First Monday

Tweeting on thin ice: Scientists in dialogic climate change communication with the public by Lucia Casiraghi, Eugene Kim, and Noriko Hara



Abstract
This study examines the dynamics of engagement between climate scientists and the public on Twitter, focusing on two primary research questions: first, how do the themes, attributes, and communication styles of climate scientists’ posts influence online climate change dialogues on social media? Second, what role do the public’s attitudes, opinions, and engagement features play in shaping these online dialogues? Employing a mixed-methods approach, including both quantitative and qualitative content analyses, we explored the content of tweets from four climate scientists and the public’s replies to these posts. We found that the narrative styles of scientists and the thematic content of their posts significantly influence public engagement, with visual elements playing a key role in amplifying their positive effects. The public’s responses, characterized by a diverse range of attitudes and opinions, highlight the complexity of engaging a broad audience in climate change discussions. Ultimately, the study concludes that effective science communication on social media requires a nuanced understanding of audience perceptions, strategic utilization of visual elements, and a focus on fostering dialogic and participatory conversations, as advocated by the public engagement with science (PES) model. This approach not only enhances public engagement with scientific content but also promotes broader civic awareness and participation in scientific dialogues about climate change, especially on social media platforms like Twitter.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Methods
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The growing urgency of climate change is evident today. Many have observed its effects personally, and numerous communities are increasingly viewing it as a crisis (Spence, et al., 2012; Ojala, et al., 2021). Communicating this issue has been, however, challenging due to its complexity, abstract nature, and emotional reactions (Markowitz and Guckian, 2018).

Recognizing these challenges, the scientific community is now actively emphasizing the urgency of climate change and advocating for more direct engagement with the public through science communication to understand the issue (Walter, et al., 2019). In response, an increasing number of climate scientists are using digital media to engage the public with scientific topics (Martin and MacDonald, 2020). However, the adoption of digital media per se does not ensure that scientific information becomes accessible for public engagement. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has incorporated some innovative communication methods, such as links on social media to its frequently asked questions (Lynn and Peeva, 2021). Despite these efforts, the IPCC primarily continues to share findings through research and technical reports of professional caliber. These communications often lack ‘translation’ for the general public and fall short in fostering dialogues that invite public feedback, consequently restricting the broader dissemination and impact of their information. This approach reflects the problems of the traditional one-way communication model, closely tied to the ‘knowledge deficit model’ (Sturgis and Allum, 2004).

Historically, the knowledge deficit model suggests that the public’s lack of interest in, support for, and engagement with scientific issues (in this context, climate change) is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding (Simis, et al., 2016). Therefore, the model focuses on educating the public about scientific facts and theories, delivering information in a one-way flow from scientists to the public, often with the assumption that providing relevant scientific information is sufficient. However, as seen in the case of the IPCC, to engage the public with scientific topics, scientists need to understand how people access and comprehend information through dialogue.

The public engagement with science (PES) model, inspired by science and technology scholars, promotes active lay public participation, championing the “democratization of science” (Chilvers and Kearnes, 2019). In the model, scientists are called upon not only to share knowledge with the public, but also to receive information and feedback from it through outreach programs such as online discussions and science cafés (Varner, 2014). Here, publics are not merely passive recipients, but are actively engrossed or take an active role in scientific processes, from policy-making to dialogues and knowledge creation (Giardullo, et al., 2023).

Climate change science is complex and touches many areas, including society, economy, politics, and culture (Eriksen, et al., 2015). This complexity leads people to have different personal views and concerns about climate change. In this context, it is important to listen to and include what people think, feel, and worry about in scientific discussions about climate change on social media. Doing this is essential to ensuring that climate scientists consider all the different aspects and impacts of climate change.

However, a significant research gap exists in understanding how climate scientists and the public interact on social media. First, previous studies have mainly explored the public’s one-way engagement with scientific topics and content on social media, such as research papers (e.g., Didegah, et al., 2018). Second, there have been fewer studies identifying interactions between peer scientists or focusing strictly on purely scientific topics (e.g., Hara, et al., 2019). Third, dialogues about climate change between scientists and the public that cover diverse aspects of the issue are less explored compared to other topics (e.g., Jünger and Fähnrich, 2019).

Aiming to bridge this research gap, our study investigates social media interactions between climate scientists and the general public. This investigation includes analyzing the thematic and conversational elements of both scientists’ posts and public responses, which evolve into scientific dialogues.

Our investigation primarily focuses on Twitter due to its inherent features that foster dissemination and network-building for science communication (Su, et al., 2017). Literature suggests that scientists’ communication patterns on Twitter extend beyond their peers, reaching journalists, civil society, and policy-makers (Walter, et al., 2019). Our approach combines quantitative and qualitative methods, aiming to uncover ‘transferable’ insights into the dynamics of conversations about climate change between scientists and the public.

To guide our investigation, we formulate the following research questions: how do (a) the themes, attributes, and communication styles of climate scientists’ posts and (b) the public’s response in terms of attitudes, opinions, and features drive engagement in climate change dialogues on Twitter?

 

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Literature review

Social media for science communication

Social media allows not only news media (or journalists), but also scientists and the general public, to share their scientific knowledge and perspectives with the world. Prior research has noted the potential implications of using social media for science communication. More specifically, a group of researchers argued that social media is a tool to facilitate direct and dialogic communication between scientists and the general public, enabling them to share and co-produce scientific knowledge (Einsiedel, 2014; Peters, et al., 2014).

However, the promising outcomes of science communication on social media have not yet been fully realized. Similar to the case of IPCC, Lee and VanDyke (2015) investigated the use of social media by governmental science organizations (e.g., NASA) and found that the organizations used social media just as a one-way platform to disseminate information.

Such a trend might represent the persistence of the knowledge deficit model, which argues that the public’s lack of adequate knowledge about science underlies insufficient societal support for various science and technology issues (Ishihara-Shineha, 2017; Simis, et al., 2016; Suldovski, 2016). According to this model, the responsibility of the scientific communities is to generate high-quality scientific knowledge and disseminate it to the public (via one-way communication), with the primary role of scientists being to simply explain the facts to the public (Broad and Biltekoff, 2023; Simis, et al., 2016; Suldovsky, 2016).

However, the model faces criticism from those asserting that the relationship between science and society (or the public) is not unidirectional, countering the notion that society has no influence on the development of science (Jasanoff, et al., 2001; Suldovsky, 2016).

Furthermore, it is limited in achieving its objective of elucidating scientific facts to the public in order to garner support for science. This limitation stems from its failure to consider the complexity of scientific facts, as merely explaining these facts may not be sufficiently comprehensive for diverse audiences (Broad and Biltekoff, 2023). Additionally, it overlooks the diversity of value systems that shape individuals’ perceptions of necessary actions on scientific issues, which can vary significantly (Broad and Biltekoff, 2023).

