Twitter has not only been an important medium for researchers since the pandemic: Here they present studies and debate with colleagues and laypeople. Since it was taken over by billionaire Elon Musk, the social network has been in upheaval – the Swiss scientific community is reacting.
Twitter and science – an unlikely relationship. The social medium thrives on quick discussions and bold theses that have to fit into 280 characters. All thissounds like the opposite of scientific practice.
“Now many colleagues have turned away or are a little disgusted by what is happening at this company.” This is how the epidemiologist Christian Althaus from the University of Bern describes the mood since the takeover.
Unlimited networking in science
Nonetheless cavort there researchers. Among them is the bioinformatician and chemist Daniel Probst from the EPFL in Lausanne. He says:
Twitter does a lot for networking – you speak less formally, you connect with people you wouldn’t meet at conferences.
Sections of the scientific community are turning away
But since Elon Musk bought the platform, the science community has been rethinking its relationship with Twitter.
Elon Musk has fired en masse employees – including many who moderate posts. Since then, fears have been rampant that hate speech and misinformation could increase. In addition, Musk has basically abolished the verification system as a mark of trustworthy sources.
Alternative to Twitter
Probst, Althaus and thousands of their colleagues from all over the world are now using the Twitter alternative “Mastodon”. It is organized decentrally; no corporation and no billionaire steer the network. Instead, basically anyone can operate parts of it.“Mastodon comes closer to the philosophy of scientific work than Twitter thanks to its transparency, decentralization, and open-source idea,” says Althaus.
The University of Bern is also with Mastodon. Other institutions hesitate. ETH Zurich first wants to observe the development while the Swiss Academy of Sciences is examining whether to set up a mastodon canal.
The discussions are more collegial. Twitter was more about confrontation.
British computer scientist and social media expert Catherine Flick observes how the scientific community is coping on the new platform: “The discussions are more collegial. Twitter was more about confrontation.”
How many scientists actually switch to Mastodon? The Australian researcher Hilda Bastian recently counted the users in those parts of the network that are dedicated to science. It comes to 33,000 – a relatively large number, because the network has a total of around two million active users. On Twitter there are about 230 million.
Emigration could become dangerous
So far, many researchers have taken a two-pronged approach. They use Twitter and Mastodon in parallel. Christian Althaus can imagine leaving Twitter soon. Catherine Flick is no longer active there. There is a danger here: if the researchers actually migrate, their voices could be missing on Twitter.
The American doctor Eric Topol therefore calls on his colleagues via Twitter to remain active there in order to provide the general public with facts and good information. The crucial question is whether Twitter will be a platform that also supports such content.
“Many are waiting and watching”
Many researchers, for example older ones, or those who are active in disciplines that have less to do with media and communication, are not on Twitter at all or are not necessarily very active. This means that Twitter is only important for internal and non-scientific communication for a part of the scientific community.
Does that also mean that journalists have to be careful not to react too strongly to individual, loud people on Twitter?
It’s fair to say that there are some researchers who are very loud and well connected on Twitter, but may not be the most cited researchers, for whatever that’s worth. But at the very least you have to be aware, I think, that the science community on Twitter is just a slice of the whole science community.
Are you currently seeing major upheavals and changes in social media in relation to science communication?
Due to the current events, I can already see a certain dynamic, at least in my environment. There is a certain unrest, possibly also a certain spirit of optimism towards other platforms such as Mastodon, a decentralized Twitter alternative.
Does that mean that people are taking a two-pronged approach and seeing where things are headed?
Exactly, that’s what we’re seeing right now. But also, to put that into perspective again: Many in my scientific and professional environment do nothing at first and observe.
The interview was conducted by Daniel Theis.