Commentary on the academies’ social media statement

The Academies’ Working Group on Communication between Science, the Public and the Media, Phase 2 (WoM2) is presenting its statement on "Social Media and Digital Science Communication" in Berlin today. The working group had already submitted a first report in 2014 (during the so-called hot summer of science communication). However, this one bracketed out current digital trends and social media in particular. Since the interim report in March 2016, the group has now written its final report. In addition to a brochure of about 70 pages, there is also a scientific book on the topic.

Similarly, in March 2016, I may contribute a five-minute comment to this 70-page paper at the event today. Since I failed just like last year to squeeze my feedback on the complex into five minutes, I’m reblogging an extended version of my commentary here. Again this year, I have to say that I perceive and comment on the whole issue from the perspective of a practitioner who does science communication. My assessments therefore have no scientific claim themselves. In this respect, I do not necessarily provide evidence for my statements in the form of scientific studies, but rather in the form of concrete best practice examples.


I was explicitly asked by the organizers not to hold back with criticism and also to provoke something. I would like to follow up on that. However, I would like to start with an explicit praise. I think the introduction to the topic of social media science communication (pages 11 to 18) was very well done. I can also agree with much of the analysis section (pages 19 to 43).

Finally, I find the very broad definition of the term "science communication" (pages 20 and 21) to be very positive. It says: "In a broader sense, science communication encompasses all forms of communication from and about science, both within the scientific community (expert publics) and to non-scientific publics (publics)."In doing so, the WoM working group has recognized that its much narrower definition of the term from the first report in 2014 does not hold here. In this definition, z.B. Science journalism also explicitly part of science communication. The working group is thus very close to my understanding of the term: "Science communication is everything that is communicated on the topic of science: i.e., communication about and to science as well as from, with, and within science."For the analysis of science communication 2.0 seems to me that such a broad definition is indispensable.

However, I have much to criticize about the following recommendation section (pages 44 to 60, and their summary on pages 1 to 10). This represents my personal view, not that of the Helmholtz Association. Some general comments on the paper:

