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.
Historically, 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:
— LabWorm (@TheLabWorm) September 21, 2015
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:
— Rick Borchelt (@RickBorchelt) September 21, 2015
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.