Lessons I learned from communicating science on social media


Like many who are passionate about controversial topics, I have spent too much time over the last four years yelling and arguing with people on social media. It was then that I started a Facebook page called We Love GMOs and Vaccines, and I have come to the conclusion that I have been doing a few things wrong with it.

I realized this the other day while handling my middle school students, and then going home to handle my own son and daughter. Any teacher or any parent will learn this pretty quickly for themselves, and maybe it is time to start applying it to social media.

When a child is misbehaving, one of the biggest mistakes an adult can make is yelling at them in front of other people. A lot of behaviors are attention seeking behaviors, and engaging them in front of others often just feeds into that. Arguing with them in public only gets them more worked up and defiant. Would you yell at your spouse in front of others? What about your co-workers? Hopefully that is a “no” on both scenarios.

(Being yelled at by your spouse in public, especially when it is one way, can be a sign that you are in an abusive relationship. Consider calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.)

With children, pulling them aside is so much more effective. In a classroom you need to take their audience away. Just yelling back and forth in front of their peers is only encouraging them. I will generally ask them to step out into the hall with me for a minute or ask them to sit away from the crowd to wait for me.

For my son and daughter I will pull them into another room if we have guests over, or leave a public area when out of the house.

While arguing with others on social media is far different from classroom management, some of the psychology is still at play. Social media is a public area. People are generally surrounded by their peers. It is well documented that echo chambers have quickly formed where we surround ourselves online by people who agree with us.

When you publicly argue with someone on social media, it is often being seen by their entire group. There is a psychological need to look good in front of your peers. In some ways it is a form or peer pressure. You may have mountains of evidence on your side, but they are not going to back down and be seen as weak to their friends.

Getting a “like” on a comment actually has an impact on your brain. So when your echo chamber is liking your responses, it is all the positive reinforcement you need to keep going. It is physically pleasurable. There is no point in arguing with someone who is getting constant positive feedback from others for the engagement. They are not going to “hear” you. Remember, some people are purposefully trying to get you enraged so you will say something stupid they can report. A common technique used by anti-vaxxers to get accounts banned.

One thing you can do is just ignore them. On Twitter you can just hit the mute button. Blocking often just gets them acting like victims for some reason, but muting just helps you move on with your life.

A second option is to laugh it off. When my youngest has a temper tantrum over something I find silly, I’ll just start tickling him. Laughter causes a whole new set of chemicals to flood our systems. This can be applied to social media by turning to humor. Don’t make fun of them, just find a joke relating to the topic. This can definitely help ease into the the third option.

Offer to “pull them aside”, like I do with my students. Ask if they can email you instead, or take it to one of any number of private messaging platforms.

This is especially important if its someone inside your own “echo chamber”.

On the topic of my passion, GMOs, a lot of individuals have come to the topic for different reasons. Scientists, farmers, vegans, social justice activists, and skeptics really do all have their own agendas. We all come from diverse “tribes” around this one issue. When we all follow each other on social media we quickly learn that there is a lot that we have differences of opinions on.

Yelling at each other in public generally won’t get anything done. For every pro-GMO liberal disagreeing with a pro-GMO conservative, they each have their own echo chambers making them immune to one another’s points.

Think of it like work. At our jobs we come together with a lot of different people to get a certain thing done. But while we are in the break room we often let our guards down and talk about different things. Imagine if a co-worker interrupted you later in the day, when back to work, and publicly told you off for some statement you made in the break room.

As right as they might be, your anger at the intrusion is going to put up all your guards. Your embarrassment of it happening in front of your peers will make you flustered and most likely enraged.

Your goal may not be to change someone else’s mind. We have every right to criticize others, and should continue to do so. Writing articles about why someone is wrong is an extremely important tool in helping others learn. That is part of having a free and open society.

But if your goal is to change minds, then we need to change our tactics. In my first paragraph I admitted that I am guilty, and it is something I want to work on moving forward. If you have any ideas how to do this please comment below.

I didn’t get paid to write this, but if you would like to support my classroom you can donate here: https://adoptaclassroom.force.com/donors/s/designation/a1mC0000002NxGLIA0/stepha-neidenbach