higher engagement is seen on posts focused on visuals with little additional information. Other posts with relatively high engagement include calls to action and posts dealing with science funding. Analysis of the types of posts yielding the highest average of interactions shows that visual posts with little or no text tend to yield more audience engagement than most other frames. Additionally, posts with an explicit call to action produce high numbers of interactions. However, such posts are quite rare, comprising just 2% of all posts across the 30 pages. And, posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

The most-engaging posts from either Facebook-primary or multiplatform pages during this period included a wide range of topics and frames. Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives.

Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.” And, the single most-engaging post among the multiplatform pages was an expression of support for those in Paris after a terrorist attack.

There is considerable variation in what topics these popular Facebook science-related pages focus on. Most pages in this sample specialized on posts connected with just one or two science topics. For example, pages such as Daily Health Tips and Health Digest focused a majority of their content on health and medicine topics, while NASA for the most part posted content related to astronomy and physics. Only four of the 30 pages covered a roughly even mix of posts on several topics, with no single topic making up more than one-in-five posts on the account.

These findings emerge as more and more material on all kinds of subjects is posted and disseminated on social media. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found most social media users in the U.S. report seeing science-related posts and a third (33%) consider it an important way they get science news. Some 44% of social media users say they see content unique to that platform at least sometimes, and 26% of users report that they follow a science-related page or account. Other Pew Research Center surveys show that Facebook is used by a far larger share than other social media platforms.

It is important to note that for the purposes of this analysis the selection of “science-related” pages was based on each page’s self-statement that it covers content about science or about a major area connected with science, technology, engineering or math. (Pages focused primarily on commercial or advocacy missions were excluded.) The set of 30 covers a broad range of pages available to social media users, including several that are widely seen in the scientific community as offering questionable or even “pseudoscientific” advice or information.

As concerns about public understanding and acceptance of scientific evidence have increased over the past few years, this analysis provides a window into the sources of information that – while may differ from consensus views in the scientific community – have, nonetheless, attracted millions of followers and more who see posts from these pages in their Facebook news feed even without following the page. As such, these data help better understand the sources of information that may influence public views and understanding of science-related issues.

Science-related Facebook pages are posting more often, especially multiplatform pages

Science-related Facebook pages increased volume of posts in the past few years

In just a few years, the volume of posts produced by this set of science-related pages has grown dramatically, particularly among multiplatform pages. The 15 multiplatform pages doubled their production of posts from roughly 37,000 in 2014 to an estimated 79,000 in 2017 (a 115% increase), though much of the uptick in volume of posts from multiplatform pages stems from just a few accounts.3 The 15 Facebook-primary pages also increased their total number of posts from roughly 31,000 in 2014 to an estimated 52,000 in 2017 (a 66% increase).4

The volume of posts on science-related Facebook pages varies, with more from multiplatform pages on average

The total volume and frequency of posts from each of these 30 accounts varies widely, however. The number of posts from 2017 is

Coverage of major scientific controversies in public discourse was rare on these Facebook pages. For example, while an average of 8% of posts across the 30 pages were about energy and environmental issues, broadly speaking, a much smaller share of these posts were related to climate change – only 1% of posts on Facebook-primary pages and 2% on multiplatform pages.7

Similarly, only about 1% of posts mentioned genetically modified foods or crops.

The April 22, 2017, March for Science, which included a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. and hundreds of satellite protests, marches and demonstrations around the world, received hardly any attention on these pages, accounting for less than 1% of all posts. There were just five posts in the entire sample of 30 Facebook pages that mentioned the March for Science during the month of April in 2017; three of these were from Bill Nye, an honorary co-chair for the event.

Multiplatform pages rely heavily on their own content sources; a few Facebook-primary pages serve as aggregators, mostly sharing content published by other organizations

estimated from doubling the number posted during the first half of the year due to missing data in Facebook’s API for the second half of the year.

The 2017 annual volume of posts across the 15 Facebook-primary pages ranged from about 24 posts by Stephen Hawking to more than 10,000 posts from mindbodygreen, a health and wellness media company. Four of these accounts – all of which are associated with prominent scientific figures – have more than 3 million followers but posted no more than about 200 times in 2017. Among the other pages, most increased the volume of posts over this time period.

Some science-related accounts use Facebook differently than Twitter

Some science-related accounts are more active on Twitter than Facebook

The profile of these science-related accounts can vary across other social media platforms. To illustrate, Pew Research Center looked at Twitter activity from the same 30 organizations as of January 2018.

