Who’s the Joke For: Humor and Satire in SciComm

Title: No Laughing Matter: Exploring the Effects of Scientists’ Humor Use on Twitter and the Moderating Role of Superiority

Author(s) and Year: Annie L. Zhang, Hang Lu (2022)

Journal: Science Communication (closed access)

TL;DR: This study looks at the way humor interacts with science communication on Twitter in the context of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Its goal was to explore the ways different populations respond to different types of humor (aggressive and non-aggressive types) in science communication and to understand the effects various factors have on that response. The study found that, while the effects were not significant overall, the shift in tone caused by the use of humor while correcting mRNA vaccine misinformation drove a decrease in tweet engagement.

Why I chose this paper: I think humor and the commonization of science is deeply important to our advancement as a global society, so I wanted to learn more about how humor engaged explicitly with it.


Background


Humor is hard to define and yet deeply intuitive. Whether it’s being used to help navigate traumatic experiences or to empower calls to action about climate change activism, humor is a large part of how many people interact with the world and is increasingly becoming a vehicle for both science communication and science misinformation. For science communication, the use of humor represents a departure from the more standard sober tone of science - which comes with benefits and challenges.


The Study


This study explores how audiences on Twitter respond to humor when used to correct misinformation about COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. With misinformation being propagated on social media sites like Twitter, many scientists have turned towards trying to refute that information on those same platforms. Nearly 300,00 scientists use Twitter to share their research, many of them now beginning to incorporate humor into their messages. Because of the ubiquity of misinformation on Twitter and the rising effort to oppose this from scientists, the writers of this study chose to focus on Twitter to explore their research question, highlighting mRNA vaccine misinformation as an extremely pertinent misinformation battle we are currently fighting.


The Terms


This study establishes four major definitions that are essential to understanding the results - two categories of humor, pure humor and satire, and two factors expected to modify the way that these categories of humor affect different audiences, expectancy violation and superiority.


The categories of humor were chosen to specifically highlight the effects of aggressiveness in humor or the lack thereof rather than cast any moral judgment. In this study, satire, which can be defined as “aggression and judgment towards a particular target offset by a witty and playful approach”, also refers to forms of humor such as irony and sarcasm that have an element of social aggressiveness in the way they’re used. Pure humor, contrastingly, represents nonaggressive forms of humor. Examples include things like wordplay, slapstick humor, and other types designed “purely” to elicit mirth.


The two modifying factors were chosen based on the researchers’ expectations of what might impact the way humor related to its audience. Expectancy violation is the reaction elicited by a person behaving in a way that departs from expectations and social norms. For example, a person might experience expectancy violation seeing a businessperson singing songs at their desk. Superiority is the idea that people enjoy feeling superior to others and seek to enhance their own pride and status for the sake of their self-esteem. People have varying levels of superiority, and this can be seen in a person that enjoys being in-the-know about something that the rest of the population is not.


The study ultimately asks the question of how these three things (humor type, expectancy violation, and superiority) will interact to affect a person’s response to and engagement with tweets countering vaccine misinformation. They hypothesized that expectancy violation would alter how people engaged with humorous tweets, potentially lowering overall engagement, and asked the question of how superiority might moderate that effect.


Methods


About 500 initial participants were recruited through Prolific, an online study recruitment platform. The participants were about 70% white, 60% educated to at least a bachelor’s degree level, and 3 out of 4 of them used Twitter several times a week. About a third of them followed at least one scientist on Twitter.


Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups corresponding to no humor (the control), pure humor, and satire. Each group received a tweet utilizing their group’s humor type (no humor received a straightforward tweet countering a vaccine misconception, pure humor received a tweet making an analogy between the mRNA vaccine and an FBI agent, and the satire group received a tweet mocking anti-vaxxers before clarifying a misconception).


The participants then responded to questions on whether they would comment, like, or retweet the tweet they saw, and then answered questions about their attitudes towards the mRNA vaccine, superiority, expectancy violation, and the tweet’s perceived humorousness and aggressiveness afterwards.


Results


The study found that expectancy violation did mediate the relationship between the three humor types and tweet engagement/vaccine attitudes. The humor tweets, as opposed to the no humor tweet, elicited expectancy violation in participants, which decreased tweet engagement and increased negative attitudes about the vaccine. Satire was found to elicit more expectancy violation than pure humor, though both elicited the response. Interestingly, the study also found that the superiority of the participant also moderated this relationship. Participants with higher levels of superiority experienced lower levels of expectancy violation.


Ultimately, the study did not find significant overall differences in tweet engagement and vaccine attitudes between the three humor categories, finding the expectancy violation’s effect to be indirect at most. The authors of the study theorized that our larger social context means that the effects of any one tweet would be limited.


Takeaway


This study suggests that an unintended backfire effect might emerge from using humor as a science communication technique in certain situations. Given the effect of expectancy violation on the reception of humorous tweets, scientists need to be cognizant of the fact that individuals may still expect scientists to communicate more neutrally. While this study had multiple limitations, it provides a nuanced view of the use of humor in a real and pertinent case and sets the stage for future research to better understand how to use humor to communicate with audiences.


Edited by Tony van Witsen

Cover picture by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay