The QUEST social media guide offers practical advice on how to communicate about science effectively on social networks. The tips and recommendations were developed in collaboration with science communication professionals, who also field-tested the guidelines.
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Anyone can easily find a lot of advice on the best use of social media, including papers, articles, courses, seminars and workshops. Most of these tips are based on the experience of people who work in the field. The challenge of the QUEST project – and specifically of the team at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice – was to apply instead the experimental scientific method on the area of science communication on social media.
Science communication on social media can be studied and made part of an experiment by collecting and analysing data on content and users’ responses. “In the first year of the QUEST project, we explored the European landscape of science communication on social media by collecting data from 498 Facebook pages and 661 Twitter accounts from a variety of diverse sources that communicate and disseminate science (i.e., Festivals, Industries, Institutions, Magazines, Science Journalists, Experts, Scientists, and Universities),” says Fabiana Zollo from Ca’ Foscari University.
“We analysed more than 2 million tweets and posts across seven countries, discovering patterns that can be associated with greater user engagement on social media. Also, we derived insights in relation to the three QUEST topics, i.e., vaccines, climate change and artificial intelligence. These issues were chosen because the controversies around them often feed polarisation and give rise to rumours, making them a useful ground to study how quality science communication can counteract misinformation.”
Through a co-design approach, the QUEST team also defined 12 quality indicators for science communication, with tailored suggestions for social media.
“On the basis of these results, we produced a list of tips and recommendations to help communication practitioners (e.g. science journalists, social media managers and communication officers of news outlets, universities, organizations, industries) to work on the quality of their content and its impact in terms of engagement,” Zollo adds.
Tips created for and with science communicators
Here comes the novelty of our approach, what makes these “best practices” different from the others: our recommendations were tested in the field and eventually refined according to the feedback from communication practitioners. The experimental phase involved 27 science communication accounts and their managers who, for a period of five months, followed our suggestions when producing some of the content for their social media accounts. Meanwhile, we monitored users’ responses to this content in terms of engagement.
Engagement (likes, comments, shares) was used as a proxy of effectiveness, which can be hard to define, also considering different purposes of science communication: explaining, convincing, involving, even changing behaviours.
Furthermore, we organised online sessions during and after the experiment to discuss the clarity of our recommendations, as well as their validity and possible refinement. These discussions also proved to be fruitful to identify good practices on how to convey the complexity and uncertainty of science on social media platforms, especially during a historic event such as the Covid-19 pandemic. We integrated the participants’ feedback in the final version of our tips, whose adoption was generally associated with an increase in terms of, respectively, favourites and retweets on Twitter, and likes, comments and shares on Facebook.
Three pillars of quality
As far as quality is concerned, our recommendations derive from the QUEST indicators mentioned earlier, which were created to support science communication on social media as well as on other traditional media. For this purpose, we recommend those who use social media for science communication to consider the three pillars of 1) trustworthiness and scientific rigour, 2) presentation and style, and 3) impact of science communication on society. For each area, we identified a series of suggestions to support the production of quality science communication content on social media:
- Trustworthiness and scientific rigour. We suggested our participants to include references (e.g., a link) to relevant scientific or official source(s). We also strongly recommended to fact-check the content, especially when the source can be doubted. To achieve and maintain readers’ trust two key points regarding ethical issues were raised: first of all, one should always disclose one’s conflict of interest; on the other hand, one should not overlook gender and background balance, for example in seeking a diversity of sources (e.g., interviewees).
- Presentation and style. When communicating science, it is easy to fall into academic vocabulary and technical jargon. Nonetheless, the use of narrative and storytelling is usually much more appealing to the public, as well as the inclusion of calls to action, e.g., asking questions, inviting to post and/or do something. When drafting science communication content, one should take care not only of the scientific rigour of what is communicated, but also of consistency between different elements of the content (for example the text and the title or the picture that accompanies it) and, most importantly, of clarity. Especially in social media, where reading can be fast and distracted, communicators should make sure that the length and complexity of sentences, wording, and assumptions are easily understood by the target audience.
- Impact on society. In science communication it is key to address real-life issues, mentioning how each content could have an impact on everyday life, now or in the future. In some cases, among the purposes of science communication, there is also an educational aim, in changing readers’ behaviours: e.g., stop smoking, vaccinate their children, care for the environment, act against climate change, trust new technologies, etc. To make all of this possible, messages need to be targeted and tailored to a specific group of users. Remember the impact on society, at the end of the day, is linked especially to following ethical standards and considering social responsibility.
3Ts’ rule for effectiveness
As for the effectiveness of science communication, our suggestions can be summarised in what we called “the 3Ts’ rule”. Indeed, we recommended our participants to always take into account:
- the Type of a tweet/post (post with only text, picture, video, link)
- its Text (for example including hashtags or links)
- the Time when posting or tweeting during the day/week.
Other two additional Ts that one should keep in mind are the Topic and the Target audience of communication on social media. Indeed, the experiment showed relevant differences in the impact of the 3Ts when dealing with vaccines, climate change or artificial intelligence, probably related to different publics’ habits and use of social media.
On Twitter, the impact of the adoption of our tips on engagement was remarkable. The percentage change in the median engagement was especially pronounced when talking about Vaccines, one of the main issues in science communication in these times. In tweets adopting QUEST tips on this topic, our participants experienced an approximate doubling of their favourites and retweets.
This innovative experiment with data-driven recommendations that were tested and refined with the direct help and support of those who communicate science in their daily lives shows that science can contribute to its own communication, along with the many other benefits that an approach based on a reciprocal collaboration between researchers and practitioners has.