In this context, the PES model — which ‘invites’ publics to engage with science through the dialogue between scientists and the public — emerged (Weingart, et al., 2021). This model posits ‘mutual learning’ between scientists and the public (via two-way communication), with the participation of citizens in decision-making and deliberation processes aimed at enhancing the democratic legitimacy of science (Weingart, et al., 2021). With the new perspective, social media is heralded as a practical tool that facilitates the implementation of the PES model in the real world (Stilgoe, et al., 2014).

However, some scholars have still raised concerns about the use of social media for science communication. For example, compared to traditional science communication within the scientific community or via traditional media, where journalists filter the flow of information, science communication facilitated in social media channels may come with sarcasm and incivility, especially when associated with political issues (Anderson and Huntington, 2017).

Polarization also poses a problem in science communications on social media. For example, Chae and Hara (2024) found that discussions regarding COVID-19 on social media differed by political affiliation in the U.S. (i.e., Democrat vs. Republican) in terms of discussed topics and opinions toward the issue. Wang and Song (2020) also indicated the risks of ‘echo chambers’ in social media channels, where discussions tend to echo popular opinions rather than promoting critical thinking and the dissemination of new findings, which are essential to science communication.

It is also important to highlight that earlier studies examined social media through the lens of outdated frameworks. In contrast to the call for more exploration of ‘scientific dialogues’ on social media, this research has often been limited by a strict adherence to the one-way science communication model. These studies have had a tendency to regard ‘reactive’ behaviors, such as liking and retweeting, as forms of public engagement or interaction (e.g., Hwong, et al., 2017). Moreover, they primarily viewed scientists as ‘scientific content creators’, overlooking their roles as ‘audiences’ or ‘participants’ in dialogues (e.g., Holliman, 2011). This perspective reinforced an obsolete one-way communication approach, such as the knowledge deficit model.

However, these challenges should not discourage us from using social media for science communication, given its accessibility and wide-reaching potential (Encarnação, et al., 2021). We argue that they should be addressed by investigating factors that promote effective and dialogic engagement between scientists and the general public, rather than abandoning this valuable tool.

We advocate for greater focus on the two-way dynamics of dialogues between scientists and the public as the preferred form of engagement, in line with the principles of the PES model.

In the field of science communication, social media has been identified as a vehicle for scientific dialogues only in specific contexts. For example, Alghamdi and Alanazi (2019) found that using social media to learn and teach scientific topics, relevant to in-person education, helped students to provide critical feedback, and engage in scientific dialogues and arguments with excitement.

However, researchers in other fields found two-way dialogues on social media beneficial for lay publics in understanding issues and representing their own concerns and opinions. For example, Heldman, et al. (2013) argued that dialogic communication with audiences served by public health communicators enhanced an understanding of these publics’ concerns and opinions. They emphasized that such engagement demonstrated commitment to lay publics in the context of public health, affirming their significance, showing attentiveness, and valuing their opinions. In public relations, Guidry, et al. (2017) investigated the role of dialogues on social media during crises and concluded that establishing frequent, consistent, and interactive communication with the public helps organizations to build trust and encourage the public’s adaptive behaviors.

Drawing on the value of dialogic communications on social media, our aim was to explore conversations between scientists and the public, with the goal of enhancing our understanding of ‘in-depth’, two-way science communication and public engagement on social media.

In our current exploration, we also consider the potential of visual communication in dialogic communications as it is used both by scientists and their audiences. As Rigutto (2017) pointed out, the Web has transformed the way that concepts are communicated, allowing for a rich combination of visual content types (such as pictures, videos, maps, graphs, and animations) that accompany or even substitute for text. Historically, visual science communication aimed to document and disseminate knowledge to bridge cultural gaps. However, in the digital age, visual communication goes beyond the aim of simplifying complex concepts; it recontextualizes scientific matters, presenting them through various lenses according to scientists’ audiences and goals. Moreover, the surge in user-generated content and the popularization of image creation, editing, and dissemination across social media platforms mark a crucial shift in visual culture, allowing non-professionals to contribute to and transform science communication flows.

Twitter as a tool for science communication

Twitter serves as a microblogging platform, enabling users to share short messages, images, videos, and hyperlinks to external Web sites (López-Goñi and Sánchez-Angulo, 2018). Twitter is designed for the creation, exchange, and dissemination of brief statements (with a 280-character limit), positioning it as an ideal platform for sharing information quickly, efficiently, and collaboratively (López-Goñi and Sánchez-Angulo, 2018). Scientists’ information dissemination on Twitter operates as self-curated international knowledge publication, accessible online at no cost, providing real-time, continuously updated information (López-Goñi and Sánchez-Angulo, 2018).

Twitter’s openness (i.e., no need to be friends to read a post) and features facilitate the easy spread of ideas (e.g., retweeting), making it an ideal platform for scientists and the public to discuss scientific topics. Su, et al. (2017) demonstrated its effectiveness in disseminating information and building science communication networks, particularly through the inclusion of hyperlinks and message length constraints.

Recognizing this effectiveness, previous studies have investigated the use of Twitter in science communication, especially between scientists and the public. Walter, et al. (2019) identified interactions between these two groups based on retweet networks and explored message strategies used by scientists. In a study by Giusta, et al. (2020), direct connections between scientists and the public were investigated based on replies and mentions, finding that scientists often used informal and involved communication styles.

While these studies aim to explore ‘public engagement,’ there are limitations to thoroughly examining the depth of two-way interaction between scientists and the public within scientific dialogues, as envisioned by the PES model. They fell short of relying on reactive and quantitative measures (e.g., number of likes, retweets) and not thoroughly examining the public’s responses to scientists. Acknowledging these shortcomings, our research focuses on how scientists and the public construct conversations on Twitter to foster genuine engagement, moving beyond the counting of likes, retweets, and replies as indicators of engagement.

In doing so, we follow Smith and Derville Gallicano’s (2015) recommendation to go beyond considering engagement merely as social media activities documenting user interaction with content. Instead, we approach it as a phenomenon of involvement that includes these activities but also encompasses personal and social components. Although the research of most academics and practitioners on social media engagement focuses on its behavioral manifestations, quantitative metrics alone are often not sufficient to determine its value (Trunfio and Rossi, 2021). As observed by Syrdal and Briggs (2018) in marketing research, qualitative studies have been instrumental in revealing the complex, multidimensional nature of engagement.

Climate change communication and social median

Even though climate change is an impending risk that is relevant to everyone on the planet (Haines, et al.., 2007), it has never been generally perceived, understood, or discussed like other types of risks and crises. Climate change has been surrounded by debates about its veracity, manmade causes, and ability to be effectively addressed (e.g., debates concerning David Wallace-Wells’ [2017] article in the New York Magazine) (Chapman, et al., 2017). In particular, the efforts to communicate the risks of climate change were followed by blames of “downplaying or exaggerating risk, of sensationalism, ‘bad’ science, inciting public hysteria, and even conspiracy” (Weingart, et al., 2000).

