The “progressive” professors have done it. They are to blame for the diversity thing that plagues the universities. Thus tweeted Twitter boss Elon Musk in one of his numerous belches on the platform. Since it was taken over by the American billionaire (124.1 million followers), it has been experiencing turbulent times. An exodus of users has begun, especially to the Mastodon platform.
Dutch progressive scientists do not seem to be planning to leave for the time being. Historian and professor Leo Lucassen of Leiden University, a regular voice in online discussions about migration, (29,000 followers) has created a Mastodon account, he says, but continues to consider Twitter important “as a send and get platform for opinions and information”. Less for exchange, he says, “but it wasn’t before Musk either.”
His fellow historian from Leiden Nadia Bouras, also a prominent progressive voice online (40,500 followers), is not thinking about leaving. Bouras: “Twitter does not belong to Elon Musk, but to all of us.” She “is very attached” to the platform, “to keep abreast of the news and to comment and follow. Over the years I have built up a large network, which has given me a lot of great things.”
Force of action group
Other academics are also looking at it. Professor of Ethics Ingrid Robins Utrecht University has created a Mastodon account „as a precautionary measure‟, but is still watching the cat out of the tree. Robeyns (7,600 followers) emphasizes that Twitter can also have an activist function. She was active in the action group WOinActie, which campaigned for different financing of universities. She attributes the fact that their budget has been increased by the cabinet partly to the clout that the action group was able to develop on Twitter.
Since its launch in 2006, this platform has also grown into a channel for Dutch scientists to draw attention to their own and other people’s work and to participate in forming opinions. The Covid pandemic has fueled that: researchers have been able to share and discuss data faster than is possible in the usual, slow peer review process for scientific publications.
But is Twitter working to bring science to a wider audience? Not nearly enough, says the Leiden information scientist Rodrigo Costas (1,980 followers). Research he conducted with colleagues from the Leiden Center for Science and Technology Studies CWTS shows that approximately one third of scientific publications in a year receive a reference on Twitter. More than half of articles about Covid-19 were mentioned on Twitter.
But mentioning is not discussing or sending it around yet. An earlier exploratory study by Costas and colleagues shows that tweets to scientific articles often do not or hardly lead to engagement: Of a million links to articles, almost half, 49.4 percent, were not clicked at all. Many others only got one or two clicks. The researchers conclude that Twitter still “plays a relatively ineffective role” in publicizing the results of scientific research.
It should come as no surprise that humanities and humanities scientists in particular set the tone in discussions on Twitter, says Costas. There is a certain ‘epistemic affinity’ of those disciplines with the public debate.
Especially when it comes to “translating” science to a wider audience, “there is still a lot of room for improvement,” says Costas. He sees a role for university libraries and communication departments in teaching researchers how to make better use of such platforms. The decentralized design of Mastodon can also be attractive to scientists. Costas and colleagues have now set up their own platform for CWTS employees.
And the toxic comments and hatred on social media? Dutch scientists are now all too familiar with this. Marion Koopmans, the best-known Dutch virologist on Twitter (83,500 followers), regrets that the medium is “snowed under by the dredging”. She also now has a Mastodon account, but says: “I find that much less accessible. I really hope that the global open network returns once the current storm blows over a bit.”
Radical right trolls
Security expert and emeritus professor Robert de Wijk (55,900 followers), leading commentator on the war in Ukraine, is skeptical about this. He says: “Ninety percent of the responses are rubbish.” De Wijk estimates that about five hundred of his followers are radical right-wing trolls who systematically “sell nonsense and send you curses.” He has the impression that things have gotten worse after the arrival of Musk: “Twitter should not be anonymous. It has now become a medium that you would rather do without.”
Media researcher Peter Burger (23,200 followers) recognizes it, but it is slightly different for him: hate is part of his research. Twitter is “the place where I can follow and connect with politicians, researchers and journalists and where I meet many knowledgeable, kind and wise people. Even as disinformation and the numbers of trolls, anti-Semites and other conspiracy theorists increase, it’s still the place to be for my work. Right then.”