Some challenges of social media as a tool for public health science communication

Social media presents several advantages to public health science communication. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are also challenges to the media. Below I have listed some of them. As with the advantages, I am sure there are many more challenges than those below, so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

Values, opinions, feelings and politics

As with many other social sciences, research in public health exists and operates in a political context where values, opinions, and ethical considerations play a big role. In addition, health is not only owned by doctors and researchers, but is a topic and condition that is relevant to all human beings, which means that almost everyone have an opinion or personal feelings entangled into it. Health is a mayor topic in politics, economics, human development etc. The multiple number of stakeholders challenges communication of public health sciences. Few people would be outraged by a scientific debate among mathematicians, but in public health the story is another. New research projects or findings can quickly turn into debates influenced by other stakeholders in health and by non-scientific arguments. Open platforms like social media used to present and discuss public health sciences may open up for such debates with potential inputs all segments of the population. Such debates can be time-consuming, problematic both politically and scientifically and in the end not benefit neither the scientific process or the researcher.

Fear of drowning and loosing time

“I don’t have time to be on Twitter.”, “I’m already behind in reading reports and journals”. These are some of the worries many researchers and public health specialists raise when they are confronted with using social media in their academic practice. And although their fear of time consumption and information overload may be exaggerated, it is true, that especially in the beginning it does require time to get acquainted with social media for scientific purposes and to build up an online network. Since social media does provide new information, it will often be an additional information source, which requires time. Proper introduction in how to use social media for research purposes could overcome this however. And in the end I would argue that it can actually save time (and money). For example time and money saved on following a conference through Twitter rather than physically being present at the conference. In addition, social media can actually be a way to filter all the available material through its search functions and by following people who are interested in the same area as one self.

Lack of control with the media

Many research institutions have social media policies setting out rules for what kind of media can be used and for what purposes. Some of them are pretty strict and leaves it to the communication departments to be in control of what goes out on social media. Due to the openness and interactive characteristic of the media it does of course open up for risks such as scooping of research findings, false accusations and irrelevant or perhaps harmful communication. Avoiding these situation depends to a large extend on the users responsible behavior when communicating through social media and proper guidance on how to use it.


Some advantages of social media as a tool for public health science communication

The other day I blogged about some of the similarities I see between public health sciences and social media. Similarities which makes social media particular relevant for public health science communication.

Apart from the similarities, I have been trying to put together a list of other advantages of social media for science communication, which I can hopefully use in a report on Public Health Science Communication & Social Media. I am sure there are many more than those below so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

A flexible media

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are social networking platforms set up and created by web developers.Despite the preset features in for example Facebook, social media is characterized by its high level of flexibility. The users create the content, and new functions are constantly developed in response to the needs from the users. Blogs can for example be customized according to the requirements of the individual user and can take many different forms. In relation to science communication this presents a great opportunity to use the different tools according to the specific needs of a scientific traditions, individual scientists or research institutions.

Giving the researcher a voice

Another advantage of social media for science communication is that it gives the scientists an opportunity to become a communicator rather than leaving that to those in control of established media outlets. When relevant, the researchers can make their own voices heard and not always go through communication employees. This can for example be an advantage when communicating with other researchers where professional communicators do not have the relevant background knowledge. In combination with the great amount of flexibility in social media a communication style that supplements existing communications can be created. With for example blogs a direct relationship between the author and the reader may be established to the benefit of both the reader and the writer.

Network Building

In comparison with journals and reports social media provides the opportunity to connect and interact with the readers. Similar to what happens at conferences, the audience can ask questions directly to the author, and comment or express their views on the communicated. This can be through comment functions and retweeting on Twitter. Just like attending conferences is beneficial for extending and sustaining scientific networks, the same goes for social media. Only this can happen on a daily basis and not be a once or twice per year event. In addition, the potential network is much bigger and not limited to those who had the time or the means to travel half around the world to present a poster.

No time delay and free of charge

Publishing in scientific journals can often be a long and time-consuming process, which means that when eventually published, the study has perhaps already been finalized and closed or perhaps even outdated. The advantage of social media is that in comparison with for example peer-reviewed journals it has a much shorter time delay. This makes the media particular relevant for communicating science-in-the-making where comments, reactions and contributions from colleagues and other recipient audiences during the research process can contribute positively to the research process.

Finally, using social media comes at no extra cost. Most platforms are free of charge or has negligible costs for the users, and does thus not require big investments by neither the researcher, research institutions or the audience.


Why social media is particularly relevant for public health science communication

Social media is a gift to science communication. I am quite convinced about that. But is it particularly relevant for Public Health Science Communication?