As mentioned earlier, climate change exemplifies how social media can be misused in public discourses. Falkenberg, et al. (2022) discovered that, linked with institutional mistrust and negative attitudes towards science, climate skepticism has increased on social media, thereby exacerbating polarization within the discourse on these platforms. Treen, et al. (2020) also contended that the spread of misinformation about climate change has become easier and faster on social media, facilitated by algorithmic biases, networks on social media that finance, produce, and circulate misinformation, as well as malicious accounts like spammers and bots. They further noted that even ‘debates’ on climate change on social media can serve as conduits for spreading misinformation, exacerbated by echo chambers where only like-minded individuals participate in discussions.

In this context, a line of researchers suggested principles for climate change communication (Shome and Marx, 2009). One of the suggestions was scientists’ dialogic communication with lay publics, which is in line with the principles of PES. Moser (2016) found that such dialogic and deliberative approaches are linked to deeper understanding, enhanced empathy, altered attitudes, and greater openness to relevant policies.

Coupled with the attention of dialogic climate change communication, scientists have also been called to take more active roles in climate communication. For example, scientists were invited to (a) build a partnership and engage in collaboration to inform the publics (Qu, et al., 2018); (b) participate in public debates (Entradas, et al., 2019); and (c) communicate with relevant groups directly (e.g., farmers) (Wilke and Morton, 2015). As noted earlier, the emergence of social media has elevated expectations for climate scientists to engage in dialogic communication with the general public.

However, there are still few studies exploring how individual scientists engage in ‘dialogic’ climate change communication with the public on social media, particularly within the PES model’s framework. Our research, therefore, focuses on the dialogic dynamics between scientists and the public in Twitter communication, specifically examining direct interactions in the context of climate change.

 

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Methods

Selection of climate scientist Twitter accounts and research period for analysis

To investigate scientific communications between climate scientists and lay publics on social media, we selected four climate scientists’ Twitter accounts using a four-step process. First, to find our sample of climate scientists, we reviewed all climate scientists’ accounts listed in two media sources (Burke, 2019; Climate Reality Project, 2019). Second, after reviewing the accounts, we discarded any accounts that did not meet three requirements: (1) the account must focus on climate change issues rather than science in general or life as a scientist; (2) the account’s tweets must have comparable numbers of public responses (i.e., replies) [1] in order to analyze the communications between scientists and the publics; and (3) the tweets must be written in English. We selected the four most popular (in terms of the number of followers and replies received on their climate change posts) climate change-focused scientists who are actively engaged with the public as our sample, anonymized within this paper as S1, S2, S3, and S4.

We used the textual content of each tweet as the unit of analysis for this study, including replies to the scientists. To collect the tweets shared by scientists and the public, we used a commercial service provided by ExportComments which allows users to archive the textual content, posted date and time, account that posted, and replies to the specific posts on Twitter. We collected three types of tweets across the research period: (1) public tweets which included the keyword “climate”; (2) all tweets made by the four scientists; and (3) all replies to the four scientists’ five most popular climate-related tweets. Tweets were collected 1 June 2021 to 31 December 2021, a period characterized by heightened salience and increased news coverage of climate change issues, notably due to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), from 31 October to 12 November 2021. The results include 195 posts from S1, 335 from S2, 350 from S3, and 3,943 from S4. We collected only publicly available Twitter posts and adhered to Twitter API restrictions and authors’ IRB guidance (protocol #12984) when redistributing the dataset. To ensure compliance, we removed any potentially sensitive or personally identifying content from the dataset.

Analytic methods

Before proceeding to content analysis, we first analyzed the distinct characteristics of the engaged public’s replies to scientists. Specifically, we studied themes and the focus of their discourses with scientists to see how these might differ from their discussions in public spaces without direct engagement with specific scientists. In the theme analysis conducted using topic modeling on samples of public discourses on social media, we distinguished discussions solely among the public (i.e., ‘between-public discourses’) from interactions between scientists and the engaged lay public (i.e., ‘public replies to scientists’), as detailed in Appendix A. We found that ‘public replies to scientists’ often criticize how climate issues are discussed and show a greater engagement with scientific findings and relevant information. On the other hand, ‘between-public discourses’ revolve around the public exchanging opinions on issues, with a focus on identifying the crisis and exploring potential solutions and actions.

Subsequently, we undertook a preliminary examination of public replies using manual content analysis, as described below. We employed a grounded theory approach, an inductive methodology that is based on the systematic collection and analysis of data to identify patterns, themes, and relationships. This iterative process involved coding and comparison of data to generate observations from the data itself. By adopting this approach, we ensured that our analysis remained closely tied to empirical evidence.

Content analysis for replies

We also conducted a content analysis to examine the public’s responses to the four scientists’ climate-relevant tweets. To understand which audiences (public vs. fellow scientists) engage with scientists’ climate communication on social media and how they did so, we explored whether the engaged individuals were scientists, as indicated by their biographical descriptions. We also examined the inherent social media features (e.g., hashtags) and content features (e.g., providing information) that they used. Additionally, we looked at which social cues (e.g., humor) that they employed to engage with scientists, their attitudes towards climate change (e.g., dismissive), and the topics that they discussed. The coding scheme was developed based on previous studies (Dedema and Hara, 2023; Hara, et al., 2019) (SM Table 1). We aimed to understand the diverse backgrounds and contexts of the public engaged with scientists on social media, focusing on how they interacted with scientists concerning scientific issues.

We confirmed that the two coders achieved acceptable levels of intercoder reliability for all tested variables (0.7611 to 1.0 on Cohen’s Kappa) through multiple coder training and two rounds of intercoder reliability tests.

Because replies are intertwined, especially with posts sent in a particular period as correspondences to one another or communications on similar current issues, the first 45 replies to each of the top five popular climate-relevant posts from the four scientists (a total of 20 posts) were analyzed in this study.

Qualitative analysis

The qualitative analysis was developed through tagging each original post and its replies according to previously identified variables. First, the Twitter bios of each thread’s participants were used to categorize them as scientists (only when they explicitly identified themselves as such) or non-scientists. Second, the presence of links, mentions, hashtags, and quote tweets were coded to identify the social media features of the original posts and comments.

After this, the coding analyzed content features, including the provision of information, opinions, resources, personal experience, guidance, and inquiries. The presence of visual elements was also coded, considering the kinds of visual content that they represented, such as pictures, videos, memes, gifs, or link previews, the attitude that they expressed such as sarcastic and supportive, and any cultural references that they conveyed, especially in the case of memes and gifs. Even though Twitter is not a primarily visual platform, these elements were further analyzed to observe how users conveyed specific information and attitudes through visual content such as diagrams, pictures documenting extreme weather events, and sarcastic memes.

While all replies were coded as English or non-English, any non-English replies were excluded to avoid possible misunderstandings. The reply’s language was noted during the observation of interaction levels between comments and original posts.

The content was then coded according to social cues that were conveyed: politeness and comfort, explicit emotional expression, humor, argumentative nature, or sarcasm. When possible, user attitudes towards climate change were identified, then classified into two categories: a belief in or a dismissal of climate change [2]. The “belief in climate change” comments were coded as showing one of three attitudes: pessimistic, optimistic, or neutral. This allowed further observations on how users conveyed their perspectives when agreeing or disagreeing with the scientists’ posts and other user responses to them.

