Monitoring science stories on social media

Any stories, science stories too, have a better chance of going viral when animals, babies or politics are included, than those without. Photo credit: Pexel.


Spreading information has never been easier. But equally, spreading of misinformation has never been easier. Monitoring of social media can be an important tool in RRI, to shed a light on what discussions concerning science is going on in the civil world.

Every year around New Year’s Eve various media pull out statistics about which stories have been the most popular during the year. Science media as well, and yeah, for a science journalist it can be interesting to see how such different stories from the colour of butterfly wings to the detection of gravitational waves can spark the interest among readers.

Most media also track how well their stories performed on social media – and the interesting part is that they might rank very differently. The content, which seems popular on social media due to many likes, shares and comments is not necessarily the same content that people click on to and actually read or watch.

Generally, it is engagement that drives algorithms such the Facebook algorithm, so the more reactions and interaction a story gets, the wider the audience. But that might not be of much benefit, if the audience do not view the content. So, the purpose of posting a story should be considered before posting: big audience or a tribal audience that are more likely to interact.

Know what your audience wants
Monitoring social media to see how your content performs can be a powerful method to get insight into how to maintain and enlarge your audience.

Tracking interactions can be done with several plug-ins and analysing tools to see how your own content performs. But it is also beneficial to be able to look at the overall picture of how different media and content types perform. With social media, companies that provide different services to monitor social media content have started popping up. One of them is EzyInsights who have developed a real-time tool that can be used in several places in the editorial workflow – from news gathering, to monitoring, to research and data analysis. Data Analyst and Head of Innovation Steve El-Sharawy explains:

“We find sources, be they a FB page, twitter account or website, we register whenever an article or piece of content is published, we then poll social platforms – FB, twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram – for their engagement data.”

Engagement data are likes, reactions, comments, shares and web shares. All the public available information. What monitoring companies cannot track is the personalized information such as clicks, views and viewing time (the information that most social media provide for their users).

“We do this so frequently we are able to build a real-time picture of what stories and content the world is engaging with. We also store this data and have a historical analytics tool to help with trends and strategies and so on,” El-Sharawy adds.

According to these analyses, science stories can be fairly popular and even at times outperform cat-videos (although viral posts with animals are all-time favourites, and NO other single subject can compete with that).

So, what makes a science story popular? Is it hardcore stories about science itself that can tickle curiosity? Nope.

“Any stories, science stories included, have a better chance of going viral when animals, babies or politics are included, than those without” El-Sharawy tells.

It is not popular science channels like BBC or Guardian that get the highest score on viral science content. The number one performer is IFLScience, which is known for provoking headlines, short copy and rewriting of stories from other science media.

This is in line with the conclusions from another monitoring company BuzzSomu. According to the director, Steve Rayson, a popular type of story on social media (at least in the US) is the “A new study shows”-story. These are often shared for fun and often touch upon other themes – family, health and psychology.

Grasp the moment
Monitoring can also be used by journalists, publishers or scientists to keep an eye on what topics are popular at the moment, and on that note, organise content that will have a chance to be caught up in the news flow because of the immediate relevance.

This is especially relevant when working with RRI. This allows scientists and journalists to quickly respond to fake news or to contribute to public discussions of the relevance of certain technology or research.

The top ten posts of 2017 from IFL Science. Four are directly about Politics, two are related to animals. Source: EzyInsight

About Berit Viuf

Berit Viuf has an academic background in Social science & Technology and has worked as a freelance journalist for 8 years. She writes about scientific topics for several major papers and magazines in Denmark. Her experience also covers audio and video production as well as planning of conferences and workshops.