While far more adults in the U.S. use Facebook (68%) than Twitter (21%), according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, a handful of science-related pages in this study were comparatively more active on Twitter.

Neil deGrasse Tyson had about 11.4 million Twitter followers as of January 2018, roughly 2.5 times more than his 4 million Facebook followers. He was more active tweeting (493 times in 2017) than he was posting content on Facebook (about 130 times in 2017).

Similarly, Bill Nye was more active on Twitter than on Facebook (253 tweets in 2017, compared with about 84 posts).

Among the multiplatform pages, NASA and Popular Science were about twice as active tweeting than posting Facebook content in 2017. But while NASA had many more followers on Twitter than on Facebook (28.2 million vs. 19.4 million), Popular Science had a smaller user base on Twitter (1.3 million vs. 3.5 million on Facebook).

But several of these pages were less active on Twitter, particularly among the Facebook-primary pages. The list includes Health DigestDavid WolfeScienceDumpHashem Al-Ghaili and Smart is the New Sexy, all of which have had a far less active presence on Twitter than Facebook and had orders of magnitude fewer followers on Twitter.Stephen Hawking did not have an official Twitter account; Hashem Al-Ghaili and ScienceDump barely had a presence on Twitter, each with fewer than 5 posts in 2017.

All of the 15 multiplatform pages had a presence on Twitter. Only one in this set tweeted less than 1,000 times in 2017: MythBusters, a page that also posted on Facebook fewer than 500 times in 2017. Some multiplatform pages were less active on Twitter than they were on Facebook, including Animal PlanetBBC Earth and Physics Today.

Most science-related Facebook pages specialize on a few science topics; some include posts far afield from science

At a time when science issues are increasingly part of the broader public discourse, Pew Research Center explored the role of science-related Facebook pages – both those that were meant to enhance the reach of existing science-related media enterprises and those that arose from science enthusiasts and experts utilizing social media platforms to bring their voice to science issues.

The analysis shows that users encounter a wide range of content on science-related Facebook pages. Few of the 30 pages in this analysis produce content across a range of STEM-related areas; in fact, just four of the 30 produce roughly similar shares of posts on several topics. Instead, most pages specialize. The bulk of their content touches just one or two science topics, such as health and medicine, food and nutrition, animal science, or astronomy and physics.

Further, each page tends to present content from one of a handful of frames, and for nearly two-thirds of the pages in this set, a majority of posts reflect just one frame: either new science-related discoveries, science news you can use, or promotions for programs or events.

A systematic analysis of posts produced by these 30 pages over the first half of 2017 found more variation among the pages than there was commonality. Most of these 30 pages appear to feature content they produce themselves, though a few of the Facebook-primary pages appear to serve primarily as aggregators with virtually no content originating from the source organization for the page.

Most science-related Facebook pages focus their content on one or two subject areas, especially health and food topics

Across this set of 30 pages, few aim to cover science across a range of scientific domains. Instead, most pages ­ whether Facebook-primary or multiplatform ones ­ specialize in one or two science topic areas. For example, 70% of posts from Interesting Engineering were related to engineering and technology topics. Similarly, 73% of posts from Psychology Today were related to the behavioral sciences, and nearly three-quarters of posts from NASA Earth (73%) were about energy and the environment.

Example of a Facebook post with a health tip

Only four of the pages covered a roughly even share of posts on several topics, with no single topic making up more than one-in-five posts. These were IFLScience, ScienceAlert and ScienceDump, among the Facebook-primary pages, and New Scientist, among the multiplatform pages.

Health and medicine was the predominant topic in posts from many of these pages. About half or more of the posts from three of the Facebook-primary pages and two of the multiplatform pages were about health or medicine topics. For example, health/medicine topics were featured in 65% of posts from Daily Health Tips, 59% of Health Digest posts, and about half of the posts from Women’s Health, Health, and Dr. Oz (a cardiothoracic surgeon known for his appearances on television).6

Pages featuring a sizeable share of posts on health and medicine also tend to include posts on food, nutrition and the health effects of foods. Together, the share of posts on either health/medicine or food/nutrition account for the vast majority of posts from Daily Health Tips (92%), Health Digest (89%), Health and Dr. Oz (79% each). They also account for six-in-ten posts from Women’s Health Magazine (60%).