  1. In general, the statement is characterized by a rather pessimistic picture of social networks. I do not share this social media-critical attitude. Communication techniques have always changed and evolved. The change of technology (example: sound film) always led to a change of media and this to a change of use. This is also accompanied by the establishment of new cultural techniques (example Wikipedia). However, this is no reason for concern. To enumerate the opportunities and risks of social media – clearly. But to do so in an underlying tone that suggests we have an exit option from social media is surprising to me. It is 2017 and social media is not going away anytime soon. They will change, but the need for people to interact with each other digitally will remain. A "we don’t go on Facebook" mindset, as I experience in some organizations, is a pure ostrich tactic. But burying your head in the sand won’t solve the problem of people talking about our organizations – even on Facebook. In terms of monitoring issues and crises, in my experience it is much better to go into the networks to notice when people are talking about us there, and then to have already built up a community and to have learned how to respond to it actively as well.
  2. The statement puts a lot of weight on Phenomena of fake news and filter bubbles, which have been discussed extensively on the web, especially since the recent U.S. election (e.g.B. on page 37f.). For social networks, these phenomena are a real problem. In my perception, however, this applies to science communication in social media – and German-language science communication at that – only to a much lesser extent. Compared to the hate postings, insults, threats of violence etc., that political activists face in repressive states, or the hate speech in feminist discourses, or the refugee issue is the German-language science communication a flowering meadow of the Web 2.0 communication. Sure, I know the counter-examples: Climate change deniers, vaccination deniers, radical animal rights activists, etc. But in my perception, the weighting of the Fake News debate in this paper is excessive compared to the real existing (or not existing) problems. This "Flattening and brutalization of public discourse" (page 30) by the way also depends a lot on the media. With podcasts I observe the exact opposite. Personally, I am grateful for the Fake News debate, because it makes clear that every media user must critically question all messages – keyword: media literacy.
  3. I am also critical of a second weighting aspect of the statement: the recommendations refer almost without exception to social media communications with intermediaries – i.e., the platform operators such as Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc. These platforms and their problems are undoubtedly an important issue. The intermediary-less Web 2.0 science communication comes to me here, however, much too briefly. Off went the Web 2.0 more than ten years ago, yes, with blogs, wikis, discussion forums and podcasts. And these communicate directly from the provider to the user and the user can z.B. reintroduce via comments. All they need is an Internet connection. I would have liked to see a much more detailed focus and also recommendations on this topic area. In view of the relevance to reach, I think that Wikipedia with its opportunities for science communication (example: Wikipedians in Residence) comes far too short here. As are webcomics and audio podcasts, which represent a communication ecosystem all their own that is unfortunately often completely ignored.
  4. In the statement there are many proposals for the regulation of platforms. However, if you’re going to open a can of worms as big as wanting to politically regulate the algorithms of intermediaries or even build an independent platform for science communication with its own editorial team, then I’m going to take it a step further: Why do the state, society and academia promote (as well as other social sub-systems) not free social media infrastructures? (Nota bene: He is not supposed to run them, but only to promote them.) I imagine it like this: Users want to interact digitally with their friends and get news. This is due to the platforms at the moment to the business model of private companies coupled. Given the social relevance of this activity (which is nicely illustrated in the statement, e.g.B. Page 33, 44), the state could conceive of this as a service of general interest. The users would then no longer have to be the product that Facebook et al. marketed to the advertising industry, but they could really be customers. For this, however, they would have to pay something for this service (server operation, software updates). For people to do this, there needs to be an appreciation and understanding that a decentralized non-commercial (in the sense of: for-profit) social networking infrastructure is beneficial for everyone. I see it as everyone’s task to bring about this change in understanding: Lieschen Muller, the educational institutions, the politicians. I could well imagine something like this as a recommendation in this context. This sounds unrealistic? Well, on another point of our everyday digital communication this is quite normal and nobody thinks much about it. Email is a free decentralized non-commercial service. In the beginning there was the definition of a standard and then everybody could put up an e-mail server. Every university operates such a mail server. But even Lieschen Muller can put her own mail server as a small plastic box next to her DSL router at home in the hallway. It then participates in a worldwide peer-to-peer network where there are no intermediaries, no central platform calling the shots on algorithms etc. has. Quite analogously also work Decentralized non-profit social media, like z.B. Diaspora and Mastadon. And yes of course: these initiatives do not have many users so far. Also the idea of App.Net, making users pay with money instead of their data for a social media service hasn’t worked in a free-market economy. But if we’re going to open big barrels here, let’s open this one too: Politicians should promote decentralized free infrastructure projects for social media, and academia should look into running ones similar to email servers as well. For some XMPP chat servers this is already the case. Social media need not be tied to the business model of private companies – they could be detached from it. I see this as an important step for science organizations in analogy to the Open Science movement.
  5. In addition to promoting the IT side of free, decentralized networks, I think the Promote grassroots science communication projects that are content driven to be considered (only very briefly touched on on page 36) that are not from the ranks of the usual senders such as journalism, public relations, politics, etc. There are many citizen journalism initiatives in science communication 2.0, which I consider worthy of support. For example, the GWUP, which is one of the few players doing active counter-speech in social media against, for example, vaccination myths. I also see many science youtube channels, science blogs, and science podcasts by private enthusiasts as worthy of support – as well as meta-projects such as science podcasts, for – an aggregation portal for science podcasts. This is also science communication 2.0. Unfortunately, this point is only touched upon very briefly on page 45.
  6. With the Recommendations to politicians I miss one central point: Besides the social network sites (SNS) as intermediaries, there is still a third party involved in social media communication: the internet service provider (ISP). Every user needs it to establish an Internet connection – also to services without intermediaries such as podcasts and blogs. The behavior of ISPs in passing through data is therefore of considerable importance and unfortunately currently highly contested. Keywords: Net neutrality and zero-rating. I see it also for social media science communication as an important demand for policy makers to oblige ISPs to net neutrality. Another politically important aspect would be the introduction of a fair use regulation in the European copyright law, as well as the anchoring of the net access in the subsistence level for social participation.
  7. Many of the working group’s recommendations do not relate to social media (Web 2.0), but to classic online communication (Web 1.0). Even if there were some points to make up here that were not considered at WoM1, I miss some essential aspects of social media science communication. For example, what does the working group recommend regarding the issue of DarkSocial (i.e. the 2.0 communication in closed groups and chats like z.B. WhatsApp)? What do the experts say about a study consultation via WhatsApp? What is the working group’s recommended approach to Facebook advertising, i.e. the extension of coverage on platforms by paying for it? If Social media the ear of science into society how should science then take up this input?? How should science deal with Wikipedia? The complete absence of a reference to open licenses such as Creative Commons in the statement, I feel as a shortcoming.
  8. The second recommendation to policymakers is to create an independent platform, including a responsible editorial team, for social media science communication. I take a critical view of such a – let’s call it – Science Social Media Center (S2MC). The effort to create and run such a platform sounds gigantic. And the users only go to the social networks where their friends are. Therefore, z.B. WhatsApp enforced in Germany for chatting, although it z.B. In terms of encryption and privacy, there were much better competitors. My experience after nine years of social media science communication tells me that users will wipe over such a S2MC app in the AppStore because none of their friends are in there. Such an S2MC would not pull any user away from SnapChat/WhatsApp/Facebook. The money (who would actually pay that?) I would rather see invested in free infrastructure.
  9. What I perceive with surprise throughout the statement is the very black and white distinction between the noble intentions of science journalism and the manipulative intentions of institutional-external science communication. Furthermore, many places suggest that institutional-external science communication is to blame for the decline in science journalism offerings (pages 39, 50, 51). I had hoped that this distribution of roles would have come to an end after WoM1. Science organizations IMHO cannot solve the business model problem of science journalism. Journalism, moreover, is also subject to the social media shift. The young service of ARD and ZDF "funk" is also already doing very good Youtube science communication. And from the users’ point of view, I miss one essential demand on journalism: The advertising networks now spread malware via the publishers’ online sites, which significantly endangers the computers of (ad-blocker-less) consumers. Publishers should protect their users from this and change the online techniques of their display advertising.
  10. Many recommendations to science regarding social media communication explicitly refer to "information" (z.B. Page 19, 44). Of course we also publish information. But not only. The institutional-external science communication 2.0 also consists of entertainment. She wants to inspire. It conveys the researchers’ fascination with their work. And it may also be fun. It’s unclear to me how such elements of communication by Codes of conduct should be regulated.

