March 21, 2018

The Science People See on Social Media

2. User engagement with posts on science-related Facebook pages is more common for visual posts, calls to action

While the most common frames for posts on the 30 science-related Facebook pages in this analysis feature new discoveries or science “news you can use,” posts with more engagement – a term used to characterize the number of user interactions with a post from shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tend to use other frames. Posts from the first half of 2017 with the highest average number of interactions per post used frames related to science research funding and pictures or other visual display with little or no text.

Posts related to science funding were typically tied to discussion of President Donald Trump’s first proposed budget in early 2017 and the potential changes for science funding. Those were topics of unique prominence during the study period, January to June 2017. Only 1% of posts in the sample from these 30 pages used a frame centered on science research funding. Audience interaction with such posts was high, however, particularly on Facebook-primary pages.

Posts on the 15 Facebook-primary pages with a research-funding frame averaged 122,126 interactions each, more than three times the next highest category. By contrast, posts using a research-funding frame on the 15 multiplatform pages averaged just 1,539 interactions per post.

Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.

Beyond posts with a research funding frame, those consisting solely of a visual display (using little or no text) and those with a call to action were also highly engaging. Visual posts could cover a range of topics; some used videos with almost no text while others were picture-based. Call to action posts include those that explicitly requested that users engage with the post, such as asking users to provide a caption for a photo or share the post with others.

Both types of posts are relatively uncommon, each consisting of only 2% to 3% of posts across the 30 science-related pages. Here, too, however, posts with these frames from the Facebook-primary pages averaged more interactions than those with the same frame from the multiplatform pages. On Facebook-primary pages, visual posts averaged nearly 37,000 interactions each. On multiplatform pages, these types of posts averaged about half as many interactions, roughly 18,500 interactions each.

Overall, posts from the 15 Facebook-primary pages averaged a higher number of interactions than posts using the same frame among the 15 multiplatform pages. Two exceptions were posts using a travel frame and those related to media coverage of science. For these frames, audience engagement was higher, on average, for posts from the multiplatform pages. Travel posts were more common on the National Geographic and Discovery pages; many of these posts included photographs of scenic destinations such as Vancouver and the cliffs of Ireland.13

The reasons behind the generally higher interactions with posts on the Facebook-primary as compared with the multiplatform pages are not clear. There may be systematic differences in the way these pages use each frame, which impacts audience engagement. Exploration of such differences goes beyond the aspects examined in the current study.

Facebook pages with more followers likely yield more interactions in large part because more users generally see posts from those pages in their news feeds. However, users who do not follow a given page may also encounter the same content. Any time a user interacts with a post, that post may appear in the news feed of their friends, even of those who do not follow the page.

Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine which posts show up in a user’s news feed. Facebook has made numerous changes to its algorithms over the years, and these changes affect the level of engagement posts receive. It is hard to evaluate the impact of changes in the algorithms because Facebook does not disclose the full details of the proprietary algorithms that drive the content users see. This study was conducted in 2017, prior to a major 2018 announcement by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg of further changes to its algorithms, giving more weight to content from friends and family over that of news organizations and other content providers that are not individuals.

Other framing categories

Posts categorized as topically unrelated to a scientific domain were listed in this study as using a non-science frame. As with most other types of frames, non-science posts across the set of 15 Facebook-primary pages averaged higher levels of audience engagement than did those using the same frame from multiplatform pages. For Facebook-primary pages, these posts received an average of about 14,500 interactions each – putting the category in the middle-of-the-pack compared with other frames. For multiplatform pages, however, non-science posts averaged less than 900 interactions each, lower than for any other frame used. These types of posts made up 8% of posts on Facebook-primary pages, compared with just 2% of multiplatform pages. One example of a highly engaging post of this sort featured an inspirational quote; this post from David Wolfe’s page on Nov. 27, 2015, was shared more than 1.3 million times and received more than 29,000 comments. As shown in a nearby table, this post was one of the top 15 most-engaging posts across any of the 15 Facebook-primary pages between January 2014 and June 2017.