Example of a health-related Facebook post with a beauty tip

Looking across all of these pages, 39% of posts from Facebook-primary pages and 15% of posts from multiplatform posts related to health and food topics. Among this group, many featured posts on personal health, nutrition, weight loss, exercise and beauty tips, such as a post suggesting that consuming garlic will help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels (as seen in a June 16, 2017, Daily Health Tips post) and another extolling the virtues of egg and olive oil for healthy hair (also seen in another post from Daily Health Tips on June 16, 2017).

Animal science was the leading topic on three of the multiplatform pages. Posts about animals made up at least half of the content from Animal Planet (75%), BBC Earth (56%) and National Geographic (50%). None of the 15 Facebook-primary pages featured a large share of posts about animals; the largest in this set was IFLScience with 18% of its posts related to animal science.

Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Bill Nye, another prominent figure known primarily as a science educator, tended to post more generic content; 67% of the posts from his page were categorized as general and not connected with a specific science topic. Many of these posts offered previews of his book and his Netflix television program. (For more on promotional posts, see the discussion below on the primary “frame” of posts on these pages.)

Some pages included a sizeable share of posts that were far afield from science topics. For example, about a third of the posts on Smart is the New Sexy (32%) and almost three-in-ten posts on David Wolfe’s page (28%) were not about science topics. Many of these posts featured inspirational quotes, holiday greetings, news about popular culture or demonstrations showing how to make crafts.

Facebook-primary pages: Most pages concentrate on just a few science topics

Multiplatform pages: Most pages concentrate on just a few science topics

Science-related stories at the center of public divisions did not appear often on these Facebook pages

Major stories receive little attention on both types of Facebook pages

Coverage of major scientific controversies in public discourse was rare on these Facebook pages. For example, while an average of 8% of posts across the 30 pages were about energy and environmental issues, broadly speaking, a much smaller share of these posts were related to climate change – only 1% of posts on Facebook-primary pages and 2% on multiplatform pages.7

Similarly, only about 1% of posts mentioned genetically modified foods or crops.

The April 22, 2017, March for Science, which included a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. and hundreds of satellite protests, marches and demonstrations around the world, received hardly any attention on these pages, accounting for less than 1% of all posts. There were just five posts in the entire sample of 30 Facebook pages that mentioned the March for Science during the month of April in 2017; three of these were from Bill Nye, an honorary co-chair for the event.

Multiplatform pages rely heavily on their own content sources; a few Facebook-primary pages serve as aggregators, mostly sharing content published by other organizations

Most of these science-related Facebook pages feature content they produce; a few aggregate information from other sources

An ongoing question about news shared on social media platforms concerns the extent to which the accounts are featuring information they produce themselves or whether they amplify information produced by other organizations, perhaps with the assistance of automated news generators.

One way to gauge the extent to which these pages are generating custom content for their pages is to classify the source of each post as stemming from the account holder or from an outside organization.8

Multiplatform pages tend to have staff and other resources that might make it easier to create custom-generated content on their pages. The majority of posts from the 15 multiplatform pages came from content produced by the page owner’s organization. Indeed, 100% of the posts on the National Geographic and Science Magazine Facebook pages were produced by their own organizations. The vast majority of posts from a number of other science-related pages for multiplatform organizations also followed this strategy.

There was more variation among the set of Facebook-primary pages. While a page such as IFLScience started with just one person in 2012, it has grown in staff and resources. Some 93% of the posts from IFLScience during the time studied came from content produced by that organization, as did 95% of the posts from Interesting Engineering and 100% of the posts from mindbodygreen.

ScienceDump and a few of the other Facebook-primary pages, on the other hand, appear to serve primarily as web aggregators, linking to content originally produced by others. Daily Health Tips appears to serve almost exclusively as an aggregator, producing virtually no original content.9

Most science Facebook pages have a single frame for their stories

Example of a Facebook post about a new scientific discovery

Pew Research Center coded the primary “frame” (or main goal or focus of the post) of a random sample of posts from each page appearing in the first half of 2017. The bulk of posts across the 30 Facebook pages utilized one of three frames: news about a scientific discovery or development, science-related “news you can use,” or a promotion for a media program on another platform.

Scientific discoveries

Overall, 29% of the posts across these 30 pages featured a new scientific discovery or development. The bulk of posts from ScienceAlert (72%), NASA Earth (71%), New Scientist (69%) IFLScience (68%) and Science magazine (61%) were aimed, primarily, at sharing news about a recent science discovery or development. Examples include a March 20, 2017, post from NASA showing years of satellite images demonstrating that New Zealand’s glaciers are retreating; a post from Science magazine on March 7, 2017, about new developments in the study of neural networks; and a May 5, 2017, post from New Scientist about researchers who recreated a gene from billions of years ago that help explains how early life coped with oxygen-poor air.

