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By Emily Arlidge for JAC

These days, with the proliferation of citizen journalism via social media, citizen science has been on the increase. One needn’t look much further than a Google search or Yahoo answers and there aren’t many topics in the world not covered on Wikipedia’s database in most of the world’s languages: if you want a question answered, just hop on the web.

Anyone, unless they have a history of spamming, can access those platforms and create the answers themselves – without necessarily providing balanced and well-researched information. And that’s a problem. These issues extend to social media platforms and blog sites.

Peta Ashworth is a lead researcher of the group Science into Society at CSIRO. She’s not against citizen science. In fact, she thinks it’s a good thing.

“If we think about the role of science in society, citizens are demanding increased accountability from governments about involving them in decisions, or consulting them,” Ashworth says.

As far as social media goes, it’s an effective way for people to feel that their individual voices are being heard. Instead of just yelling at the telly, suddenly every Joe Bloggs send his opinion into cyberspace and – sometimes – gets a response.

Ashworth acknowledges that some journalists or citizens abuse social media by deliberately trying to mislead or through ignorance. But if you are operating through standard platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, it doesn’t take much searching to track down more balance data or become part of a conversation by adding Tweets or comments to a subject stream.

A good example is often seen on the 9 News Australia Facebook Page, which I help to administrate. Working alongside other journalists, we gather data, produce a short and simple post and link any additional related information we think may interest the audience.

Sure, plenty of people offer tasteless or inaccurate opinions, however, there is generally someone responding with a balanced view or a correction.

Ashworth’s research indicates that people’s chief scientific interest is in big, public issues such as climate change and energy, “The general public often conclude that the media confounds and confuses because, of course, they report opposing viewpoints within an article.”

In this sense people find it hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong.

On social media platforms, the audience are as vulnerable as they are empowered, “They’ll look for things in the media that actually reinforce their position – makes them comfortable.”

Ashworth is most concerned about the audiences’ sense of accountability. “There’s a huge responsibility on the reader to be able to distinguish between how factual the information is, and how much of it emanates from vested interests. And society probably isn’t well-equipped to do that.”

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One thought on “Social media and citizen scientists

  1. Pingback: What you need to know about the experts | Emily Arlidge

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