Far-right networks ‘sizeable’ Twitter audience for some pre-prints

Study says findings are ‘concrete evidence to support concerns about racist and sexist misappropriation of research’

September 22, 2020
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Far-right social media communities appeared to make up a “sizeable” share of the Twitter audience posting about dozens of papers published on a pre-print server, a new study has found.

In some cases, more than half the tweets posted in reference to a paper could be associated with such networks, according to research on the Twitter impact of 1,800 papers on bioRxiv, a pre-print server for the biological sciences.

For the study, two Seattle-based researchers collected 330,000 tweets on the bioRxiv papers and analysed keywords in the Twitter biographies of those following the tweeters. This allowed them to identify social networks associated with those tweeting, whether inside or outside the academic community

Generally, the researchers found that discussions about the vast majority of the pre-print papers (96 per cent) were dominated by an academic audience.

However, they also discovered that some papers, especially in particular topic areas such as genetics and neuroscience, attracted a significant number of tweets from users who could be linked to extremist right-wing networks.

In all, they found that “10% of the preprints analyzed have sizable (>5%) audience sectors that are associated with right-wing white nationalist communities”.

“Although none of these preprints appear to intentionally espouse any right-wing extremist messages, cases exist in which extremist appropriation comprises more than 50% of the tweets referencing a given preprint,” the paper, published in PLOS Biology, adds.

The authors added that the results provided “concrete evidence to support concerns about racist and sexist misappropriation of research that have been expressed by academic organizations, news media, and scientists themselves”.

Lead author Jedidiah Carlson, postdoctoral fellow in the department of genome sciences at the University of Washington, said he and his co-author, Kelley Harris of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, had not been surprised that far-right extremists were associated with comments around their own field of human population genetics.

But they had been taken aback by almost every bioRxiv category having at least some pre-prints attracting such communities, with the social media audience for a few papers “completely overwhelmed” by these groups.

“I think this speaks to the broader trend of reactionaries and conspiracy theory adherents recognising that people can be more easily convinced to adopt radical beliefs if those beliefs are disguised as rational and empirical and supported by ‘scientific’ evidence...even if those interpretations are fundamentally flawed and in disagreement with the scientific consensus,” Dr Carlson told Times Higher Education.

He added that engaging such far-right networks directly to correct their use of the science could be counterproductive, but there were practical ways for academics to mitigate such misappropriation of their work.

He said “scientists should see this as an opportunity to improve the rigour and accessibility of their work and more actively engage the community outside of academia” while also acknowledging the problem was a “step in the right direction”.

“It’s easy to pretend these audiences don’t exist, but our study clearly shows otherwise. It is my hope that our study sparks conversations among scientists that lead to more creative and effective usage of social media as a platform where we can share our work and positively engage with lay audiences,” added Dr Carlson.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

new
"“I think this speaks to the broader trend of reactionaries and conspiracy theory adherents recognising that people can be more easily convinced to adopt radical beliefs if those beliefs are disguised as rational and empirical and supported by ‘scientific’ evidence...even if those interpretations are fundamentally flawed and in disagreement with the scientific consensus,” Dr Carlson told Times Higher Education." Ah so the 'left' can use 'scientific evidence' along with claiming 'scientific consensus' as much as they like, and do, but not those who are not 'left'? Is it any wonder so many see the Sciences as a distant disapproving elite far removed from the daily realities of life, "He added that engaging such far-right networks directly to correct their use of the science could be counterproductive" failure to do so only proves the point.

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