Across the 30 Facebook pages, a majority of these posts focused on energy and environment, geology, and archeology, and about half of posts on astronomy or physics had a new discovery frame.

‘News you can use’

Example of a ‘news you can use’ Facebook post about food and nutrition

The next most common type of post – comprising 21% of posts across these 30 pages in this sample – showed science “news you can use,” much of which was advice-oriented and self-hip tips. A majority of posts from three Facebook-primary accounts with a large share of posts on health/medicine and food/nutrition had a “news you can use” frame: Daily Health Tips (96%); Health Digest (85%); mindbodygreen (69%). And two of the multiplatform pages used a “news you can use” frame in the majority of their posts: Psychology Today (67%) and Health (56%). Across the 30 pages, 67% of posts related to food and nutrition used a “news you can use” frame, as did 56% of posts on behavioral science and 48% of posts focused on health and medicine.

Promotional posts

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

About half or more of the posts from three multiplatform pages were focused on promotions: Animal Planet (79%), Discovery (65%) and MythBusters (54%). Promotional posts on Discovery were mostly promoting shows from Discovery Communication Inc.; promotional posts on the MythBusters page generally promoted episodes from the show, another of the Discovery Communications Inc. productions.

Example of a Facebook video promotion for a TV show

Beyond these three frames, other focus points for the Facebook posts were less common. Across the 30 pages, some 12% of posts focused on explanations of a scientific concept or idea. A handful of pages (such as Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Science Nature Page, Interesting Engineering, National Geographic and Science Channel) included a sizeable share – around a fifth to a quarter – of posts that focused on explanations of a scientific concept or idea. Examples of these include a post on Interesting Engineering about the design of a suspension bridge in Bristol, England, and a video posted on Science Channel’s page demonstrating the size of the world’s largest radio telescope located in China.

No other frame accounted for more than 10% of Facebook posts across the 30 pages. A few pages included archived or previously published material in about 20% to 30% of their posts (e.g., Women’s Health, Popular Science, Smart is the New Sexy, and David Wolfe). And one page, Physics Today, included about three-in-ten posts that profiled notable scientists.10

Common frames for posts on science-related Facebook-primary pages

Common frames for posts on science-related multiplatform pages

Multiplatform pages link to external research sources slightly more often than Facebook-primary pages

The share of posts linking to research from other organizations varies widely

To gauge the extent to which these Facebook pages spread information about scientific research, Pew Research Center analysis classified the share of posts that included a link to research evidence from an outside organization.

In total, the study found that nearly one-quarter of posts on these 30 pages (23%) linked to external scientific research.11 Such links were often to peer-reviewed publications, but some were original research from government agencies or other institutions.12 On average, links to external scientific research were more common among multiplatform pages (25%) than among Facebook-primary pages (21%).

The share of posts with links to outside research varies widely depending on the frame of the post. Among the small number of posts related to conflict or disagreement about scientific findings appearing on any of these 30 pages, 64% had an external link.

Of posts across these 30 pages using a new scientific discovery frame, 47% included a link or reference to outside evidence (50% among Facebook-primary and 44% among multiplatform pages). A majority of posts from ScienceAlert, for example, featured a new scientific discovery or development, and the vast majority of those posts included a link to outside evidence.

A minority of posts using a “news you can use,” promotion, or explanation frame included links to external evidence.

User engagement with posts on science-related Facebook pages is more common for visual posts, calls to action

Facebook posts about science research funding garnered high user engagement, followed by posts with visuals

While the most common frames for posts on the 30 science-related Facebook pages in this analysis feature new discoveries or science “news you can use,” posts with more engagement – a term used to characterize the number of user interactions with a post from shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tend to use other frames. Posts from the first half of 2017 with the highest average number of interactions per post used frames related to science research funding and pictures or other visual display with little or no text.

Posts related to science funding were typically tied to discussion of President Donald Trump’s first proposed budget in early 2017 and the potential changes for science funding. Those were topics of unique prominence during the study period, January to June 2017. Only 1% of posts in the sample from these 30 pages used a frame centered on science research funding. Audience interaction with such posts was high, however, particularly on Facebook-primary pages.

Posts on the 15 Facebook-primary pages with a research-funding frame averaged 122,126 interactions each, more than three times the next highest category. By contrast, posts using a research-funding frame on the 15 multiplatform pages averaged just 1,539 interactions per post.

