Can scientific discourse catch up with social media?
In 2003, Myspace took the internet by storm, swiftly followed by Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.
Today, there are an estimated 1.79 billion social network users worldwide; that equates to one third of the world's population.
Around 73% of Americans have a Facebook account, and 70% of those access the site at least once a day.
Before social networks, people still had large circles of acquaintances, of course, but we had less insight into their lives, thoughts, politics and pet theories.
Individuals had little knowledge of what distant friends and relatives got up to in their spare time, let alone an obscure work colleague or that guy Jeff, who we met once, somewhere, 15 years ago.
Communication has changed beyond all measure. From a device we keep in our pocket, someone in Papa New Guinea can see what their cousin in Nebraska ate for breakfast, chat with an Irish uncle and "like" the color of Jeff's new carpet.
More importantly, people are now free to share political and scientific ideas in a way that could never have been imagined a few decades ago. Opinions on the most serious of matters are worn like badges of honor, displayed for the globe to see.
Pinterest and vaccines
One of the newest platforms is Pinterest, a social network that focuses on image sharing. Launched in 2010, Pinterest had an estimated 70 million users by July 2013. Images, referred to as "pins," are now posted, shared and reshared, in their millions.
A new paper entitled "On pins and needles: how vaccines are portrayed on Pinterest" was recently published in the journal Vaccine. Researcher Jeanine P.D. Guidry and her team at Virginia Commonwealth University wanted to investigate how their particular field of interest is represented on Pinterest.
Guidry collected 800 vaccine-related pins to assess the state of popular opinion across the platform.
Negativity toward vaccines growing
Guidry found that 75% of vaccine-related pins were negative toward vaccines. The negativity of the messages ranged from relatively mild questions regarding their safety to more radical claims that vaccines are specifically designed to kill people.
Of the negative pins, 20% mentioned conspiracy theories; these included collusion with pharmaceutical companies and governmental plans to control population levels through vaccine deaths. Guidry says:
"These are real fears that people have - from a public health perspective, we need to talk to people about their fears. But first we need to know what's happening. Up to this point, we didn't even know these conversations were taking place on Pinterest."
The results are a departure from the mid-2000s, when a similar study was carried out on users from the social media sites Myspace and YouTube. At that time, only 25% of vaccine-related posts were negative.
Medical News Today asked Guidry what might have caused this downturn and whether a general rise in conspiracy theories might be playing a part. She believes that having "more outlets for people to express themselves" plays a part and that "those opinions are then multiplied because those platforms have higher engagement - conspiracy theories have a greater chance of spreading then, as well."
Social media's implications for science
Scientists are now forced to face the issue that an image shared on a social media site can have further reaching implications than any scientific paper published on the subject, at least as far as the general public are concerned.
Unsubstantiated medical "facts" can be posted and seen by millions of people in a number of hours, compared with genuine, hard-won facts, which take months or years to amass. Pinterest is, of course, just the tip of the social media iceberg.
When MNT asked about future projects, Guidry advised that Instagram would be next; she sees the role of visual media as particularly important:
"We process visuals differently from text, they are stored in a different part of our brain than text-only messages, and we remember them in a different manner than text."
Guidry also told MNT that she plans to focus on how "we, as public health and health communication professionals, can increasingly be a part of these vaccine conversations on visual platforms."
The team is eager to ensure that science keeps in step with the sweeping changes in modern communication. MNT asked Guidry if there was a particular message she would like to send to people who avidly share anti-vaccine messages on social media platforms.
"This is an issue that directly impacts the health and well-being of children. Use your influence wisely," she said.
The full impact of the rise in social media on the dissemination of medically pertinent information will only become clear in time. MNT recently covered research that looked at social media and its affect on our mental health and well-being.