Good Faith, Bad Tweet: A Case Study in Science Communication on Twitter
TL;DR: Complex, controversial conversations on Twitter aren’t impossible, but remember that everyone can see it – not just your target audience.
Why I chose this topic: The other day, my friend sent me a meme that said the best way to use Twitter is to have a Friend on Twitter share the latest news on the platform with you and save yourself the suffering. It was sad (I’m the designated Friend on Twitter), but true. I attended the Braver Angels depolarization workshop at Sci Comm Con 2022, and watching this controversy play out in real time at the same time was eye-opening.
On August 16, 2022, Hank Green, a high-profile science communicator and vlogger, posted a Twitter thread about the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. The thread itself is straightforward, covering a brief overview of climate change and how the Inflation Reduction Act proposes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It’s also pretty good pop-sci-comm: it’s written in accessible language; peppered with memes, gifs, and eye-catching graphics; and the writing style is conversational, aspirational, and clear.
It was not well received. In fact, the pushback was extreme enough that the second tweet in the thread – the most incendiary portion – has since been deleted.
This is not a story about Hank Green as an individual, or the validity of his deleted tweet. Rather, it is interesting to view this situation as a case study on depolarization, expectancy violation, Twitter as a platform for critical conversations, and what we as science communicators can learn from it.
Depolarization and Expectancy Violation
It’s no secret that social media is highly polarized. Whether we like it or not, internet algorithms funnel us all into increasingly specific filter bubbles, which not only affects how we might view the news, but whether or not we even see a viewpoint at all. Although the term was first coined in 2011, online segregation has only increased since, to the extent that online conservatives and liberals seem to live in completely different, hyper-politicized realities. On Twitter, for example, the same topic can develop two discrete conversations – one for liberals, one for conservatives – with almost no overlap between the two. This, coupled with years of politically-driven efforts to discredit mainstream journalism has led to the rise of “alternative facts” and a tendency among conservatives to more readily trust fake news.
These conditions can make productive discussion difficult even at the best of times, and with especially urgent and politicized topics – such as COVID-19, vaccination, climate change – tensions can run high. Organizations like Braver Angels specialize in teaching techniques to depolarize these conversations and reduce tensions. This is an invaluable skill in efforts to reach people who are skeptical of science.
Depolarization heavily depends on empathy, a willingness to engage with the “opposite side,” and the separation of people and ideas. At the heart of it is the understanding that there is common ground between even the most fervent political ideologues. Depolarization techniques can not only bring down the temperature of a conversation, but they can also positively impact the way a message is perceived through expectancy violation: if someone expects an argument, being met with an empathetic approach is an unexpected but welcome change that increases their willingness to listen.
Hank Green’s Twitter thread was directed toward an audience that may be apathetic to, skeptical of, or just uninformed about climate change and the Inflation Reduction Act, and he accordingly used depolarizing techniques throughout the thread. In the second tweet, specifically, he attempted to position climate change as a problem that has arisen from technologies that have increased our quality of life, and “not something that evil people did to us.” This, likely, was meant to appeal to audiences that may be alienated by language that vilifies people who rely on fossil fuels or work in the oil and gas industry.
The problem, of course, was that Green’s thread traveled beyond the target audience.
Expectancy violations work both ways: an unexpected tone from a science communicator can cause a negative reaction and lead to a less favorable reading of the message. In this case, Green’s tweet was poorly received by people who agreed with him.
Braver Angels teaches depolarization in conversations with people on the opposing side and people on the same side, but the approaches differ. In depolarizing discussions with people who agree with you, it is imperative to not look too conciliatory to the opposing side. Climate change is an urgent, fraught issue, and decades of ineffective legislation and willful corporate inaction have only compounded the danger. Readers who appreciate the imminent threat of climate change and how it has arisen balked at Green’s characterization of the problem. It is possible that the expectancy violation here led to an increased vitriolic response.
The next day, Green deleted the original tweet and rewrote it, keeping the same sentiment while removing the especially incendiary language, but the damage at that point was already done.
What We Can Learn Here
Twitter has a known problem with productive dialogue. As a public forum, it provides unparalleled reach for communicators, but that means that conversations can’t really be directed to a particular audience. Furthermore, engagement on Twitter incentivizes spreading controversy and inciting arguments – and drama far outlives the original tweet, which can reach fresh audiences even days later.
For science communicators, Twitter is an invaluable tool in the social media arsenal that provides the opportunity to share full essays in bite-sized chunks to massively broad audiences. However, critical conversations on this platform should be treated with extra caution, as the very idea of depolarization – finding common ground with political opponents – is seen as polarizing.
As Twitter user maplecocaine posted three years ago and remains correct every single day since, “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”
Edited by Stephanie Deppe