Posts about news you can use and new discoveries are common, yet other types of frames average more interactions

Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.

Beyond posts with a research funding frame, those consisting solely of a visual display (using little or no text) and those with a call to action were also highly engaging. Visual posts could cover a range of topics; some used videos with almost no text while others were picture-based. Call to action posts include those that explicitly requested that users engage with the post, such as asking users to provide a caption for a photo or share the post with others.

Both types of posts are relatively uncommon, each consisting of only 2% to 3% of posts across the 30 science-related pages. Here, too, however, posts with these frames from the Facebook-primary pages averaged more interactions than those with the same frame from the multiplatform pages. On Facebook-primary pages, visual posts averaged nearly 37,000 interactions each. On multiplatform pages, these types of posts averaged about half as many interactions, roughly 18,500 interactions each.

Overall, posts from the 15 Facebook-primary pages averaged a higher number of interactions than posts using the same frame among the 15 multiplatform pages. Two exceptions were posts using a travel frame and those related to media coverage of science. For these frames, audience engagement was higher, on average, for posts from the multiplatform pages. Travel posts were more common on the National Geographic and Discovery pages; many of these posts included photographs of scenic destinations such as Vancouver and the cliffs of Ireland.13

The reasons behind the generally higher interactions with posts on the Facebook-primary as compared with the multiplatform pages are not clear. There may be systematic differences in the way these pages use each frame, which impacts audience engagement. Exploration of such differences goes beyond the aspects examined in the current study.

Facebook pages with more followers likely yield more interactions in large part because more users generally see posts from those pages in their news feeds. However, users who do not follow a given page may also encounter the same content. Any time a user interacts with a post, that post may appear in the news feed of their friends, even of those who do not follow the page.

Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine which posts show up in a user’s news feed. Facebook has made numerous changes to its algorithms over the years, and these changes affect the level of engagement posts receive. It is hard to evaluate the impact of changes in the algorithms because Facebook does not disclose the full details of the proprietary algorithms that drive the content users see. This study was conducted in 2017, prior to a major 2018 announcement by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg of further changes to its algorithms, giving more weight to content from friends and family over that of news organizations and other content providers that are not individuals.

Other framing categories

Posts about news you can use and new discoveries are common, yet other types of frames average more interactions

Posts categorized as topically unrelated to a scientific domain were listed in this study as using a non-science frame. As with most other types of frames, non-science posts across the set of 15 Facebook-primary pages averaged higher levels of audience engagement than did those using the same frame from multiplatform pages. For Facebook-primary pages, these posts received an average of about 14,500 interactions each – putting the category in the middle-of-the-pack compared with other frames. For multiplatform pages, however, non-science posts averaged less than 900 interactions each, lower than for any other frame used. These types of posts made up 8% of posts on Facebook-primary pages, compared with just 2% of multiplatform pages. One example of a highly engaging post of this sort featured an inspirational quote; this post from David Wolfe’s page on Nov. 27, 2015, was shared more than 1.3 million times and received more than 29,000 comments. As shown in a nearby table, this post was one of the top 15 most-engaging posts across any of the 15 Facebook-primary pages between January 2014 and June 2017.

These 30 Facebook pages tend to focus on just one or two scientific topics or domains. The average interaction with posts was not strongly correlated with the topic area of the post.

The most popular individual posts on these science-related pages used a variety of frames, and many included video and were produced by just a few Facebook accounts

A highly engaging Facebook post on a science-related multiplatform page

A close examination of the top 15 most engaging individual posts from this set of 30 science-related Facebook pages in the last few years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) finds that these posts represent a variety of science topics and frames. While the average interactions for posts using a visual-only frame and call-to-action frame tend to be higher than posts with other frames, there are posts in the top 15 with the most engagement from a wide range of frame types, including posts that explain scientific concepts, highlight new discoveries and feature ways people can put science information to use in their lives.

Video is a common feature among many of these Facebook posts with the highest levels of user engagement. Among posts appearing on the multiplatform pages between January 2014 and the end of June 2017, 12 of the top 15 most-engaging posts included video. Six of top 15 posts appearing on the Facebook-primary pages during this period also included video, while another 6 from this set of pages included a prominent picture.

National Geographic produced the greatest share of the top 15 most-engaging posts among the multiplatform pages (11 of the 15). Most of these included videos of animals such as a Sept. 8, 2016, video of Alpine goats climbing a mountain.

