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Social media platforms – including Reddit, Wikipedia and other emerging outlets such as Snapchat – are distinct from traditional broadcast and print media. But they’ve become powerful tools for communicating rapidly and without intermediary gatekeepers, like editors.

The problem is that social media is also a great way to spread misinformation, too. Millions of Americans shape their ideas on complex and controversial scientific questions – things like personal genetic testing, genetically modified foods and their use of antibiotics – based on what they see on social media. Even many traditional news organizations and media outlets report incomplete aspects of scientific studies, or misinterpret the findings and highlight unusual claims. Once these items enter into the social media echo chamber, they’re amplified. The facts become lost in the shuffle of competing information, limited attention or both.

A recent workshop about Social Media Effects on Scientific Controversies that we convened through the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Boston University fielded a panel of interdisciplinary experts to discuss their own experiences and research in communicating science online. These public scholars examined the extent to which social media has disrupted scientific understanding. Most indicated it’s more possible than ever for researchers to participate meaningfully in public debates and contribute to the creation and diffusion of scientific knowledge – but social media presents many pitfalls along the way.

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