Millions rely on Facebook for health and science information. Is that a good thing?

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Is climate change real? Is it caused by humans?

Perhaps, even more important, are your answers to those questions based on an understanding of scientific evidence, or something else?

Increasingly, people are turning to social media for their information.  This prompted a recent analysis of science-related Facebook pages by the Pew Research Center, a think tank that is a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Lead researcher Paul Hitlin said the center wanted to learn more about the sources of information that influence millions upon millions of followers, affecting how they understand science and possibly shaping public views. He recently discussed the results with us.

A hint: Very few of the posts involved such hot-button issues as climate change.

And a caveat: The Pew researchers did not attempt to interpret the results or speculate on what it all means.  Still, you may find the data surprising fodder for thought.

What prompted you to study science on social media? Why is this an important issue?
Camera icon Courtesy of Pew Research Center
Paul Hitlin of the Pew Research Center

One of the things we focus on at the center is how people learn about the world and about important issues. So we do a fair amount of work on science knowledge and how people get that information.

Other Pew research shows that social media is becoming increasingly influential for people in a lot of areas, especially science and health. Surveys show that 33 percent of social media users consider social media an important way to get science news.  So we wanted to understand what news is being produced, how large the audience is, and what type of engagement those posts are having.

Social media gives people and organizations opportunities to communicate in ways that weren’t available before. It’s very important, we think, to understand how that information ecosystem is working — what is being produced and how the public is understanding information about science. That’s an important part of the science puzzle that we’re very interested in.

What did the study entail?

We focused on Facebook because Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the U.S.  Some 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook.  We decided to study Facebook pages that were self-described as being related to science or similar areas, such as health.

There is no definitive list of science-focused pages on Facebook. So we constructed a list of popular science-related sites on our own that included more than 200 pages. Then, based on which ones had the most followers, we picked 30 of those pages to focus on.

Among the larger ones were National Geographic, Science Magazine and NASA. Then there were pages like IFLScience, Health Digest,  Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s page, and Stephen Hawking’s page.

Once we picked the pages, we downloaded all the publicly available information on their posts for 3½ years — from 2014 to the middle of 2017.  Then we took a random sample of posts in the first half of 2017 and really dug into those with a lot of specificity. We used a process we called content analysis, which involves researchers going through posts one by one and looking for characteristics — such as topics, the source of information, and what we call the frame.  Basically, the frame is the goal, or focus, of the post.  For instance, some of the major frames were new discoveries — posts about new science reports or findings. Another frame we looked at was called “news you can use” — health tips, exercise tips, how to recycle.  We were trying to get a sense of “what is the goal of this post?”

One thing to be clear about: We looked at pages that were self-described as science. We didn’t make any judgments based on content or conversations about what is or isn’t science. We did not study the veracity of any of the information.

What were some of the most important findings?

One of the major findings was that the most common type of post was what we call the scientific discovery. That was 29 percent of all posts. They were focused on conveying some new piece of scientific or health information. It could be a new study or a news report on a project.

The next most-common focus was “news you can use” — 21 percent of the posts. A lot of those were health tips, cooking tips or exercise suggestions. There were also a lot of beauty tips — such as the one whose title was “how to get healthy and shiny hair using eggs and olive oil.”  That was from Daily Health Tips.

We also found that 16 percent of the posts were advertisements or promotions for other information: books or TV shows, for instance.

The pages tended to be very specialized — focused on one or two topics almost exclusively.  Five of the 30 Facebook pages we studied had a majority of posts about health or medicine. A number of the other pages had a lot of health news, as well. Only a handful were general-interest type pages. So, for the most part, the people who follow these pages are going there to focus on one or two topics rather than to get a wide spread of science information.

Another finding was the size of the audiences.  All the pages we studied had at least three million page followers. National Geographic had about 40 million. These pages have very, very large audiences.

We also found that posts about funding for scientific research were very popular, although I should point out that the period we were looking at was also the first six months of President Trump’s taking office, when funding and plans for the Environmental Protection Agency and other science agencies was an issue.

Did you also look at reader responses?

We found there is a wide range of what we call interactions – a combination of all the likes, comments and shares.

Certain types of posts got more interactions than others.  For example, some of the posts that were most popular were visual only – often videos or pictures. They had very little text.

The one that was the most popular was on David Wolfe’s page (Wolfe is known for promoting the health value of raw foods). It had 5.4 million interactions. It was a picture of fruit cups and the post encouraged people to share that picture if they wanted more fruit available in schools. It was the type of post we refer to as a call to action, a post encouraging people to participate in some way. (It’s important to note that some observers have questioned the validity of Wolfe’s postings, but we did not examine accuracy for this project.)

Wolfe had a number of popular posts. He’s an example of another thing we were interested in:  people who have been able to use Facebook as a new kind of communication tool. We were interested in communicators and educators who have used social media and the low barriers to entry to develop a social following. Some of Wolfe’s more popular posts were pictures with inspirational sayings or poems. Sometimes, they were pictures or videos of animals.

Another major finding related to that was that there were a large number of posts – 5 percent — that were not science-focused, even though the pages were ostensibly about science.

Another top post was on National Geographic. In 2015, after the terrorist attacks, they showed a photo of the Eiffel Tower and said, “Today we are all French.”  That had 1.3 million interactions.

What was the biggest surprise?

I mentioned the significant number of non-science posts. Another thing that was a little bit of a surprise was that these pages did not spend a lot of time covering some of the hot-button issues. Very few posts covered climate change, genetically modified organisms, or vaccines. They were each covered in just 1 percent of the posts. We don’t speculate as to why.