As discussed in Chapter 1, these 30 Facebook pages tend to focus on just one or two scientific topics or domains. The average interaction with posts was not strongly correlated with the topic area of the post. See Appendix for details.

The most popular individual posts on these science-related pages used a variety of frames, and many included video and were produced by just a few Facebook accounts

A close examination of the top 15 most engaging individual posts from this set of 30 science-related Facebook pages in the last few years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) finds that these posts represent a variety of science topics and frames. While the average interactions for posts using a visual-only frame and call-to-action frame tend to be higher than posts with other frames, there are posts in the top 15 with the most engagement from a wide range of frame types, including posts that explain scientific concepts, highlight new discoveries and feature ways people can put science information to use in their lives.

Video is a common feature among many of these Facebook posts with the highest levels of user engagement. Among posts appearing on the multiplatform pages between January 2014 and the end of June 2017, 12 of the top 15 most-engaging posts included video. Six of top 15 posts appearing on the Facebook-primary pages during this period also included video, while another 6 from this set of pages included a prominent picture.

National Geographic produced the greatest share of the top 15 most-engaging posts among the multiplatform pages (11 of the 15). Most of these included videos of animals such as a Sept. 8, 2016, video of Alpine goats climbing a mountain.

The single post with the highest number of interactions for multiplatform pages during this time period was picture of the Eiffel Tower posted on Nov. 14, 2015, in response to terror attacks in Paris. This post from National Geographic on a non-science topic included the hashtag #lovetoParis and had more than 1.1 million likes and other reactions, 182,000 shares and 9,600 comments.

Among the science-related Facebook-primary pages, 12 of the top 15 most engaging posts were produced by David Wolfe, an author and product spokesman who emphasizes alternative remedies and promotes the health benefits of raw foods.14 Half of these 12 popular posts from David Wolfe featured inspirational sayings or advice, such as an April 2015 post which encouraged readers to “look after your friends.”

The single post with the most interactions (5.4 million in total) was a call for participation. The post – produced by David Wolfe on Oct. 10, 2015 – featured a picture of fruit cups and a request that users should “share this if you think they should have this in school.”

Top 15 posts by user engagement among science-related Facebook-primary pages

Facebook posts with the highest number of interactions, January 2014 to June 2017

Page Number of interactions Date of post Title and description of post Primary topic Primary frame
1 David Wolfe 5,432,916 Oct. 10, 2015 “Share this if you think they should have this in school.” (picture of fruit cups) Food/nutrition Call to action
2 Hashem Al-Ghaili (@ScienceNaturePage) 4,207,149 Jan. 13, 2016 “This interesting concept could save thousands of lives from plane crashes.” (Video about planes with detachable cabins) Engineering/tech Explanation of concept
3 David Wolfe 4,151,585 June 5, 2015 “Drinking Water at the Correct Time Maximizes its Effectiveness on the Human Body” (picture) Food/nutrition ‘News you can use’
4 David Wolfe 3,728,525 April 13, 2015 “Look after your friends. Make sure they’re okay. Sometimes they are going through things that are really heavy, but they might not say it.” (picture) Behavioral science ‘News you can use’
5 David Wolfe 3,607,372 April 8, 2015 “A Note from a Mother” (poem) Non-science Non-science
6 Hashem Al-Ghaili (@ScienceNaturePage) 3,087,114 Jan. 30, 2016 “This device can bring dead hearts back to life.” (video about medical device) Health/medicine New discovery
7 David Wolfe 3,040,094 Nov. 9, 2015 “Believe in yourself” (picture of cat looking in reflection) Non-science Non-science
8 David Wolfe 3,028,215 June 7, 2016 “Camp With the Comfort of a Hammock And The Security Of A Tent” (video about camping equipment) Engineering/tech Explanation of concept
9 David Wolfe 3,013,765 Jan. 26, 2016 “Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side because it’s fake” (picture) Non-science Non-science
10 David Wolfe 2,998,982 July 23, 2015 Quote from Robin Williams about mental health Neurology Explanation of concept
11 David Wolfe 2,818,155 March 27, 2015 Video of dancing girl on TV talent show Feats/phenomena Visual only
12 Hashem Al-Ghaili (@ScienceNaturePage) 2,646,077 May 8, 2016 Video about baby in womb and bond with mother Health/medicine Explanation of concept
13 David Wolfe 2,621,409 Sept. 16, 2015 “Spend time with your parents, treat them well. Because one day, when you look up from your phone, they won’t be there anymore.” (picture) Behavioral science ‘News you can use’
14 David Wolfe 2,568,205 Nov. 20, 2016 “Top 10 Acupressure Points to Relieve Body Pains & Aches” (video) Health/ medicine ‘News you can use’
15 David Wolfe 2,278,143 Nov. 27, 2015 “Some people want a big house, a fast car, and lots of money. Others just want a tiny cabin in the woods away from those kinds of people.” (picture) Non-science Non-science

