You might remember headlines from a while ago proclaiming this Jurassic Park-esque possibility. It had something to do with retrieving frozen DNA. Or maybe something about using that gene-editing technique that everyone keeps talking about? CRISPY, or CRISPER, or whatever it’s called?
I previously wrote a blog post about clickbait and science journalism, basically looking at how digital and social media have created some problems for communicating scientific information. We know that most people just read the headlines of stories, that the majority of links shared on social media are never clicked, and that when people do actually click on articles, they rarely scroll through to the end, even when they share it or post a comment. This is arguably an especially big issue for science and health reporting, since even a cursory look past the headline can reveal that promising-sounding cancer research or attention-grabbing studies are being sensationalised or taken out of context. Other studies practically seem designed to get viral media attention but appear less interesting under closer scrutiny, like that one that suggests your judgment of how drunk you are depends on how sober your friends are, or that study that claimed reading more Harry Potter made people more anti-Trump.
There’s another side to this though, and that’s the point of this post: as much as websites and Facebook pages such as IFLScience fan the flames of clickbait and irresponsible science journalism, there are plenty of online communities that do the opposite. We’ll look at two case studies here – the subreddit “Ask Science,” and PLOS blogs.
If you’re unfamiliar with reddit, it’s a collection of communities or “subreddits” that are organized around different topics, themes or fandoms, including everything from political news to knitting. Users submit links and posts and other users can comment and affect the visibility of these submissions through ‘upvotes’ or ‘downvotes.’
The subreddit “Ask Science” has over 15 million subscribers. The purpose is simple: users ask questions, and other users – whose scientific credentials are typically on display next to their usernames – provide answers. Posts range from questions like “If I put a flashlight in space, would it propel itself forward by ‘shooting out’ light?” (the answer: yes, very slowly), to discussion threads about the detection of gravitational waves. In 2014, the moderators of the subreddit started a popular science magazine written by scientists on reddit, called “AskScience Quarterly.” Articles typically explore topics and stories relating to current scientific research in an accessible style, but also provide additional technical details.
PLOS is a non-profit publisher and self-described “advocacy organization” that provides open access content through a library of journals, scientific literature, information on clinical trials, and other materials and data. Publications through PLOS are made available under the Creative Commons attribution license, which allows for the free reproduction and distribution of information. In addition to its scientific journals, there’s the PLOS blogs platform, which hosts a number of blogs and podcasts on a variety of topics; some of the blogs are written by PLOS staff members, while others are authored by science journalists and researchers. The point of the platform is to share scientific ideas with a broad audience through more informal (yet highly accurate and well-researched) communication. You can find posts about the connection between smoking and body weight, or interesting discussions about open data projects involving “animal selfies.”
It may be impossible to escape clickbait, ‘sharebait’, listicles and other (often low-quality) content churned out with the primary purpose of being spread across social networks, accuracy or context be damned. Misleading headlines are a huge problem; for instance, it’s been found that misleading headlines do more than simply reframe the content of an article – they can impact how readers recall the information later. For example, let’s say a headline states that “air pollution now leading cause of lung cancer.” The text of the article doesn’t actually support this, with pollution being described as a leading “environmental” cause, while other culprits – such as smoking – are still the primary contributors. But readers will likely come away from that article very misinformed. But it’s hard to denounce the internet and social media as the underlying causes of the clickbait economy: the same features and characteristics that allow crappy science journalism and clickbait to rise to the top of newsfeeds also enable community projects like Ask Science and PLOS blogs, which serve to educate and inform people.