Finally, the “topic” category was coded according to the following variables: “specific” (specific issues and solutions related to climate change, such as energy sources and food), “political” such as the political nature of climate change issues, “reference to pop culture” (movies, TV shows, books, etc.), “climate science” such as severe weather and temperature change, “policy” (explicit references to policy-making), or “off-topic” (not related to climate change or the original tweet).

The original tweet was also coded for the presence or absence of an explicit invitation for comments or replies.

 

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Results

The characteristics of public responses to scientists’ posts (preliminary findings)

Before conducting qualitative content analysis of tweets from scientists (hereafter, “original scientist tweets”) and replies from the public that the scientists received in Twitter (hereafter, “the public replies”), we performed two rounds of preliminary exploration. We examined potential relationships between the characteristics of the public replies and the original scientist tweets, as well as any emerging themes of the scientist tweets identified by human coding processes.

The characteristics of public replies and specific scientists

First, we explored the potential relationships between the characteristics of the public replies and specific scientists (Table 1; Appendix B). For example, S1 received comparatively fewer replies that provided opinions (C2) (N = 80; 34.8 percent), while receiving more replies with guidance (C5) (N = 21; 9.1 percent), politeness and comfort (SC1) (N = 77; 33.5 percent), and pessimism (SC7a1) (N = 34; 14.8 percent). We expected that different patterns of public replies by scientists might be attributed to distinct communication strategies of scientists and differences in themes frequently used by original scientist tweets. With these expectations, we further explored both the original scientist tweets and the public replies.

 

Characteristics of public replies by scientists who posted original tweets
 
Table 1: Characteristics of public replies by scientists who posted original tweets.

 

The characteristics of public replies and emerging themes of original scientist tweets

To identify potential themes of scientists’ social media posts, we conducted several rounds of reviews on the original scientist tweets. We isolated four distinct themes which we later explored through qualitative content analysis (Table 2; Appendix C). We highlight five intriguing findings below.

First, when scientists shared their personal lives on Twitter, compared to other themes, more fellow scientists engaged with the original scientist posts (N = 19; 20.7 percent), possibly to share common experiences or express their empathy with the scientists who posted.

Second, when it comes to social media features, links were used comparatively less often when responding to original scientist posts about their personal lives (N = 1; 1.1 percent), while @ mentions were frequently used (N = 46; 50 percent). This may be because the public did not feel a need to respond to such posts with links, which were often used to share additional information. The public respondents, however, might want to mention individuals whom they believe were relevant to the original scientist tweets, considering that relevant individuals may respond to the scientists’ tweets such as mentioning individuals who watched “Don’t Look Up” for a tweet on the scientist’s personal experiences with the movie.

Third, when scientists discussed their professional lives (professional life in Table 2), individuals tended not to provide opinions (N = 6; 13 percent), their personal experiences (N = 0), or visualizations (N = 2; 4.3 percent). This may be because the target audiences of scientists’ professional lives were unfamiliar to lay publics, who were thus unlikely to share their opinions and personal experiences.

Fourth, we found that professional-life tweets generated the most negative responses in terms of climate attitudes. Compared to other themes, we frequently found responses that believe climate change but were pessimistic (SC6a1) (N = 15; 32.6 percent); ones that dismiss climate change (SC7b) (N = 7; 15.6 percent), and sarcastic responses (SC8). This could be due to distrust in scientists within the context of climate change (Hamilton, et al., 2015).

Finally, topic-wise, when scientists shared their opinions on conflicting issues, it generated more political responses (T3) than other themes (N = 21; 16.2 percent). It appears to confirm that climate change is not simply a scientific issue but also a “conflicting” political issue (Ceccarelli, 2011). Based on these preliminary findings, we investigated public replies qualitatively and discuss our results in the next section.

To review characteristics of public replies by themes of original tweets from scientists, see Table 2 and Appendix C.

 

Characteristics of public replies by themes of original tweets from scientists
 
Table 2: Characteristics of public replies by themes of original tweets from scientists.

 

Qualitative analysis

We applied an inductive approach to the qualitative analysis conducted on the scientists’ tweets and the publics’ replies, observing what themes emerged from the data, connecting them to the quantitative analysis, and interpreting them according to relevant literature.

Original tweets by the scientists

First, the analysis focused on the original tweets posted by the scientists. Their communication styles differed according to the topics that they covered, as well as in how they presented themselves to their audiences, the effort they put in making scientific content accessible and relevant to lay publics, and the level of interest that they showed in interacting with the public who engage with their tweets.

As expected, climate science was the main topic of discussion. Some scientists, like S1, explicitly introduced it in their tweets, either to (a) inform and create awareness around climate change, exemplified by a tweet highlighting the causes and consequences of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or (b) clarify their roles as scientists and the difficulties that they encountered. For instance, S2 shared frustration over being labeled a climate denier and discussed how such judgments adversely affected mental health.

In addition, scientists used Twitter to promote their work and celebrate their achievements. For instance, S1 mentioned being honored with a prestigious award, while S3 and S4 announced the publication dates of their books and shared links for where they could be purchased.

Scientists’ communication style

The scientists did not frequently make direct references to their own or other scholars’ scientific research, which was recommended in previous studies (Cheplygina, et al., 2020), but instead addressed climate change issues and how people communicated about it. For example, S4 posted a reaction to a video in which a right-wing pastor attacked climate scientists and defined believing in climate change as a sin. S4’s mocking quote of the words used by the pastor generated an ironic reaction in the comment sections, where the public engaged in a discussion on religion and their perspectives on climate change.

Another tweet concerning climate science communication and its effects on mental health was one in which S2 directly addressed the public and encouraged people to take care of their mental health after reading the IPCC assessment report. S2 mentioned that feeling overwhelmed by news is normal, and one might choose not to engage with the headlines under such circumstances. However, they emphasized the importance of using whatever emotions one feels as motivation to maintain their passion and drive.

Even though politics is a topic that is obviously linked to climate change (Pearce, et al., 2014), its occurrence was extremely low in our corpus. The only explicit reference to politics was in S4’s tweets, in which they mentioned U.S. senator Joe Manchin and President Biden, in reference to the pledge of reduction in U.S. carbon emissions and the worries for international climate negotiations. Another tweet that generated a discussion on politics, while the reference to it was more subtle, is S3’s quote from the environmentalist Bill McKibben, who reflected on the history of the climate movement, noting that there was a long-held belief that the debate around climate change centered on data and reason instead of issues of money and power.

Contents of scientists’ tweets

The second aspect that emerged from our data was how differently scientists presented their content to the public. Visualization, although not used by all of the scientists, was one of the most interesting communication strategies that they adopted. As mentioned in the literature review, the new forms of participatory communication enabled by social media allow everyone to create and co-create, share, and re-contextualize various forms of visual content. Although Twitter is not a primarily visual platform, sharing visual elements such as pictures, videos, or link previews likely helped scientists’ messages stand out and draw attention from the public (Bik and Goldstein, 2013). While we can count the interactions produced by visual content shared by scientists on social media, we could not measure the quality of what was learned by their followers (Rigutto, 2017). However, looking at the way that images were used in scientists’ posts on social media and their audiences’ reactions can provide us with useful insights on the role that visualization played in their interactions. Notably, S1 often used visuals in their tweets to both share pictures from their personal life and to ask their audience for opinions on the visualization of scientific data (Figure 1).

 

S1 use of visualization
 
Figure 1: S1’s use of visualization.

 

As we will discuss later, this engagement strategy seems to work, and may help lay publics feel less disconnected from the world of scientific research. Using this type of communication not only helps scientists collect useful information from the publics, but also the public better understands how research is conducted, and the value of research. Another scientist who frequently used visualization was S4, who accompanied their concise tweets with links that provided the public with more information and guidance (Figure 2); they often used videos, rather than other types of visual media. S3 and S4 also used graphs and images to amplify their messages and make their communication more effective (Figure 3).

 

Examples of video used by S4
 
Figure 2: Examples of video used by S4.

 

 

Examples of graph and instructive image used by S3 and S4
 
Figure 3: Examples of graph and instructive image used by S3 and S4.

 

S2, instead, did not use data visualization in their tweets. Given their communicative strategies, which mainly focused on the emotional sphere, S2 shared links to external resources, and by doing so enriched their posts with pictures that likely grabbed the lay public’s attention and encouraged people to interact with their content (Figure 4).

 

Examples of link and external sources used by S4
 
Figure 4: Examples of link and external sources used by S4.

 

As we will discuss later, visualization was also present and played a role in public reactions to the scientists’ tweets.

Visual element usage also relates to the idea of making scientific content accessible and relevant to lay publics. Apart from pictures, graphs, and other kinds of visual content, it is important to consider what kind of language scientists use when communicating on Twitter. This could help us understand what target audience that they have in mind when using this platform, as well as what comprehension and engagement levels they may be able to achieve.

Individualized textual communication styles

S4’s and S2’s tones of voice, for example, were informal and often reproduced spoken language. S4, for example, used expressions like “you know what” and “pissing”. Although this is a common feature of computer-mediated communication (Puschmann, 2014), it is worth noting it in the context of online scientific communication with the lay publics, who might feel intimidated or disoriented by jargon or highly academic content.

The communication style of S3 often relied on the rhetorical strategy of hypophora, asking and responding to questions (Bik, et al., 2015). In one of their tweets, for example, they shared a series of questions about the effectiveness of COP26 and the expectations surrounding it, acknowledging that it fell short of what was needed. Despite not having high expectations for its outcomes, they recognized it as an unprecedented and ambitious collaborative effort and emphasized that there was still much work to be done, urging everyone to continue moving forward.

In this way, not only did S3 anticipate some audience’s doubts and inquiries, but by acknowledging the potential need for explanations when dealing with complex issues like climate change and policies, this may also have helped the audience feel more at ease with asking additional questions.

Another strategy through which scientists engaged with their audiences was storytelling highlighting professional experiences, such as in S1’s tweet on being awarded a prize for their service to climate science, or personal ones, such as S2’s tweets about mental health and struggles of dealing with eco-anxiety and criticism by others. This kind of communication, and arguably this specific topic, which seemed particularly relatable for some, encouraged commenters to share their personal experiences. In a reply to S2’s tweet, for example, one user noted that some overly simplified the issue by suggesting that anyone not adopting an extremely austere lifestyle was contributing to climate change. They clarified that while making better personal choices could be beneficial, the true path to addressing climate change resided in systemic changes to institutions.

On other occasions, scientists solicited public opinions and input. S2, for instance, inquired if users were interested in organizing discussions on climate issues through Twitter Spaces, featuring a diverse panel including scientists, activists, policy-makers, and climate psychologists, to tackle feelings of fear, anxiety, and despair by leveraging data, acting, and fostering compassion.

As in the previous case, this open and interactive communication style motivated the public’s engagement and provided scientists with valuable insight on the public’s interests and concerns. Reactions were generally enthusiastic and seemed to express a genuine interest in taking part in discussions on climate change issues. Someone expressed interest in the proposed climate chats but shared that they typically avoided environmental discussions due to the despair that these conversations usually evoked. They mentioned that such discussions often centered on issues beyond their control or were frustratingly vague, contributing to a reluctance to engage.

Additionally, the scientists had higher public engagement when asking direct questions to elicit user opinions. S3, for example, asked for the most effective analogy or metaphor to illustrate the fallacy in the argument that individuals must achieve complete carbon neutrality before they could credibly advocate for climate action. These strategies produced varied reactions/responses to the scientists’ tweets as noted below.

Public responses

The public was generally supportive when reacting to the scientists sharing content about their personal lives and professional achievements but engaged more with the scientists’ tweets when encouraged to do so through a call to action, and when they had a chance to state their personal perspectives on climate change and relevant issues. While most comments expressed an unquestioning attitude towards the existence of climate change and the need for actions to reduce its impact on the planet and people’s lives, some comments took a critical or skeptical stance. For example, one user dismissed the concept of climate change as nonsense, and another one expressed skepticism by questioning the scientist about the causes of rainfall patterns a thousand years ago, implying doubt about the role of greenhouse gases and the current understanding of climate change.

Intra-group conflict

It is also important to note that, even among the publics who believe in climate change, their attitudes differed on this topic. The most noticeable difference emerged between comments of optimists who were positive about potential solutions that could be adopted, and so-called “climate doomists” (Pearce, et al., 2018). The perspective that doomists expressed was generally pessimistic, an attitude ranging from worry and despair to criticism towards what they perceived as a naïve confidence in the power of science and politics in the fight against climate change. For example, one reply suggested that a question to ask oneself might be how much more severe conditions will become before Americans come to accept the truth, hinting at a concern that by the time there was widespread acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change, it would be too late to take effective action.

In some cases, this outlook co-occurred with references to younger generations, and their right not only to demand a better future for themselves, but also to recognize a darker future. A user, for example, expressed a dire outlook on climate change, noting its lethal potential, particularly highlighted by the high rates of asthma among impoverished and minority children in their area. They emphasized that children suffering from asthma due to air pollution are acutely aware of the deadly risks associated with environmental degradation, and they also perceived a general lack of concern from the broader population regarding their plight.

In comments by the public, it became evident that when multiple perspectives were shared, climate change became a polarizing topic, generating an “us-versus-them” rhetoric. While deniers framed it as a lie, believers framed it as a truth that “they” (meaning deniers, politicians, traditional media, older generations, and so on) have respectively never considered, acted against, covered up, and taken responsibility for. For example, a reply reflected on the predictable shift in public sentiment regarding climate warnings, noting that attitudes were expected to transition abruptly from questioning why advocates persistently voiced their concerns to wondering why there wasn’t adequate warning about the impending crisis.

