It is increasingly common to see scientists dropping off social media. The pattern is the same each time: they tweet an observation, or comment in an interview on some evidence from their field of study. Someone takes exception; outrage spreads. Their timeline becomes a torrent of hostility, and to escape the abuse they delete their accounts.
This is hardly unique to academics. Twitter is a bear pit. But for researchers, talking to the public is part of the job. Funders expect it. A public health crisis demands it. Yet the conversation does not always run smoothly. We have calls for Covid scientists to resign. One expert’s bio says simply: “I block.” How did it come to this?
My own brush with the Twitter pile-on happened in November when my research team, which specialises in national studies of suicide, released the first pandemic suicide rates for England. Against expectations, we found no rise.
Over the following week I received hundreds of angry tweets: insults, abuse, a few implied threats. Colleagues were astounded: surely our findings were good news? The answer, for some, was no. Suicide had become a political issue in the pandemic. Claims of a “suicide epidemic”, blamed on lockdown, were everywhere. One notorious tweet reported a “200 per cent rise” and was reposted 31,000 times in a single day. Our findings were inconvenient.
The attacks came from Covid-deniers, libertarians, anti-vaxxers. We were wrong, they said, and what’s more, we knew we were wrong. We were up to something. Several insisted there were fatal flaws in the study.
It’s tempting to shrug and move on. But to treat such abuse lightly is to normalise it, and harassment of researchers on whose independence we rely in a crisis should never be normal. Some find it too much and withdraw, yet if researchers give up on public dialogue, the stage is cleared for charlatans, and we all lose.
To characterise it as igronance – the pitchfork mob at midnight – is too simplistic. Public outrage at scientists is a social phenomenon, powerful enough to have shaped the course of a pandemic. It needs to be understood.
Hostility to “the elite” isn’t new. It has been a tool of populist leaders for centuries. What’s more recent is the cynical denigration of experts – a word that now carries a pejorative sense. To be an expert, to some, is to be out of touch, or worse, hiding the truth, in the pay of the powerful.
This hostility comes today from a sense of being excluded, a belief that the decisions affecting us all are the preserve of people who know almost nothing of our real lives. Fed by social media, this suspicion has become one of the dominant political forces of our time.
Twitter helps to breed such suspicion because it creates equivalence, real or not. I’m entitled to my opinion, say the keyboard warriors, and so they are. My opinion is based on 30 years of study, says the expert, but that’s exactly what you’d expect from the elite.
Twitter also provides a level of anonymity that allows aggression to flare unchecked by social norms, just as being contained and anonymised by a car creates road rage. Resign, sack, arrest, imprison – these words reverberate across social media. No disagreement is too trivial to end with insults and accusations.
When facts are agreed upon socially, confirmation bias takes hold. People follow, like, and retweet content that confirms what they already believe. Truth becomes subjective, and people talk of “my truth” when they mean “my experience”. On Twitter, they may hear of a treatment successfully tested in trials and say: it didn’t help me. Who can blame them for putting their experience first?
Experience is valuable. In health research, subjective experience used to be dismissed as anecdote. Now it is vital evidence, a driver of “personalised” care in a system that trumpets patient autonomy. In my own field the narratives of bereaved families, so tragic and compelling, have given suicide prevention its high profile, overturning decades of stigma.
Individual experience now sits alongside population data, enriching large-scale studies. They are not in opposition. Both are needed, and both come with uncertainty. Experience can vary, and data can change. Uncertainty is the stuff of academic life.
Can Twitter ever be mature enough to discuss uncertainty, and to see the difference between belief, opinion and evidence – between subjective experience and subjective truth? It’s not there yet.
[See also: How to end the poison of online racism]
Academics should be thinking about what they can do to help improve the dialogue on social media. Zero tolerance of abuse is essential. So too is engaging with the public on their terms, and valuing their experience. Experts are often in a bubble of their own – we don’t know what the public believes about our subject, and we don’t engage in a two-way dialogue. When I look at who I follow, they are all like me.
This dialogue is important to reassure the public that expertise can be independent of government pressure or commercial funding. We need to explain uncertainty, and convince the public that when we speak about a research field, we have the expertise to do so – that we are not using academic titles as a smokescreen for private opinions which are no more valuable than anyone else’s. We’ve seen this in the pandemic, it diminishes us all.
The public, too, has a responsibility to make this dialogue work. Interpreting evidence should be something everyone can do, as important as numeracy or grammar; we should consider teaching the basics of sampling, bias and small numbers in schools, as skills for life in the age of social information.
Most of all, though, the public should recognise that academics are supposed to challenge commonly held beliefs. It’s how knowledge advances, for public benefit. It should be encouraged, not cancelled.