Scientists should be aware of the impact social media could have on their work. A new study shows that to reduce the chance of disruption due to legislative, regulatory or funding changes linked to public opinion, it is important to include social media when considering risk.

Man looking at the phone screeen from which an angry blue Twitter bird is coming out

Source: © Michael Villegas/Ikon Images

Twitter is a useful tool for sentiment analysis

Finbarr Murphy, from the University of Limerick in Ireland, and colleagues performed a sentiment analysis of tweets between 2006 and 2020 relating to three areas of nanoscience – silver, carbon and titanium – to examine the public perception of nanotechnology. They found that overall public perception is slightly positive. But whilst positive events have little to no impact on tweet volume or perception, adverse events caused an increase in the volume of tweets presenting a negative opinion.

If an event is perceived badly enough to generate a twitterstorm, this decrease in public confidence could have far reaching impacts, with legislation, research funding and insurance coverage all susceptible to public opinion. As many research grants are through public funds, a large negative shift in public opinion towards nanotechnology could result in a decrease in funding available for research in that area.

Murphy says that ‘insurers are potentially the weak link of the scientific community’ and if insurers are impacted by a change in public opinion ‘they might begin to either exclude nanotechnology from their premiums or withdraw’.

Scientists often consider some of these risks, however it is usually within the context of their own research, amongst other experts in the field. This may not capture the concerns of a lay audience. Murphy says that ‘scientists need to engage more on social media platforms and in terms of disseminating the results. And they also need to think about the implications for their research – were that research to be perceived in a negative manner by social media, what are the steps they can take to alleviate that risk.’

‘When I teach a course on nanomaterials, I include ethical reasoning and strategies for communicating with non-experts in honest and informative ways to help students feel empowered to participate in public discussion, whether on a platform like Twitter or with their own friends and family,’ comments Sarah St Angelo, a nanochemistry researcher at Dickinson College in the US. ‘While there certainly are risks associated with novel materials – and humans are notoriously poor at assessing actual risk – having a moderating force of informed opinion can help quell the spread of misinformation and unfounded fear. Developing nanotechnology with respect for possible environmental and health risks makes sense, but having work that could be of economic, environmental, or humanitarian benefit derailed due to disproportionate fear propagated on social media is a risk in itself.’