A highly engaging post on a science-related Facebook-primary page

The single post with the highest number of interactions for multiplatform pages during this time period was picture of the Eiffel Tower posted on Nov. 14, 2015, in response to terror attacks in Paris. This post from National Geographic on a non-science topic included the hashtag #lovetoParis and had more than 1.1 million likes and other reactions, 182,000 shares and 9,600 comments.

Among the science-related Facebook-primary pages, 12 of the top 15 most engaging posts were produced by David Wolfe, an author and product spokesman who emphasizes alternative remedies and promotes the health benefits of raw foods.14 Half of these 12 popular posts from David Wolfe featured inspirational sayings or advice, such as an April 2015 post which encouraged readers to “look after your friends.”

The single post with the most interactions (5.4 million in total) was a call for participation. The post – produced by David Wolfe on Oct. 10, 2015 – featured a picture of fruit cups and a request that users should “share this if you think they should have this in school.”

Top 15 posts by user engagement among science-related Facebook-primary pages

Facebook posts with the highest number of interactions, January 2014 to June 2017

Note: Number of interactions as of June 2017. Interactions include the number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions. “Facebook-primary” consists of Facebook pages from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of all Facebook posts from 30 science-related pages, January 2014 to June 2017. Data collected from the public Facebook Graph API.
“The Science People See on Social Media”

PEW RESEARCH CENTER

Top 15 posts by user engagement among science-related multiplatform accounts

Facebook posts with the highest number of interactions, January 2014 to June 2017

Note: Number of interactions as of June 2017. Interactions include the number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions. “Multiplatform” includes Facebook pages from established outlets or organizations, such as magazines, TV programs or government agencies.
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of all Facebook posts from 30 science-related pages, January 2014 to June 2017. Data collected from the public Facebook Graph API.
“The Science People See on Social Media”

PEW RESEARCH CENTER

Notes

  1. Figures for the number of followers come from Facebook’s official statistics. In this report, the term “follower” is used interchangeably with the number of users who “like” a page using the thumbs up icon. It’s possible these numbers are inflated for some or all of these pages because of automated accounts, known as bots.
  2. This study was conducted prior to Hawking’s passing in March 2018.
  3. The estimated number of posts for 2017 was calculated by doubling the number of posts during the first six months of that year. Facebook’s public Graph API was missing large portions of data during the final six months of 2017, so precise totals were not available. In their forums in early 2018, Facebook acknowledged problems with the API that resulted in the absence of some posts. Analysis of 2014-2016 posts showed roughly even shares of posts in the first and second half of each calendar year.
  4. Two accounts began posting during this period: Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Science Nature Page on July 29, 2015, and Smart is the New Sexy on April 29, 2016.
  5. Due to the differences in activity across social media platforms, the set of 30 popular science-related pages on Facebook omits some of the most popular Twitter accounts from science figures and organizations. For example, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Twitter account had almost 2.6 million followers as of January 2018, while his Facebook page had only 87,000 page likes.
  6. Some have questioned health tips from Dr. Oz. See Philips, Amber. Sept. 15, 2016. “That time Congress railed against Dr. Oz for his ‘miracle’ diet pills.” Washington Post.
  7. There were a small number of posts related to other topics that mentioned climate change, major weather events, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or vaccines.
  8. This analysis looked at the source organization of the URL for the post and, where available, the author of the post.
  9. The ownership of Health Digest and Daily Health Tips is unclear. Many of their posts link to websites that are similar in appearance and may be owned by the same company. Pew Research Center found 42% of the posts from Health Digest link to websites with the same name as the Facebook page and less than 1% of the posts from Daily Health Tips did so.
  10. The primary frame of each post was classified without regard to the science topic of the post; the exception is that posts classified as not related to a science topic were classified as having a non-science frame.
  11. This only includes links in the text of posts. Some pages, particularly Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Science Nature Page, occasionally place links to a scientific publication in their comments, which were not coded in this study.
  12. Posts were only counted as having an external link to original research if the content included work by a different organization. Some organizations produce their own original research (e.g., NASA, NASA Earth, National Geographic) and therefore rarely link to other websites in order to report original findings.
  13. In the case of posts related to misconduct and biases in research findings, there was virtually no difference in user engagement between the two sets of pages.
  14. See Senapathy, Kavin. Jan. 1, 2016. “A New Year’s Resolution For Science Advocates: Don’t Cry Wolfe” Forbes.

Originally published by Pew Research Center, reprinted with permission for non-commercial, educational purposes.

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