As many of the blog posts on this blog illustrates there is huge value and potential in using social media for public health science communication. And not only to disseminate research, but to communicate with the public and fellow researchers and use it as an inspirational tool in an academic public health life – even as a tool to conduct public health research is social media useful.

If one looks across examples of use of social media in public health, it is possible to identify some similarities between public health sciences and social media. As I see it, there are a least three shared characteristics. These are: the concentration on the community and general public, the interdisciplinary profile, and the reliance on data aggregation to do research. The shared characteristics means that combining the two worlds into what one could call Public Health Science Communication 2.0 is perfectly relevant.

Community-oriented

Public health is about people. Public health sciences is about observing people, collecting data about them, asking them, telling them, comparing them, testing them, exchanging information etc. The masses are of essence. In medicine you often deal with the individual patient, but in public health it is the larger communities and population groups that are at the core. It is through the contribution of each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed and discovered.

Social media is about people. It’s about the exchange of information. It’s not about the one person or the group of two to three, but about communities, about large population groups, about subgroups, about trends, patterns and the interactiveness of the whole thing. Social media is owned and generated by the public, both when it comes to content and form. This democratic structure means that social media is an arena for all corners of the public. But also that it is through the combined input and contribution from each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed. Even the smallest niche of people can become a group or community of its own through social media.

Finally, people are not static creatures and thus neither is public health sciences or social media. Both adapts to itself and surroundings. Changes in people’s behavior results in changes in public health. This means that continuously observation and interaction with the sources of research and among researchers is essential, if research is to take place. Social media can be a place to do this and to share the information. With the public, with counterparts or fellow researchers.

Interdisciplinary

Public health is an interdisciplinary science. It draws upon research from fields as different as biostatistics, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, economics, medicine, pharmacology and several others disciplines. In addition, much research in public health happens in close collaboration with public health practitioners, and with the population as a whole.

Similarly, social media goes beyond disciplines, beyond communities, countries and sectors. The flexibility of the media means that it can be adjusted to the individuals preferences and needs and reach across disciplines in ways that traditional media can not. In addition, the more informal manner of the media makes it a good place to explore across sectors and disciplines. It gives an easy approach to other people’s main areas of work, of interests and their style. All things that are useful when you need to communicate with people outside your own field.

Public Health sciences’ interdisciplinary profile and the interaction with non-research oriented communities necessitates effective communication both from researcher to practitioner, researcher to researcher and the other way around. Social media provides this cross cutting communication platform.

Reliance on data

Public health research is a data-oriented discipline. Both qualitative and quantitative data frames most research in public health. Based on data, trends and patterns can be tested, theories can be discussed, data reviewed.

Social media is in its essence also all about data. Through interaction, communication and sharing of information it is one big collection of data. It is through the broadness and amount of data that trends and patterns are identified and information is spread. It can sometimes even go viral (a good old health related word) and information and data is spread.

The common central role of data in public health research and social media makes combining the two intuitively compatible. Data collection or spreading data/information through blogs, Twitter and Facebook are tools that public health researchers should explore. It might even end up in communication!

More similarities and arguments?

The above similarities may of course also apply to other research areas. After having been on social media for almost a year now these three just stood out to me. But I might have missed some, and perhaps I am elegantly overseeing reasons why social media and public health science are not so compatible. If that is so, I’d love to get you inputs on this! It could be helpful in an endeavor to get more researchers in public health sciences to regard social media as a natural and necessary tool for science communication.


Still communicating about how to communicate science communication

Even though I have been blogging for almost half a year, I can still be amazed by the experience of other people reading my posts, reblogging them, commenting and retweeting them and contacting me directly to express their thoughts. I must admit that it gives me a kick every time. It is not a snow avalanche, but it is enough to increase my motivation and very often it is interesting comments that gives rise to further reflections that again feeds new posts.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the challenge of communicating science communication. This particular post has resulted in a few comments on Twitter that I thought I’d just share with you:

And questions:

I have had a great discussion by Gmail-chat with a friend from university about the challenges of communicating research and turning research into practice. And about the lack of acknowledgement of communication activities, if it has to do with anything other than  the publishing of articles in peer-reviewed journals. Parallel to the Gmail-chat I had live in-person discussion with another friend also from university, who had a present challenge of how to communicate the results from an infectious disease epidemiological study to staff at health clinics. Very inspiring discussion – for both of us!

All in all really inspirering. I look forward to more of this and hope that everyone who has inputs, views, reflections etc, that I should integrate into a course on Public Health Science Communication will not hold back.

All the best wishes for the new year to everyone and see you in 2012!