The last few days have seen open season on Facebook. As a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social network has been under fire from its critics. The group’s stock market value plunged by 100 billion, Mark Zuckerberg, its charismatic founder, had to publicly apologise, and it emerged that he was undertaking a complete overhaul of privacy policies. This scandal comes at a moment when the GDPR law is about to come into force, and when the European Union is bringing out the big guns against this social network as well as digital companies in general, on three main fronts: protection of personal data, a tax regime suitable for the Big 5 (or GAFAM) tech companies, and finally, combating Fake News. This third issue is the one I’d like to examine here, specifically one particular angle on it: is Facebook a positive force for encouraging a culture of scientific thinking?
Scientists have often been first in line to criticise the social network, coining the dismissive term “Facebook Science” for the kind of content, mostly made up of pseudo-scientific opinions, which is disseminated via social media. There is plenty of research to back up this view. The study “Mapping the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook ” carried out by Smith & Graham, focused on the growth of anti-vaccination movements on the social network. The authors decided to study six of this movement’s biggest Facebook pages in the USA and Australia: “Fans of the AVN”, “Dr Tenpenny on vaccines”, “Great mothers (and others) questioning vaccines”, “No vaccines Australia”, “Age of autism” and “Rage against the vaccines” …. The study revealed some characteristic features of these communities: for example, some leaders are extremely active and go from group to group posting the same news to increase their visibility. The authors conclude “Concerns about vaccination reveal a community that feels persecuted and is suspicious of mainstream medical practice and government-sanctioned methods to prevent disease. In a generation that has rarely seen these diseases first hand, the risk of adverse reaction seems more immediate and pressing than disease prevention” . In the well-known “Science-Based Medicine”, Dr David Gorski makes an interesting observation about this study: ” The problem in dealing with antivaccine activists on social media, as is the problem in dealing with many groups dedicated to pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and misinformation, is how to penetrate the bubble of the echo chamber, where misinformation is reinforced and attempts to bring scientific evidence to bear ignored or attacked. That remains one of the great problems of the 21st century. “ More on this topic below, but Gorski sums up the issue in a nutshell.
However, to consider Facebook only in the light of its “anti-science” communities is reductive. A newly-published study by Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead entitled “The Science People See On Social Media” indicates that “Millions of people see scientific information on their Facebook feeds or elsewhere on social networks” …. This is qualified however with “the kinds of science stories people most likely encounter are often practical tips with “news you can use” or promotions for programs and events rather than new developments in the science, engineering and technology world.” For the study, the authors spent 6 months analysing 30 of the most popular scientific pages on Facebook, and examining 130 932 pieces of content from those pages, which have between 3 and 44 million followers.
These included: IFLScience (25.6 million), National Geographic (44.3 million), Discovery (39 million), Animal Planet (20 million), NASA (19.4 million), Health Digest (11.1 million) …. They also carried out a survey of Facebook users in the USA, resulting in the following key findings: “26% follow a science related page” “33% consider social media an important way they get science news” and finally “44% say that they see news on social media which they had not seen elsewhere”
These encouraging results are unfortunately undermined by the fact that the scientific pages in question are often nothing of the kind. Out of all the content published, only 29% was information on scientific discoveries, 21% was of the “news you can use” variety, 16% was advertising or promotion, and 34% content of all other types.
They did also find that the volume of posts about science had risen significantly over the last few years, from 31 091 in 2014 to 51 714 in 2017 for “primary” Facebook content (i.e. which didn’t appear elsewhere other than on the social network) The authors draw a distinction between pages originating on Facebook, and those which are channels of multi-platform organisations, National Geographic for example. While the latter tend to be more powerful and have more content, the former set the bar high for them – for example, IFLScience, which despite being set up by a single enterprising writer who got into this niche very early on, has managed to acquire over 25 million followers.
Based on these two studies it seems difficult to justify the idea that Facebook could be a useful site for promoting science. However, before condemning the social network outright and, as some would have it, branding it the main site responsible for promulgating pseudo-science, it’s worth considering some more points. First of all, pseudo-science existed well before social media. Also, when it comes to doubting, or even opposing, scientific progress, history is littered with illustrious examples (the Luddites come immediately to mind but there are many others) Of course the NGOs that were ahead of the game on agit-prop were much quicker to occupy the web and social media than scientists themselves, and so were able to use these spaces to spread their ideas quickly and very widely. We’ve already seen how the web is crammed with Fake petitions, and how that demonstrates the true extent of these new digital tools. The issue revolves around the ease of sharing and supporting a single piece of information, and from this point of view, Facebook and the like (Twitter, LinkedIn, Change…) look guilty as charged. But are those condemning the social networks out of hand being somewhat hasty? Facebook has never actually created anything itself, and certainly not the Fake scientific news. If Chernobyl had happened today, there would no doubt be a Facebook group called something like “We don’t believe the cloud stopped at the border.” Facebook does not create anything, it is a sterile set of algorithms. It’s just an aggregator. It aggregates the users, and it aggregates the content. It’s clear that this aggregation mechanism is highly conducive to reinforcing the influence of certain ideas. But isn’t that a huge opportunity for the scientific community, who could make the most of this jackpot by coming down from their ivory towers and taking charge of the work of dissemination with tools of unprecedented power? They can explain their discoveries to non-scientists, debate with them about the implications, carry out the full after-sales service on scientific policy… This role is one which is increasingly necessary these days.
 This ‘righteous indignation’, in combination with the network characteristics identified in this study, indicates that anti-vaccination communities are likely to be persistent across time and global in scope as they utilise the affordances of social media platforms to disseminate anti-vaccination information. Concerns about vaccination reveal a community that feels persecuted and is suspicious of mainstream medical practice and government-sanctioned methods to prevent disease. In a generation that has rarely seen these diseases first hand, the risk of adverse reaction seems more immediate and pressing than disease prevention (Davies et al., 2002). In “Mapping the Anti-Vaccination Movement on Facebook”, Naomi Smith & Tim Graham “Mapping the Anti-Vaccination Movement on Facebook”, Naomi Smith & Tim Graham, Received 05 Jan 2017, Accepted 13 Dec 2017, https://tandfonline.com/doi/ full / 10.1080 / 1369118X.2017.1418406
 “The problem in dealing with antivaccine activists on social media, as is the problem in dealing with many groups dedicated to pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and misinformation, is how to penetrate the bubble of the echo chamber, where misinformation is reinforced and attempts to bring scientific evidence to bear ignored or attacked. That remains one of the great problems of the 21st century.” in “The characteristics of antivaccine networks on Facebook”, David Gorski on January 8, 2018 https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-characteristics-of-antivaccine-networks-on-facebook/
 “Millions of people see science-related information on their Facebook feeds or elsewhere on social media, but the kinds of science stories people most likely encounter are often practical tips with “news you can use” or promotions for programs and events rather than new developments in the science, engineering and technology world.” The Science People See on Social Media, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/21/the-science-people-see-on-social-media/