Pessimistic believers used the same association between climate change and truth to criticize more optimistic believers (the “over-enthusiasts”, as a public reply defined them) who (intentionally or not) overlooked or even denied the impact of this phenomenon, which they perceived as potentially catastrophic, using words such as “the collective trauma of climate disasters”. One could argue that climate change was perceived and represented as a matter of group identity, even among people “on the same side”. A reply commented on an argument between believers noting that insults from within one’s own group were felt more deeply than those coming from outside the group.

Given these premises, and the presence of multiple layers of conflict and distress in the communities of public commenters, it was unsurprising that tweets in which S2 encouraged discussions on ecoanxiety and the psychological aspects of dealing with climate change elicited a heartfelt response from both other scientists and the public. Someone, for example, shared that becoming aware of the climate crisis led them into a state of deep despair as they were exposed to apocalyptic discussions. However, they expressed their gratitude to the scientist because their communications helped them move from feeling paralyzed to being motivated to act.

As previously mentioned, visualization played a relevant role not only in original scientist tweets, but also in the public’s comments. Pictures were generally used to provide information and further resources, as in Figure 5.

 

Example of informative visuals
 
Figure 5: Example of informative visuals.

 

Images were also used to refer to specific scenarios and evoke certain emotional reactions (Figure 6).

 

Examples of affective visuals
 
Figure 6: Examples of affective visuals.

 

In some cases, a combination of picture and text was preferred to a written comment, probably because it was considered catchier or more effective (Figure 7).

 

Example of combined text and image
 
Figure 7: Example of combined text and image.

 

Interestingly, social-media-specific visual elements such as emojis, gifs, and memes were used by the public to convey humorous, ironic, or sarcastic messages. Someone, for example, referred to Little Britain’s popular line “yeah but” to make fun of and criticize people who put economic growth before climate (Figure 8).

 

Example of referencing popular culture
 
Figure 8: Example of referencing popular culture.

 

Another public reacted to a discussion on climate change denial through the “presumptuous Vince McMahon” meme, which was taken from a wrestling scene and ironically reinterpreted in this context (Figure 9).

 

Example of the use of presumptuous Vince McMahon meme
 
Figure 9: Example of the use of “presumptuous Vince McMahon” meme.

 

Gifs and memes were used both by climate change believers (nine occurrences) and deniers (three occurrences). Popular culture references, as well as movie characters and scenes, seemed to help both sides get their message through and made them more visible and interesting to others (Figure 10).

 

Examples of the use of gifs and memes by different sides
 
Figure 10: Examples of the use of gifs and memes by different sides.

 

Internet memes represent a perfect example of how visual materials are recontextualized and mixed on social media. The proliferation of image editing tools and access to widely shared cultural references have empowered individuals to actively engage in new forms of communication through the creative manipulation of images and text. Research indicates that memes have assumed a significant role beyond entertainment, extending into politics and science communication (Bebić and Volarevic, 2018; Mortensen and Neumayer, 2021; Riser, et al., 2020).

Their humorous and often satirical nature represents a powerful form of socio-political participation in online debates, including those on climate change (Ross and Rivers, 2019; Zhang and Pinto, 2021). This dynamic form of communication highlights the evolving ways in which visual content facilitates interaction and discussion across various domains.

One should note that not all comments expressed the publics’ beliefs and attitudes towards climate change. Some discussed topics were somewhat peripheral to it. Some companies and representatives, for instance, took advantage of the discussions to promote products and services, such as e-bikes and sustainable tourism. Other replies focused on specific local areas and initiatives, which were unlikely to be of interest to a larger, global community. However, their presence, together with those previously described, proved how communication spaces created by scientists on social media gave a variety of users and perspectives opportunities to gain visibility and interact with one another.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

This study investigated the dynamics of dialogic conversations between climate scientists and lay publics on Twitter, using both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Through this exploration, we identified unique communication patterns between the two groups, focusing on responses and engagement of the public, and developed potential principles for effective scientific communication about climate change through social media.

Findings from quantitative analyses

One of the most intriguing findings from quantitative analysis was that sharing scientists’ personal lives was the most effective strategy to trigger interactions with the audience. However, this should not be generalized as the best way to communicate with lay publics. High engagement may be potentially explained by greater interactions with other scientists who felt more closeness and affinity with those scientists who posted those specific personal tweets (Collins, et al., 2016), and may not necessarily motivated interactions from non-scientists.

Conversely, sharing information about scientists’ professional lives, such as career achievements and publications, did not generate high engagement. This could be due to the lay public’s limited interest in or understanding of scientific or academic achievements, including the significance of winning specific awards. Interestingly, this kind of content seemingly stimulated more responses from the public who were dismissive of climate change, demonstrating a sarcastic attitude. This finding indicated some level of public distrust for scientists and authorities (Pearce, et al., 2018).

This finding underscores the importance of ‘contextualization’ in science communication, as advocated by the PES model (Gebre and Polman, 2020). The lay public possesses unique interests and backgrounds, which influence their connection to climate change. For scientists, it’s crucial to demonstrate trustworthiness and professionalism, typically showcased through their achievements. However, for the lay public, such professional milestones may not align with their interests or backgrounds in the context of climate change. Instead of providing the ‘contexts’ behind the scientists’ professional or scientific achievements, it would be imperative to ‘contextualize’ scientific issues within climate change in a way that resonates with the lay public’s own experiences and concerns.

When scientists shared their personal opinions on climate change, those tweets generated an increase in political responses. This result is in line with previous research and confirms that climate change should be addressed as a complex topic. Its influence is not limited to the realm of natural sciences (Tøsse, 2012). Considering this, scientists should find new ways of framing their communication on climate change to make it more relevant to lay publics, such as incorporating social and political issues related to climate change. It is especially important in that PES shed a light on how publics are involved in decision-making in policies relevant to science (in this context, climate change) (Stigoe, et al., 2014).

Finally, the analysis of social media features revealed a lower use of links compared to mentions (i.e., use of @) in the comments, which may indicate the lay public’s tendency to engage with scientists’ tweets more through signaling their content to other users, rather than interacting with scientists and lay publics directly. This may suggest the importance of scientists considering “shareability” when planning social media communications (Cao, et al., 2015).

Within the framework of PES, communication about scientific issues occurs not only through direct messages from scientists but also via the mediation of other ‘active’ publics. As active contributors to scientific discourse, these publics often engage in strategic communication within their circles, aiming to reach specific relevant publics and stakeholders to encourage collective actions (Van der Linden, et al., 2015). This highlights the necessity for scientists to focus on the “shareability” of their communications on social media, thus aiding ‘strategic communication’ initiatives undertaken by engaged publics (Cao, et al., 2015).

In sum, our primary recommendation for scientists is to ‘contextualize’ their posts about climate change in a manner that is accessible and clear to the general public (i.e., personal lives, professional lives). This involves focusing less on engagement metrics like likes and replies, which may come from other scientists or be influenced by sarcastic comments. Second, scientists should engage in climate change discourse on social media by presenting their own identity with a ‘human touch’, making the information more relatable (i.e., personal lives) (Koivumäki, et al., 2020). Third, considering that social media are platforms that foster connection (Mossberger, et al., 2013), we encourage scientists to actively identify and engage with other users whom the public might be familiar with in their network (i.e., use of @).

