How social media users react to science

The study also found an unexpected difference between user engagement rates on different platforms.

Is Israel winning the social media war? (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Is Israel winning the social media war?
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
No longer isolated in an ivory tower, scientific ideas, practices and findings are increasingly communicated over various social media platforms. This raises questions about the nature of those platforms and the differences among them. For example, do people react to a scientific image posted on Twitter any differently than they would if they saw the same image on Facebook? A study conducted by CERN and Haifa’s Technion- Israel Institute of Technology suggests that similar scientific topics tend to receive similar rates of user engagement even though they are posted on different social media platforms. In particular, awe-inspiring images tend to attract high engagement irrespective of platform – and in some cases, even if these images are not newsworthy at all. For example, a picture of a CERN dishwasher for circuit boards was viewed over 121,000 times on Facebook and retweeted over 1,200 times on Twitter, presumably because it was so surprising and funny. Indeed, it seems that the same principles that explain the allure of viral cat videos can apply to tweets about sub-atomic particles.
The study also found an unexpected difference between user engagement rates on different platforms.
As one would expect, on platforms where CERN operated accounts with larger audiences, such as CERN’s English-language Twitter account, posts about scientific topics tended to receive more shares and clicks overall. But on average, on platforms where CERN had fewer followers, such as Instagram, each follower tended to be relatively more engaged. The results suggest that perhaps in new platforms, early adopters might tend to be more engaged followers.
The study, published in the scholarly journal PLOS ONE, explored how users engage with posts about particle physics on different platforms of social media: Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram and Twitter. The researchers also examined the characteristics of the posts that tended to attract large numbers of user interactions. For that purpose, the authors analyzed user interaction rates with nearly identical items that were cross-posted on five of CERN’s official social media accounts over an eight-week period in 2014.
The researchers tracked a wide range of interactions, including the number of “likes,” comments, shares, clicks on links, and time spent on CERN’s site.
The study was conducted by Kate Kahle from CERN along with the Technion’s Aviv Sharon and Ayelet Baram-Tsabari.
“To our knowledge, this study provides the first cross-platform characterization of public engagement with science on social media,” the researchers said.
“Although the study focused on particle physics, its findings might serve to benchmark social media analytics in other areas of science as well.”
HELPING MICE MAKE NEW FRIENDS A molecule involved in regulating stress in the brain may help determine how willing we are to leave the safety of our social group and strike up new relationships, according to research on mice at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Meeting new people can be both stressful and rewarding. Writing in Nature Neuroscience, Drs. Yair Shemesh and Oren Forkosh – working in the neurobiology lab of Prof. Alon Chen – identified a stress mechanism that appears to act as a “social switch.” It caused mice either to increase interactions with “friends” and “acquaintances” or, in contrast, to reduce such interactions and seek instead to meet strangers. Since an analogous stress system operates in the human brain, the findings suggest that a similar mechanism may regulate coping with social challenges in humans.
Disruptions in this mechanism might be responsible for difficulties with social coping in people affected by social anxiety, as well as in autism, schizophrenia and other disorders.
“Most social contacts involve a certain level of social stress or anxiety, even when we interact with people we know well, for example, during a holiday meal with extended family,” said Shemesh. “In fact, from the point of view of evolution, moderate levels of social apprehension are essential for safe and successful social engagement.”
Chen added, “In social environments, an individual’s interests often clash with the group’s needs and expectations. So the individual must maintain what’s known as a socioemotional balance: between the processing of social signals and his or her emotional response to such pressure.”
The scientists used two behavioral setups to study how mice cope with the challenge of interacting with other mice. One was a “social maze,” in which a mouse can choose whether to interact through a mesh with familiar mice or with strangers, or even to avoid interaction at all. The other was a special arena, in which a group of mice was tracked with video cameras and the observations were analyzed with a computer algorithm created for this purpose. The establishment of this unique setting enabled the researchers to quantify various types of interactions – such as approach, contact, attack or chase – among individual mice within the group over several days.
The results revealed that a molecular mechanism involved in stress management in the mouse brain determines their behavior toward other mice. The mechanism involves a small signaling molecule, Urocortin- 3, and a receptor on the surface of neurons to which this molecule binds. Both Urocortin-3 and the receptor are part of the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF system), which plays a central role in coping with stress, and both are prominently expressed in a brain region called the medial amygdala, known to be associated with social behavior in mice.
Mice that had high levels of Urocortin-3 in the brain actively sought out contacts with new mice behind the net, even ignoring their own group. But when the activity of Urocortin-3 and its receptor was blocked in their brains, the mice chose to socialize mainly within the group, avoiding contacts with the strangers.
Forkosh said, “In nature mice live in groups, and the social challenges they face within the group differ from their relationship with intruders. It therefore makes sense for a brain mechanism to produce different types of social coping in these two situations. In humans, this mechanism might be involved whenever we consider moving out of our parents’ home, getting a divorce or changing jobs or apartments.”