Scientists take on Twitter

Social media comes into its own as a tool and a subject for study


You might say science “friended” social media this year. But like many friendships, this one has its ups and downs.

Photo: Hill Street Studios; Birds: E. Feliciano; bunting: DNY59/Istockphoto

On the one hand, platforms such as Twitter proved useful tools for tracking particular events in real time. Scientists at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston found, for example, that tweets about the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti tracked closely with official health reports (SN: 2/25/12, p. 16). Twitter chatter about the flu also closely matched the spread of the disease. And tapping into earthquake-related tweets allowed U.S. Geological Survey researchers to create a rough map of the shakiest spots in California’s 2009 Morgan Hill earthquake.

In addition to exploring social media’s value as a proxy for on-the-ground data, scientists also scrutinized the outlets for their intrinsic power in shaping behavior. Facebook stepped up: A massive experiment during the 2010 U.S. congressional elections found that people who received a message that a friend had voted were more likely to vote themselves (SN: 10/20/12, p. 12). Social media also played an important role in informing citizens about goings-on during the protests and uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring (SN: 3/10/12, p. 9).

But scientists also documented how social media can spread misleading and acrimonious political information (SN: 10/20/12, p. 22). While the effects of propagating false claims in the lead-up to elections isn’t clear, scientists worry about the potential for the social platforms to be used deceitfully to influence behavior at the voting booth.

These studies are meaningful not only for their particular findings, but also because they had findings at all. “We’ve undergone a transformation in the last five to six years,” says Sinan Aral of New York University, who studies the role, spread and influence of information. “There’s been an explosion of digital signals that people are exposed to.”

That explosion probably has big implications, but working out the specifics isn’t easy. Scientists are still figuring out what methods do and don’t work for studying social media. Setting up a control group, for example, to narrow down what’s causing an effect is relatively straightforward in a lab experiment. Not so for social media, where information can easily “leak” and influence a control group. And compared with molecules or proteins, human players in social media studies are diverse, dynamic and hard to pin down. Sigh. #itscomplicated.

Online reader favorites 
The editors of Science News keep weekly tabs on Web traffic, and sometimes the stories that draw lots of eyes surprise us. Here’s a selection of highly clicked stories that didn’t make it into this year’s Top 25.

Marshmallow test  A study put a new twist on a classic test of willpower, in which kids are asked to forgo a marshmallow now for two later. It turns out that kids who have learned to trust the marshmallow-giver are more likely to hold out than those who have reason to think the experimenter unreliable (SN: 11/17/12, p. 10).

Moon swirls  Mysterious designs on the lunar surface might be created by magnetic bubbles that protect some areas from the darkening effect of solar wind. When the wind hits the magnetic bubbles, an electric field is generated that creates a shield (SN: 8/11/12, p. 8).

Music evolves  Inspired by natural selection in bacteria, an online experiment finds that cacophonous sounds can become musical within just 500 “generations.” People chose pleasing sounds from a set of random noises, allowing those sounds to mutate and move to the next round (SN: 7/28/12, p. 12).

Other dimensions didn’t make it  It doesn’t make string theory any easier to follow, but theorists find that at least six of string theory’s extra spatial dimensions would have become stunted in the early universe, leaving the familiar three (SN Online: 1/13/12).

Synesthetic superchimp  A chimp that’s freakishly good at recalling numbers may have an unfair advantage: synesthesia, which allows him to see numbers in colors (SN: 7/28/12, p. 9).

Return to 2012 Science News Top 25

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