Findings from qualitative analysis

This study delved deep into the analysis of scientists’ communication styles and the public’s responses through a qualitative analysis examining scientists’ tweets and replies.

First, we observed that scientists in our samples addressed their Twitter audience in varying ways. Even though all showed interest in interacting with their audiences, some scientists were evidently more inclined to engage in dialogic conversations with the publics than others. This was done, for example, by explicitly inviting the publics to answer a question, or providing their own perspectives and advice on specific topics, which was found effective in making certain topics more accessible to the lay publics (Hara, et al., 2019). This contrasted with previous research findings that scientists use social media primarily for communicating with their peers (Collins, et al., 2016). As such, this study contributes to understanding how to diverge from a one-way communication model to a public participation model (i.e., PES) during social media climate communication.

In addition to public “responses” to information and opinions shared by scientists, this study shed light on what the attitudes and opinions of the public toward climate change, which drove them to engage with climate scientists and others. More specifically, we found the presence of a public who, despite belonging to the group of believers in climate change, expressed opposite (either optimistic or pessimistic) attitudes towards the efficacy of intervention against climate change. They also expressed different ideas about the future on Earth, including concerns for future generations and the effects of climate change on mental health. While intergroup tensions between non-believers and believers were expected, we also discovered intragroup tensions, confirming the need for climate professionals, including climate scientists, to understand the concerns and perspectives of lay publics. There is a need to strategically approach communicating climate issues, depending on target audiences who may have differences not only in political and ideological views but also in emotional responses or attitudes to the issues (Shifman, 2014).

According to PES, discussions on scientific issues (in this context, climate change), enable the articulation and mobilization of (scientific) knowledge, values, concerns, and interests in shaping public priorities, agendas, and decisions (Blue and Medlock, 2014). Our findings indicate that being informed and persuaded about the potential risks of climate change does not automatically lead individuals to support the actions advocated by climate scientists (e.g., doomist), challenging the traditional deficit model of science communication. PES advocates for viewing the public as ‘scientific citizens’ who participate in scientific dialogues with their own agendas and concerns (Blue and Medlock, 2014). Instead of merely presenting the risks of climate change and prescribing actions, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the broader contexts of ‘decision makers’, including ‘eco-anxiety’ that may affect individuals (Coffey, et al., 2021). This approach emphasizes the need for adaptive strategies that consider the complex emotional and psychological dimensions influencing public engagement with climate change issues (Hügel and Davies, 2020).

This study focused on textual data and the kind of language scientists used because this allowed us to better understand what target audiences they envisioned when using this platform, as well as what level of engagement they may have been able to achieve. Aside from the text, visual communication emerged as a useful tool both in scientists’ tweets and the lay public’s replies. As for the scientists, the use of visual elements such as images, videos, and graphs seemed to relate to the idea of making scientific content understandable, accessible, and relevant to lay publics.

As for the public, we observed that gifs and memes were often used to provide ironic or satirical comments. Internet memes can potentially be a powerful form of socio-political participation in digital environments and online discussions (Kaltenbacher and Drews, 2020). By using humor in their visuals, the lay public may have motivated the engagement of others by reducing relational distance to the problem (Kaltenbacher and Drews, 2020).

In contrast to climate activists and NGOs that tend to strategically generate and post content on a variety of social media channels to build reputation (Schäfer, 2012), scientists may not have the resources such as time, specialized skills, and training to manage multiple professional social media accounts, create effective content, and engage with lay publics in consistent and strategic manners.

From the perspective of PES, however, there is a call for scientists to adopt or at least understand the ‘language of social media,’ including memes and gifs, with their scientific literacy. This approach aims to help engage lay publics with scientific topics (Riser, et al., 2020; Wasike, 2022; Wiles, et al., 2023). Wasike (2022) found that the language of social media, when used by experts regarded as credible sources, can be effective in scientific communication, leading to increased believability and shareability on social media platforms. Consequently, some researchers have recommended that scientists collaborate with others, including professionals and the general public, who share a set of values to develop communication strategies that maximize the potential of social media (Riser, et al., 2020; Wiles, et al., 2023). In the context of PES, we argue that it is crucial to incorporate input from lay publics not only in science itself but also in science communication, to advance a democratization of science.

Even while recognizing the challenges faced by scientists on social media, we offer several recommendations based on our findings from qualitative analysis. First, we suggest being ‘authentic’ (Lim and Jiang, 2021). When scientists build an identity through their personal perspectives and genuine interest in understanding and addressing public issues consistently, they are more likely to succeed in establishing dialogic communication as proposed by the PES model. Second, it’s important to understand the existence and perspectives of ‘doomists’. Climate change cannot be effectively communicated by relying solely on fear-evoking messages that highlight its impending risks (Novoselov and Hayes, 2022). As suggested by the PES model, scientists should aim to increase individuals’ perceived personal and collective efficacy in climate change issues by informing and engaging them in the development and facilitation of mitigation strategies (Geiger, et al., 2017). Third, we recommend using visuals strategically. By employing ‘shareable’ and relevant visual information that addresses multiple aspects of climate change, scientists can effectively engage in conversations and reach out to the public who are not currently in their communication sphere. With these recommendations, scientists will be better equipped to engage in dialogic conversations with the public, fulfilling the promise of the PES model.

Limitations and future research

Even though the scientists sampled in this study were only a few eligible samples based on number of followers, focus of discussions, and language — and our results are not intended to generalize — we began to address a void in the literature analyzing public involvement in science communication. Future research may advance our understanding of climate change communication on social media by including a more representative and diverse sample of scientists, with different cultural backgrounds and discussion topics.

It is worth noting that in this study we did not focus on the gendered dynamics of how scientists were addressed on social media, and within the limits of our sample, we did not find notable differences in the treatment of male and female scientists. However, we acknowledge the significance of gendered interactions in academic discourse on social platforms, as underscored by existing literature (Amarasekara and Grant, 2019; Besley, et al., 2018; De Haas, et al., 2023; Nadim and Fladmoe, 2021). Therefore, we advocate future research to delve into this aspect with a larger sample, which could provide invaluable insights into the ways gender influences social media engagement with climate scientists. This direction not only promises to enrich our understanding of the digital science communication landscape but also aligns with the broader aim of addressing gender biases in academic and professional realms.

Additionally, Twitter users were not representative of all social media users. By investigating social media communication on other channels such as the role of visuals on TikTok, we may better understand social media-mediated climate communication. Future studies could expand the data set, as well as conduct in-depth interviews of scientists on social media or analyze social media networks.

In our study, we utilized a mixed-method approach to explore not only the topics discussed in climate-related discourses between scientists and the general public, but also the dynamics of public engagement with science within these interactions. Through this approach, we gained insights into how the lay public engages with various sources of scientific information, scientists, and their fellow members involved in scientific knowledge-building, thereby sharing different issues and perspectives.

