Author: Ada Hagan
Editors: Whit Froehlich, Scott Barolo, and Irene Park
I doubt Dr. Shaena Montanari ever thought that a single Twitter conversation would earn her 3,000 new followers (1,000 within two hours) and help launch a new hashtag. But that’s what happened when she replied to a political tweet that mentioned velociraptors.
The tweet led to a widely read discussion of velociraptors, how big they were (turkey-sized), whether or not they moved in packs (probably not), and even about how Dr. Montanari’s field of paleontology would be affected by a government shutdown (researchers would lose access to the museums and National Parks housing specimens and dig sites—see the Twitter Moment she created for the full conversation).
The recent changes to our political climate, particularly an apparent mistrust of science by political leaders, have galvanized scientists to step up their science communication game. A critical component is starting scientific discussion with those who don’t have the opportunity to participate in, or be exposed to, scientific research.
But how does a scientist move beyond people actively seeking interactions with science to reach those more distant communities?
Dr. Montanari discovered a possible solution to that problem with her velociraptor tweet. By engaging with a thread started by a well-known and controversial figure, she stumbled upon a readership numbering in the tens of thousands. That’s a big audience for a paleontologist, and likely includes many people who had no plans to hear from an #actuallivingscientist that day.
Like any good scientist, Dr. Montanari noted her observation, kicking off another Twitter conversation: can scientists co-opt the tweets of prominent political figures into a platform for science communication?
My new form of outreach is replying to Trump tweets with facts about dinosaurs because they are instantly read by thousands!
— Shaena Montanari (@DrShaena) May 2, 2017
And so, the #scijack (science hijack) movement began.
Before long, other scientists were finding clever ways to relate tweets from @realDonaldTrump to science facts.
— David Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) May 5, 2017
#SciJack topics have included: the beautiful peacock spider, foxes, lead poisoning, parasitic crabs, the sex life of the dumbo octopus, and how a government shutdown would impact the response to epidemics.
Now, Twitter users are #scijack-ing celebrities, conservative media outlets and even political leaders in other countries. And researchers in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, and South Africa have joined #scijack.
— Natalie Hamer (@SciShot) May 5, 2017
In less than a week, #scijack spread across the science-communication world and was quickly incorporated into workshops on the subject. Data obtained from talkwalker.com (image below) indicate that between its inception on May 2nd and my first analysis on May 8th, #scijack had been used 726 times, engaged with 1,600 times, and delivered to 280,000 Twitter users. That’s an average of more than 380 unique views per #scijack tweet—a huge result given the small investment of time.
To put those numbers in context, one article suggests that an average tweet receives views from less than 5% of the tweeter’s followers. I have 269 Twitter followers and a random tweet about my morning coffee received 132 impressions (views per tweet, not unique viewers) so up to 49% of my followers may have viewed that tweet. Comparatively, my first #scijack tweet received 333 impressions (my highest #scijack tweet has 452), which is higher than my number of followers!
But is it effective, particularly when targeting outreach via a politically charged platform? Some argue that the political divide is too great to change deeper attitudes toward science. For myself, I think that non-political facts could bridge the divide and build a positive between a scientist and their target audience. That trust could then sway followers on more political issues later down the line. This idea is based on the recent observation that people will more readily trust a single research study than an entire field of research.
And how long will the #scijack movement last? Social media cycles move quickly and any number of once-hot hashtags now lie fallow (such as the 2015-era science hashtags #junkoff, #cuteoff, #fieldworkfails, and #stupidcommonnames). Already #scijack is losing its steam, tapering from nearly 200 references on May 2nd to about 50 on May 8th. The week of May 18th, there were a total of 30 posts using #scijack originating from 12 users, but those 30 posts reached 25,454 Twitter users. That’s an even higher rate than the first week, with an average of 848 viewers per post compared to 380.
There are barriers to the continuation of #scijack including the frequency of tweets from political figures that are appropriate for #scijacking (admittedly some topics like condolences are off limits) and (perhaps the most limiting factor) the number of scientists who continue to participate. Currently, there are only a handful of scientists regularly engaging in #scijack outreach, but with over 800 viewers per science fact, perhaps that’s sufficient.
For now, I’ll just enjoy disarming political differences with fun scientific facts.
— Ada Hagan (@adahagan) May 18, 2017
About the author
Ada Hagan is a doctoral student here at the University of Michigan in the department of Microbiology and Immunology. She does recon on the sneaky ways bacteria find nutrients (like iron!) when they are invading our bodies. Originally hailing from the mountains of East Tennessee, Ada earned both her B.S. and M.S. in Microbiology from East Tennessee State University. For more from Ada on her research, life as a Ph.D. mom, and science communication, follow her on Twitter (@adahagan) and check out her posts on the American Society for Microbiology Microbial Sciences blog.
Read more posts by Ada here.