Demos Daily: Beyond the Bubble

With talk of new antibody tests almost available to use and the search for a vaccine underway, medical research is at the fore of public conversation, with millions across the globe following every development. We know that the way researchers and scientists communicate research online is crucial to how people understand and engage with it, and the stakes have never been higher when it comes to getting that balance right. With so much riding on finding new ways of tackling the virus, only the clearest communication will be able to prevent the spread of misinformation. In December last year, we made a number of suggestions as to how researchers can improve their communication about research and development online.

Read Beyond the Bubble here, and the Executive Summary below.

Executive summary

In this report, we examined how research and development is discussed and communicated about online, surveying a wide range of platforms and taking a deep-dive into the discussion on Twitter. Below is a summary of our main findings from the report, with many of these points coming up time and again across a range of platforms and research areas:

  • Different communities, both across and within platforms, will engage with content in different ways. Blanket promotion of the same content across platforms may not be an effective way to engage the public. Linking work to the lived experience of each community may see better engagement with research.
  • There are already many popular science and research personalities out there who have an existing audience and understand what makes research appealing to them, who translate scientific findings for the general audience.
  • People favoured a person-centred framing and related to the idea of exceptional and admirable individuals (e.g. ‘living legend’, ‘you changed the world’). In some cases, they even personified R&D outputs (e.g. offering ‘birthday wishes’ to the Internet).
  • People want to engage with things which are personally relevant to them, or in ways which draw on references they already know: perhaps because of a personal experience they have had, or because it is a salient public issue. People will engage with research by relating them to literature, film, or other pop culture reference points. And people want to have fun in their engagement with content.
  • Analogies were frequently used when people were engaging with complex research. Most people online are not familiar with technical language and won’t try to decipher it.
  • Images are important in framing research in an accessible way, particularly on Twitter where words are limited. Social media users will reuse images present in articles in their own discussions.
  • People are invested in developments which are groundbreaking, completely new, cutting-edge, particularly relating to exploration or innovation.
  • However, people are also cynical and sceptical about the possible applications of new research and sometimes to motivation behind it. People value clarity and transparency from those carrying out research.
  • Social media platforms offer an opportunity to continually engage others long after publication in a journal and a conference slot. Social media content has a short lifetime but can bring back research when relevant long after it is published.
  • On Twitter, the majority of research discussion is neutral statements of research findings, with only a third presenting a positive or negative opinion on the research.
  • Those discussing R&D very rarely mentioned who funded it, and narratives were more often shaped by researchers and publishing organisations. The ~4000 tweets specifically mentioning funding usually came from within the research community itself.