Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made waves on Capitol Hill for her use of social media, particularly Instagram stories, as she shares her experiences in becoming oriented as a new member of congress. She has busted open the “behind the scenes” inner workings of starting her new job as a freshman congresswoman by sharing her everyday activities, including receiving her invitation to orientation, her new secure laptop and ID; learning of the underground walkways and subway members use to get to the Capitol to vote; and the process of picking out her new office.
Speaking as someone who enjoys her commentary and explanations, I can see why it may seem odd that these mundane activities are being watched by millions. Yet, I find it motivating to see the youngest female congressperson in United States history shake up and disrupt the normally buttoned-up curtains of congress by merely using her phone to share video. Her commitment to transparency and passion to improve society (work she was elected to do) is inspiring.
Stories have been a feature of Instagram since August of 2016, and since then it’s been reported that those under the age of 25 spend more than 32 minutes a day on the platform, while those over the age of 25 spend approximately 24 minutes day. It shouldn’t be surprising that the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez is using this free platform to inform, transform and educate. Additionally, she is helping to bring civic lessons to a new generation of young adults (some of whom may not have previously taken an interest in government) by simply meeting them where they already are, on social media.
But as inspired as I am by Ocasio-Cortez, I can’t help but wonder: why aren’t the many scientific leaders, educators and activists who also embrace these new modes of communication for improved transparency in science making the front page of mainstream media? There are certainly many wonderful science communicators using these platforms to advance the public's understanding of how science is done, what it means to be a scientist and what it means to translate lab findings for public impact, but none that rise to the level of an Ocasio-Cortez.
Is this an issue of not enough scientists embracing these newer platforms or the result of “Truth Decay,” a blurring of the line between opinion and fact? As of 2017, only 13 percent of scientists/engineers regularly visited Twitter, and 38 percent regularly visited Facebook. (The statistics for scientists who engage on Instagram are hard to find).
Academic culture thrives on a “publish or perish” cycle as well as requiring most faculty to self-fund though government grants. These responsibilities leave them little to no time to engage with wider audiences. Additionally, scientists aren’t rewarded for public engagement, as tenure is more tied to publications, grants and academic achievement. Presentations at national conferences are typically to audiences of similar scientific expertise. And of course, there are examples of scientists only using social media as a broadcasting platform rather than an engagement tool.
Yet, there are scientists who regularly work to enhance scientific engagement and literacy with just their phones. In my own field of epidemiology, the hashtag #Epitwitter is a bona fide tool in accessing a large community of epidemiologists, most of whom have never met in person! If you are wondering how to get started with your own science communications, check out the many guides specifically aimed at helping scientists get started on social media for broader engagement.
Examples of scientists who bring their phones into the lab to show the world what cells look like under a microscope, as well as scientists showing the public what science looks like away from the lab, have even been highlighted before in Scientific American. The hashtag #scicomm is a widely used tag when speaking about science on social media; PLOS even created a blog called SciComm as a forum for practitioners and readers of science to “explore the art and science of science communication.”
By this reasoning, science doesn’t have or need just one Ocasio-Cortez; worldwide there are millions of us working as scientists. Taking Ocasio-Cortez’s lead, scientists can pick up their phones and bring science to the public in their own meaningful manner. And if you are still skeptical that using social media for #scicomm isn’t for you, there's compelling research that citation rates are positively associated with science communication through social media.
Science shouldn’t be political but these days it has become politicized and therefore our community must show society what it is truly like to be a part of the scientific endeavor.
I am not suggesting scientists replace their important peer-reviewed research with Instagram but rather that adopting how science is communicated is key to improving STEM reach, access and interest. Social media provides a relatable platform to bring in a broader understanding and acceptance of the work of scientists and how it impacts society. Meeting new generations of potential scientists where they are is important to the continuation of scientific discovery and innovation.
Science transparency through social media does allow for the curtains of science to be pulled back, and in an era where alternative facts are regularly part of mainstream media, scientists must try their best to join in on the fun, dispel misinformation, and get silly using their platform of choice to improve improve science literacy and elevate the awesome work that we do as scientists.