The Twitter health news hype machine

The following is a guest post by Earle Holland, who, for almost 35 years, was the senior science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University. He’s now a member of our editorial team who contributes regularly to the blog. 

tweet buttonHistorically, the value of news has rested with its immediacy. Sure, content and accuracy affect it but at the end of the day, news is primarily what is new to the reader, viewer or listener. And that’s what has made Twitter such a seemingly wonderful tool for journalists and the public.

Anyone can now share their “news” — well, at least 140-characters’ worth — with like-minded followers numbering in the dozens, thousands, or millions, depending on the sender’s popularity. But when it comes to news relating to health and medicine, the ability for anyone to immediately disseminate new findings so broadly can also become a disadvantage, and the negative effects can have far-reaching implications. Consider a case in point.

Last week, a news release emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) news office explaining a complicated molecular biology discovery that might have significant ramifications for medicine.

The release said engineers there had “developed a modular system of proteins that can detect a particular DNA sequence in a cell and then trigger a specific response, such as cell death.” It added that the system “can be customized to detect any DNA sequence in a mammalian cell and then trigger a desired response, including killing cancer cells or cells infected with a virus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Methods, basically described a new tool that biology researchers could use to affect cellular mechanisms, but the work was done in cell cultures, not animals, much less humans.

But for an outfit called LabWorm, that explanation needed more pizzazz!  Here’s how they tweeted out the findings:

That was just too much for Rick Borchelt, communications director for the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy. His tweet countered:

Borchelt has done communications in the past for the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Academy of Sciences and a host of other big-league science institutions. To him, Twitter is a useful tool for explaining science only in certain circumstances.

And LabWorm‘s blaring, over-the-top treatment of a sober research news release wasn’t one of them.

“My biggest concern, I think, about Twitter use in health and medical news is that medical news is very bounded by constraints, caveats and nuance,” he said. “Even with the most careful of tweets, unless the viewer goes to the original documentation being discussed, they just completely fall flat!”

He says his biggest gripe is when a medical or health tweet fails to provide a link to the original source. “Don’t tell me the recommendations of a medical study without giving me the links to the study so I can look at the research myself.”

LabWorm, of course, did provide a link. But clicking through only served to undermine the “gee whiz” aspect of their own tweet. The MIT release was quite conservative in its claims, unlike LabWorm’s tweet. But then again, that really doesn’t seem to bother LabWorm. A quick look at a few of their recent tweets offers superlatives by the bushel — “truly alarming,” “unique,” “breakthrough technology,” “brilliant idea” — in other words, a steady diet of breathlessness.

But that is, frankly, one of the main purposes of Twitter, or at least as its use has evolved — to function as “click-bait” to draw readers to another site for more information. And Borchelt agrees that’s an acceptable use in some cases, but that it can also lead to all sorts of unfortunate hyping of material. In the medical and health news department, that seems to be a continuing problem.

LabWorm explains itself as a kind of one-stop shop site for scientists “to find the best online tools and be the first to discover up-and-coming new websites, helping you stay ahead of your peers.” And that may well be the case. But for a site intent on informing scientists to play loose with the facts in its tweets merely to enhance their click-bait value — well, that’s disheartening.

Exaggeration, or hype if you will, may well draw in new readers, but that gain can be quickly lost if those readers feel that they’ve been misled.

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Comments (4)

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October 2, 2015 at 10:56 am

Dear Earle,

I would like to start off by saying that, although LabWorm is at the center of this less than favorable critique, we are the first to agree with you and believe this is a very valid and important discussion. We concur with most of the arguments that have been raised here regarding the risk of damaging the quality of news content with the inflation of superlatives on twitter. We appreciate your bringing of this issue to our awareness and thank you for fully clarifying the bigger picture behind Rick Borchelts important comment.

Although this is a big issue that concerns widespread practices in the community, I can offer a view into the decisions that were made at LabWorm. LabWorm is actually the “new kid on the block” and a young venture that is still at an early stage of platform development (we launched a version open to the public just about a month ago). It is important to mention that although we hope to contribute to a very serious vision of democratizing science, making it more open and connected with a content-organizing social platform for scientists, we continually state to our users/followers that we will be taking on less of an orthodox/formal and more of a “make science fun” enthusiastic approach. We don’t hide this and one can guess this just by the name “LabWorm”, our cartoonish logo, and part of our design branding style.

We also agree with you that the specific tweet that was mentioned in your post did in fact have an extra touch of enthusiasm and “pizzazz” that was probably unnecessary. You see, our founding team includes scientists with PhDs in bioinformatics, immunology, and cancer research and we are what you may call ״science nerds״ that live, breathe, and love science. We also have a special interest in synthetic biology and the paper published in Nature Methods by the team from MIT specifically triggered quite a lot of excitement and deep discussions in our team. Just as a side note, although the tweet was over “hyped”, we in fact do perceive the novel system that was developed and published in that paper, that could sense specific DNA sequences to elicit any desired effector functions, to be a breakthrough technology that could be the basis of designing “future” treatments for cancer and HIV, as was tweeted. The tech is still in its infancy, but as you mentioned, the 140 character tweet limit pretty much confined us to just a basic message without being able to drill into the details. We also think that MIT conveyed this research in an overly “conservative” tone, but that is only our opinion.

