As perceptions of science become more politicized on social media, it’s important to understand how science influencers cultivate community, engage with their audiences, and defend against perceived attacks against science. In recent research published in the academic journal, Political Communication, a team of LSC faculty including Assistant Professors Dr. Sedona Chinn and Dr. Kaiping Chen, explores how science influencers use group identity language, how the use of group identity language varies across social media platforms, and how this may affect the polarization and politicization of science.
Dr. Chen explains that “a key puzzle we want to address in this paper is the role(s) of science influencers on social media. The broader aim behind our research project is to inform how we can make science communication more inclusive on social media through the language we use.”
Group identity language is a language that separates an ingroup from an outgroup. In other words, “us” vs “them” language. People use ingroup pronouns, to reaffirm their own group identity and solidarity, while using outgroup pronouns to create distance between other social groups they perceive to be inferior. As the public perception and role of science and scientists and policy became a highly debated topic between 2016 and 2022, they hypothesized that we would see an increase in the use of “us” vs “them” language by science influencers.
The researchers analyzed a variety of science influencers, ranging from celebrity scientists and medical professionals to science journalists and content creators. By analyzing their social media posts, results revealed that science influencers’ use of group identity language increased over time, especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Dr. Chinn warns of a divided US society impacting science’s ability to address future challenges like pandemics and evidence-based policy. “Many people blame interest groups or politicians for politicizing science, but scientists can contribute to this as well by depicting groups as ‘with’ or ‘against’ science. Therefore, it is important for science influencers, who can reach wide audiences, to understand the damaging implications of ‘us versus them’ language.”
Additionally, since social media algorithms promote posts with the greatest engagement, science influencers could inadvertently amplify narratives of the social divisions around science. More research will continue to reveal the complexities of algorithm-driven science communication on social media.
“LSC is excited to support continued research in this space. Our team of world-class researchers is dedicated to exploring a wide range of topics, ranging from boots-on-the-ground communication applications to novel insights into how the members of the public think and talk about science,” says Dominique Brossard, LSC Chair and Professor.
Written by: Julia Wiessing, LSC B.S. ’23 and LSC’s 2022-2023 Lenore Landry Scholar
Published: August 2023