Guardian Science Policy Event: What Role Can Social Media Play in Science Policy?

I recently organised an event for the Guardian Political Science – here’s a copy of the (rather dry, sorry) report I wrote on it.

Last week saw the UCL Science and Technology Studies department host the first in a series of new events run in association with the Guardian Science Policy Blogs.  The event – a discussion on the topic of ‘what role can social media play in science policy?’ – fought off stiff competition from football (Germany vs Portugal) to attract a sizeable audience from across academic, media, and public sectors.  The intention was to provide a discussion based in empirical experience of social media and science policy.  The first two speakers therefore provided us with the stories behind two significant events on this topic.  Síle Lane, Director of Campaigns at Sense about Science, opened with the Libel Reform campaign of 2009-2013.  Social media was used initially to connect groups who shared concerns about risks of defamation – writers and celebrities, as well as scientists – into an online voice for libel reform.  Building on this, campaigners then used social media to attract over 60,000 signatories to a petition, as well to disseminate pro-libel reform arguments, activities, and stories.  Síle was followed by Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL and founder of Science is Vital.  This group originated in 2010 with a blog post from Jenny in response to threatened science budget cuts.  With only four weeks to act social media was essential to acquire rapid support for a petition and a ‘No More Doctor Nice Guy’ rally.  Despite the different aims and timescales of the two campaigns, there were a great many common features.  Both noted the importance of social media to reach a very diverse range of people extremely quickly, and in making connections between interested parties (including politicians) easy to create – even if just in the form of useful links.  But both also noted the importance of offline activities: Sense About Science worked with the mantra ‘a hashtag is not a campaign’ to encourage supporters to write letters to MPs and keep spreading word-of-mouth information; Science is Vital were careful to maintain links with traditional media outlets.  This portion of discussion also ended with a cautious note about ‘petition fatigue’ – when social media makes campaigning easier, any single campaign risks getting lost in the noise.

Originally Julian Huppert MP was to speak on his experiences on the other side of the divide, as a policy-making audience for such campaigns; however, he was called away from the event by the party Whips to a vote in the House of Commons.  So the talks concluded with Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and technology blogger for the Telegraph.  Jamie’s role was to speak as a specialist in social media, rather than science and science policy, to contextualise the previous stories within broader trends – in particular, the great attention and trust internet information carries in contemporary discussion.  As before, Jamie described the close relationship between social media and traditional media – social media tends to react to mainstream media stories, but journalists and producers then draw heavily on social media discussion to guide reportage as the story unfolds.  He also noted how information can become mostly passed around within close networks of people with pre-existing shared beliefs (particularly groups with fringe views, such as the EDL or climate sceptics), and that breaking a tweet out of these echo chambers can be best accomplished by being expressed in an extreme or entertaining fashion.  Thus establishing the ‘true’ impact or reliability of online information can be extremely challenging.

The responses from Síle and Jenny, as well as the audience, to Jamie’s talk suggested that many of the issues facing science-centred campaigns are familiar across social media usage more broadly.  Even the traditional notion of a scientific ‘expert’ is increasingly in competition with new notions of expertise, based on whose tweets are being consulted.  This last point, and broader concerns of how information can be effectively (and safely) shared and democratically used was the main thrust of the question session.  Another theme which emerged during the questions about the future where social media are going, and how to make sure they are used according to long-term shared goals rather than helping fragmentation of groups.  There was also the question of whether nuanced debate is ever possible on Twitter.  Overall the discussion gave flesh to the oft-heard claim that social media provides both great opportunities and great challenges.  However what emerged was that the debate cannot be about weighing up these opportunities and challenges, but rather navigating an ongoing chaos of information, democracy, and attention-seeking.  What role science has to play in all this is, like much else, uncertain.


The event was organised and chaired by Oliver Marsh, with assistance from Jack Stilgoe, Melanie Smallman, and Simon Lock.  A storify of the Tweets can be found at and audio of the event will hopefully be available soon.

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