To reiterate, we perceive the issues you raised in the post to be of real importance and have seriously taken them to heart in rethinking our strategy and manner of communicating news. We will be closely following this very interesting and important discussion for future developments on what course of action can be taken to change the current culture of communication. We are sure that bringing this topic to public awareness is a crucial step in this effort.

Co-founder and COO
at LabWorm

    October 4, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    First off, thanks for responding to the post. Corporate citizens have the same rights, and therefore the same responsibilities, as we mere human citizens. I also realize that this also gives you an opportunity to explain to a new readership (HNR’s) LabWorm’s business plan, which can’t hurt when reinforcing your brand.

    One of the first lessons that good science communicators learn – and I’ve been doing this now for more than 40 years – is that science is a slow, cautious, deliberative effort that requires patience and an excessive devotion to evidence. Exuberance is a minefield that good researchers avoid, or at least they should, at all costs. Frankly, your stated intent – “we will be taking on less of an orthodox/formal and more of a ‘make science fun’ enthusiastic approach” – seems odd when your target is scientists, professionals who devote their lives to disassembling the clockworks of the universe. They’re meticulous but driven. Few need help to make science “fun.”

    And I get the fact that as you say, ”our founding team includes scientists with PhDs in bioinformatics, immunology, and cancer research and we are what you may call ‘science nerds’ that live, breathe, and love science.” That also describes the mindset of most science communicators, and while only some of them do have doctoral degrees, most have graduate degrees in the sciences and/or decades of experience digesting research findings and accurately explaining them to the public. So, respectfully, saying you’re excited about science is simply no justification for hyping it!

    You say that you have a “very serious vision of democratizing science, making it more open and connected,” but I fail to see how exaggerating findings and their importance will lead to that. Science is already one of the most democratic activities in modern society. Anyone can ponder whatever question they choose by using the tools of science. The only requirement is that they adhere to what science demands – an excessive allegiance to data and evidence and a cautious stance in interpreting results.

    And that’s why this issue of hyping science via Twitter is so critical – it’s just so damn easy to do! If your explanation for the overhyped tweet LabWorm posted regarding the MIT research in question — and others I see at your site — is that you were just so very excited, then I suggest you seriously curb that excitement. The public, including scientists who seek sites like yours, deserve clear, accurate and unemotional information regarding discovery. They’ve been disappointed by premature claims too many times in the past. Let them decide on their own level of excitement.__EH


      October 7, 2015 at 4:32 am

      Earle, we very much appreciate this open discussion about the culture of science communication and the respectful manner at which you deliver it (as opposed to twitter remarks we received following our comment which we found to be less constructive). Moreover, and to reiterate what I mentioned in my earlier response, the issues you raised in your post resonated with us and we are in agreement with you on these. The points in my comment weren’t intended to contend the negative effects of over hyping, rather to simply offer you a background view of what led to the “overly enthusiastic” tweet that instigated this discussion. This discussion was a good opportunity to think over and better familiarize ourselves with this sensitive issue and the implications involved.

      Interestingly, this discussion touches important points that LabWorm focuses on. With the advent of blogging and the web 2.0, the landscape of communicating ideas, including scicomm, has dramatically transformed. Today, anyone can voice any opinion on any matter in any form, giving rise to millions of new styles for communicating science, some of which we may not be accustomed to or even be to our liking. This freedom to voice opinions may have deleterious effects, such as misleading content, however this power of immediate and open communication disseminates knowledge that nurtures incomparable innovation and advancement of new ideas.

      At LabWorm, we are fascinated by these developments and want to contribute to this important trend. LabWorm is a platform whose aim is to catalyze collaborations and facilitate sharing of knowledge, currently not related to scicomm, but to online resources. By leveraging the power of the community, we can assist scientists to locate and discover crucial online resources that help them stay current and advance their research. Additionally, we have various ideas on how we would like to further advance this concept by facilitating the sharing and reviewing of scientific data by the community without intermediaries (what I meant by “democratizing” with no relation to the twitter hyping). With regard to your question, our entire focus currently is on growth and developing the platform in a way that will provide the most utility to scientists and at the same time remain open and free.
      We thank you again for the opportunity to discuss these interesting topics.

October 7, 2015 at 1:00 pm


You wrote that, “This freedom to voice opinions may have deleterious effects, such as misleading content, however this power of immediate and open communication disseminates knowledge that nurtures incomparable innovation and advancement of new ideas.”

This idea that the need for accuracy, for precision of language, and for the elimination of hyped claims is superceded by the possibility of innovation is simply beyond my ability to comprehend. And the fact that you continue to use the supposed potential for progress as a justification for inaccurate and overstated claims is boggling.

I get the idea that you want LabWorm to be valuable to scientists. Just remember that scientists work with data, not exaggeration. The most altruistic of intents is no excuse for overstating evidence.__EH