To comprehensively understand these dynamics, future research could expand upon our study by investigating PES dynamics in other contexts, such as online communities, or by adopting longitudinal designs to capture the developmental processes of scientific knowledge within the PES model. These advancements would contribute to a deeper understanding of how PES functions and evolves in different settings, facilitating improved engagement between scientists and the public in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. End of article

 

About the authors

Lucia Casiraghi is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies in the Department of French and Italian at Indiana University Bloomington.
E-mail: lucasi [at] iu [dot] edu

Eugene Kim (corresponding author) is a Ph.D. candidate in The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.
E-mail: eugekim [at] iu [dot] edu

Noriko Hara is the Chair of the Luddy Information and Library Science department as well as a professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington.
E-mail: nhara [at] indiana [dot] edu

 

Conflicts of interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

 

Notes

1. Our selection criteria targeted scientists who were actively engaging the public on climate issues, specifically those whose top five posts on climate change — judged by the number of replies — received at least 45 replies and who had accumulated at least 70,000 followers over the research period.

2. ‘Belief in climate change’ indicates accepting or acknowledging the reality of climate change. In contrast, ‘dismissing climate change’ refers to not accepting the reality of climate change, denying its existence or significance.

 

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Appendix A: Theme analysis

Method

In order to identify potential gaps between public climate tweets (i.e., between-public discourses) and public replies to scientists’ climate tweets (i.e., public replies to scientists), we identified prominent themes within the two text groups using Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) (Blei, et al., 2003) topic modeling — which is applicable to short texts like tweets (Bruns, et al., 2021) — for preliminary investigation of topic modeling. To select the most suitable topic models, we created and compared topic models with different topic dimensions (e.g., K = 5, 7, 10, 20) but consistent parameters (alpha = auto, chunk size = 100, iterations = 1,000). The investigation found that a five-topic model was most effective at identifying distinctive themes and comparing the identified topics between the between-public discourses and the public replies to scientists corpuses. We selected the titles (i.e., labels) of the themes by reviewing the top words identified by the five-topic model.

Results

Climate topics represented in between-public discourses and public replies to scientists

We employed LDA topic modeling to assist our qualitative content analysis using an inductive approach, aiming to provide an exploratory overview of the underlying topics found in public tweets and public replies. To determine the appropriate number of topics (K) and validate the model, we relied on human judgment (Fischer-Preßler, et al., 2019). This approach was used as the results would undergo review by human coders, allowing for the identification and development of themes (i.e., categories) in content analysis (Zhang and Wildemuth, 2009). Through several rounds of review, we determined that the optimal number of topics for our analysis was five (K = 5). The results of topic modeling analyses are presented in Tables A1 and A2. Acknowledging the limitations of the preliminary exploration, we identified several different focuses between public climate tweets and public replies. First, given that individuals who respond to climate tweets from scientists were more likely to actively seek information, we found more proactive attitudes such as “follow”, “take”, “understand”, and “ask” (Topics 4 and 5 from Table A1). Second, more emotional or social responses were found in public replies such as “feel bad”, “thank”, and “hope” (Topics 2 and 3 from Table A2). Third, topics that could be indirectly related to climate were noted in public climate tweets such as “political” and “covid” (Topic 5 from Table A2). Those findings suggested that the scientists might have established specific focuses on climate change in their communications with the public who responded to them and influenced the public replies’ opinions on the issue. With this assumption, we further explored both the scientists’ posts and the public’s replies.

 

Five topics found in public replies to scientists
 
Table A1: Five topics found in public replies to scientists.

 

 

Five topics found in between-public discourses
 
Table A2: Five topics found in between-public discourses.

 

 

Appendix B: Visualization of Table 1 by subcategories

 

Distribution of social media features among scientists
Note: Larger version of available here.

 

 

Appendix C: Visualization of Table 2 by subcategories

 

Usage of social media features across different themes
Note: Larger version available here.

 

 

Supplementary materials

 

SM 1 Table: Codebook for content analysis.
CategoryVariablesDescription
Poster identityPI1Whether the individual who posted tweets or comments is a self-identified scientist based on explicit statements in bio.
Social media featuresSM1 LinkIncludes a URL in text, and links to an external Web site.
SM2 TaggingContains tagging “@” [excluding the original tweet].
SM3 HashtagContains at least one hashtag “#”.
SM5 Quote tweetQuotes a tweet from another user.
Content featuresC1 Providing informationContains information based on facts or presented as facts related to climate change, reporting valid source(s).
C2 Providing opinionsContains opinions, sharing a general sense of users’ feelings about or reception of any content. Text includes expression such as “I think...”, “I believe...”, and “I feel...”.
C3 Providing resourcesShares direct citations or links to external resources. The resources provided may refer to media publications, news stories, or articles. These resources are linked directly from the post, or the user provides enough information for the reader to be able to access them.
C4 Providing personal experienceContains explicit or implicit references to personal experiences related to climate change.
C5 Providing guidanceContains explicit guidance or suggestion on how to deal with climate change.
C6 Making an inquiryContains a question that begins a thread and seeks a response.
C7 Making a replyContains a comment specifically replying to previous tweet.
C8 VisualizationContains an image or a video [including link previews].
C9 LanguageEnglish or foreign language.
Social cuesSC1 Politeness and comfortContains greetings or polite phrasing that communicates respect. Includes salutations like “hi”, “thanks”, “congrats”, and “good luck”.
SC2 Explicit emotional expressionIncludes Internet-specific punctuation (e.g., capitalization and emojis) that emphasizes emotions.
SC5 HumorUsers interject humorous content into their tweet.
SC6 ArgumentativeClearly argumentative in tone towards the original tweet or other replies.
SC7 Attitude toward CCSC7A: Believer
(SC7A-i: Pessimistic; SC7A-ii: Optimistic; SC7A-iii: Neutral).
SC7B: Dismisses climate change.
SC8 SarcasmInterjects sarcastic tone to mock or convey contempt.
TopicsT1 Invite the public for comments/repliesAsks questions and invites the public to reply to them.
T2 SpecificSpecific issues and solutions related to CC, e.g., energy sources and food.
T3 PoliticalDiscusses the political nature of climate change issues.
T4 Reference to pop cultureMakes reference to popular culture, e.g., movies, tv shows, books, etc.
T5 Climate scienceRegards climate science, including extreme weather and temperature change.
T7 PolicyDiscusses policies related to climate change including explicit policy making.
T8 Off-topicContains comments not related to climate change or the original tweet.

 

 


Editorial history

Received 7 December 2023; revised 11 March 2024; accepted 7 May 2024.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Tweeting on thin ice: Scientists in dialogic climate change communication with the public
by Lucia Casiraghi, Eugene Kim, and Noriko Hara.
First Monday, Volume 29, Number 6 - 3 June 2024
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/13543/11639
doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v29i6.13543