Video recording of the event

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Video: acatech (my comment from 54’40)

In addition to these general comments on the paper, I would like to comment on a few specific passages:

  • Reach numbersOn page 32, it is claimed that I fucking love Science is on a par with the Facebook reach of journalistic media such as, or newscientist,com. In fact, IFLS with 25 million. Facebook fans a whole order of magnitude above the other three mentioned (2.5 / 2.8 and 3.5 million.).
  • Social media experiments: Positively, I would like to pick out the following paragraph (page 38): "In addition to knowledge transfer and self-portrayal, however, social media offer additional possibilities, new forms of target group communication, dialog, etc., and new ways of communicating. to develop and test. In this respect, it is recommended to conduct experiments on the use of social media providers – or to accompany and evaluate existing experiments more systematically."I sign this immediately. And that’s also what we’ve been doing for years in science communication 2.0 do.
  • Researchers should do research: On page 41, it is stated that it "could also shift scientist capacities orginally intended for the actual research process". But what would be the alternative? Science organizations that no longer let your researchers answer press inquiries and ban them from blogging? I think not. The social trend is moving more and more toward openness and transparency. We, as publicly financed institutions, have to explain to citizens and taxpayers what we do and why. Researchers must also participate in this.
  • Recommendation 3 (page 48): I immediately endorse the call for strengthening public broadcasting. The idea with cross-media offers fails in practice, however, unfortunately, at the little word "broadcast-related". Broadcasters are only allowed to put content on the web. The prime ministers thought this up, as well as the, from my point of view, nonsensical depublication obligation – keyword: Broadcasting Amendment Treaty.
  • Recommendation 4 (page 49): Already at WoM1, I did not understand what was so special about the topic (I say this as a science communicator) that it needed its own science press office. Why science journalism should now be promoted specifically according to the research funding model is not clear to me compared to other forms of journalism. Sure: We need an independent, functioning, critical science journalism. But since science is also part of our culture – why should such funding opportunities not be open to cultural journalism?
  • Recommendations to the scientific community (page 49f.): That "maximizing mere attention" is a "perversion" (page 50) is not comprehensible to me. We want to be transparent and responsive to people as a societal sub-system and as a science organization – in all the ways they want to use it. That’s why we set up websites in the 90s and that’s why we now communicate in social networks. Our social media communication strategy explicitly sets us this task. That "media popularity acquires a comparable or even higher value than internal scientific reputation"(page 50), I do not see any examples of this in my daily work. I would be interested in evidence to support this thesis.
  • Recommendation 5 (page 50): Unfortunately, it is not clear to me what the wrong incentives are for institutional science communication specifically should avoid. I have to completely disagree with the presentation that follows on page 51. Of course we do cost-benefit analyses. But do without social media communication in 2017? "In view of the rather demanding level of many scientific offers (e.g. with regard to comprehensibility), the probability of successful direct communication to a broad public is in many cases possibly lower than via the path of professional science journalism."(page 51) Here is a concrete example: When mankind was born on 12. When a man-made object landed on a comet for the first time in November 2014, 8 million people worldwide watched the ESA livestream. People.
  • Recommendation 6 (Page 52): weighing costs and benefits – this is where a "Overlapping of the media logic with the core tasks in research and teachinge" feared (cf. Page 41). I see this in a contrary way: I think we need in Germany from the beginning planned time and budget shares of research projects for public relations. Researchers need to have time to explain to their funders (i.e., taxpayers) what we are doing with their money.
  • Recommendation 7 (Page 53): scientists should make clear in which role they are speaking at any given time. That sounds good at first glance. However, with the addition of "And I say this in my role as a scientist," you’ve already used up 52 of a tweet’s 140 characters. How should this work in concrete terms? Separate communication and marketing: That sounds very desirable to me. The devil is in the details, however, and the boundaries are fluid.
  • Recommendation 8 (Page 54): Social media code of conduct: Who should it apply to?? For researchers or public relations professionals? Also for (citizen) journalists and grassroots science communicators? With a "quality-oriented code of conduct", the question naturally arises immediately: what is quality? In my opinion, the quality of individual acts of communication (a Youtube video, an Instagram picture, a Facebook post, a tweet) depends strongly on the intention of the respective post and the social media communication strategy behind it. Say: What goals do I want to achieve with a contribution? Only then can quality be assessed. However, the goals and strategies are likely to vary widely among different players.
  • Recommendation 9 (page 54): Technology assessment: D’accord. That’s why, for example, I’ve been writing the Augenspiegel column regularly for the past three and a half years.
  • Need for research (page 56f.): Here I would explicitly add: The genre of science audio podcasts needs to be explored.

Summarized in 100 seconds

Update 17.11.2017: The Helmholtz Association press officers published a three-page paper responding to the academies’ WoM2 statement on "Social Media and Digital #ScienceCommunication".

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