Do scientists need Twitter verification to be credible?


A recent blog post by Andrew Kurjata asks some questions that many people have considered. Why does Twitter’s explanation of the sort of people who can be ‘verified’ not include scientists or knowledge brokers? Are politicians, singers and actors more worthy of public interest than scientists? No, of course they’re not. So why are we putting so much faith in the blue tick in the first place?

When I joined Twitter a few years ago individuals couldn’t ask to be verified. Instead, Twitter would “reach out” to eligible accounts when the time was right. I distinctly remember the words used. How snobby, I thought. The implicit assumption was that “reaching out” would occur when the account was deemed famous enough.

Now, the policy has changed, probably because Twitter employees got sick of spending all day reaching out to famous people on Twitter. Now anyone can ask for a blue tick of approval (but not everyone gets it).

Does this change the distribution of people that get verified? As with most awards and honours, women, minorities, or introverts are less likely to self-nominate for prestige, even if they righteously deserve it.

If you read Twitter’s guidelines carefully, it’s pretty clear what they consider blue-tick worthy. As this post suggests, the information you provide in your ‘application’ probably influences your chances too. Yes, it’s all totally subjective and silly. But, for what it’s worth, verification approval seems to be a function of newsworthiness and public impact.

And there’s the rub. Shouldn’t scientists [insert discipline-specific academic here] have public impact? Yes they should, but I think Twitter’s thinking of a different kind of impact. Scientists aren’t celebrities or multinational businesses and we shouldn’t expect them to be. It’s not about scientific knowledge, but more about identity. Remember, Twitter verification came about after the manager of a US baseball team sued Twitter because someone impersonated his account.

Just to be clear, I’m not against Twitter verification, and I’m not dissing scientists that get it. But I don’t think it’s helpful to encourage thinking that blue ticks are necessary for a scientist to be credible. The argument that scientists need to be verified because ‘people are more likely to believe blue ticked accounts’ isn’t a good enough reason. The Case of the Disappearing Critical Analysis Skills is a serious problem (where’s Nancy Drew when you need her?). So arguing that getting verified is important for public understanding of science is just perpetuating the problem.

From the other side of the coin, what does the push for ‘verified scientists’ achieve for the scientific community? There are plenty of unverified scientists on Twitter who have more knowledge of their field than some of the verified ones. And there are also thousands of very credible experts who aren’t on Twitter at all. So encouraging journalists to seek out blue tick scientists for comment, or implying that non-specialists should only follow scientists with a blue tick, isn’t really best practice for science communication.

Scientists don’t need verification from a social media company to be relevant and interesting. And knowledge-seekers don’t need a blue tick to tell them who’s worth following.

Credibility is highly context-dependent and there are a whole lot of, often uncontrollable, reasons why people believe one person over another. But here are some tips that can encourage engagement beyond the blue tick:

Anyone seeking specialist information on Twitter:

Don’t rely on Twitter.

Follow disciplinary societies, e.g. for ecology & entomology disciplines: @EcolSocAus @ESA_org @BritishEcolSoc @royalsociety @nzecology @irish_ecology @CanEntomologist @Aust_Ent_Soc @RoyEntSoc @EntsocAmerica +++ many more! Search for more in Twitter by using the search box and clicking the ‘People’ tab – try variations of disciplinary terms + ‘society’ as a good starting point.

Search the ‘People’ tab for relevant keywords as either plain text or hashtags. This is a great way to find experts in particular fields. It works best for more specific terms, e.g. search for ‘pollination ecology’, ‘plant pollinator’ or ‘wild pollinators’, instead of ‘bees’.

Engage with organised Twitter chats to find broad perspectives, e.g. #agchatoz, #ECRchat, plus plenty of others.

From a scientist’s Twitter page, look up their website, or search for them on Google Scholar, to find out what they work on.

Follow annual conference hashtags. These change every year, but follow disciplinary societies to keep up with the latest

Scientists on Twitter:

Include relevant keywords for your expertise in your bio. Include hashtags or @accountnames of employers or affiliates. This makes it easier for people to find you by searching.

Include a link to a personal website or blog so people can look you up. If you don’t already have a Google Scholar page, set one up and use the link. It’s the easiest way for people to find your research online.

Include your institution in your bio or location field, either by name or linkable @accountname.

Consider using a pinned tweet to explain your research area. You can pin any tweet you post with the dropdown arrow at the top right of the posted tweet. Twitter posts are extremely front-weighted by time, but pinned tweets always appear at the top of your timeline, regardless of when they were posted. This is a great tool to explain what your expertise is, or highlight a paper or research website, to new followers months down the track.

© Manu Saunders 2017

3 thoughts on “Do scientists need Twitter verification to be credible?

  1. Gob of Goo June 19, 2017 / 5:35 AM

    I don’t include my institutional affiliation on my Twitter page because I don’t want some people to think that I am speaking for, or that my tweets are endorsed by, my institution- that my tweets represent my personal opinion alone. And have been advised by many to do that. Is that wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders June 19, 2017 / 8:36 AM

      I think it’s generally understood that your opinions on social media are personal, not representing your employer. Perhaps find out if your institution has a policy on academics/professional staff giving comment in public. Some people also include a disclaimer in their bio if concerned, e.g. ‘thoughts are my own, not my employer’s’.

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