Note: Number of interactions as of June 2017. Interactions include the number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions. “Facebook-primary” consists of Facebook pages from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of all Facebook posts from 30 science-related pages, January 2014 to June 2017. Data collected from the public Facebook Graph API.
“The Science People See on Social Media”

Pew Research Center

Top 15 posts by user engagement among science-related multiplatform accounts

Facebook posts with the highest number of interactions, January 2014 to June 2017

Page Number of interactions Date of post Title and description of post Primary topic Primary frame
1 National Geographic 1,359,732 Nov. 14, 2015 “Today we are all French. #lovetoParis” (response to Paris terrorist attacks) Non-science Non-science
2 BBC Earth 1,161,401 Oct. 14, 2016 Video preview of Planet Earth II TV series Animal science Promotion/ad
3 BBC Earth 1,034,452 Sept. 28, 2015 Video of volcanic ash cloud sparked by lightning Energy/environment Visual
4 National Geographic 639,201 Aug. 5, 2016 360 degree video of interaction with hammerhead shark Animal science Visual
5 National Geographic 627,604 Sept. 8, 2016 Video of Alpine goats climbing mountains Animal science Explanation of concept
6 National Geographic 589,512 June 20, 2016 “Scientists are concerned that the release of #FindingDory will lead to a demand for blue tangs as pets. Here’s why that’s a huge problem.” (video) Animal science Explanation of concept
7 National Geographic 534,015 May 13, 2017 Video of well-preserved dinosaur fossil found in Canada Archeology New discovery
8 National Geographic 510,280 Feb. 20, 2016 Video of panda playing in snow at Toronto Zoo Animal science Explanation of concept
9 National Geographic 424,362 Nov. 23, 2015 Video of gathering of snakes in Canada Animal science Explanation of concept
10 NASA 404,693 Nov. 19, 2016 Live video of the launch of a weather satellite Astronomy/physics New discovery
11 National Geographic 396,514 Dec. 8, 2016 Discovery of a dinosaur tail preserved in amber (article) Archeology New discovery
12 National Geographic 374,167 May 26, 2014 “Help us caption this photo” contest with picture of monkeys Animal science Call to action
13 Health 372,773 March 11, 2016 Recipe for making oven roasted sweet potato chips (video) Food/nutrition ‘News you can use’
14 National Geographic 363,226 March 2, 2016 360 degree video of Klyuchevskoy, one of the tallest and most active volcanoes on the planet Energy/environment Visual
15 National Geographic 355,856 March 6, 2016 360 degree video of a group of swimming brown bears Animal science Visual

Note: Number of interactions as of June 2017. Interactions include the number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions. “Multiplatform” includes Facebook pages from established outlets or organizations, such as magazines, TV programs or government agencies.
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of all Facebook posts from 30 science-related pages, January 2014 to June 2017. Data collected from the public Facebook Graph API.
“The Science People See on Social Media”

Pew Research Center

  1. In the case of posts related to misconduct and biases in research findings, there was virtually no difference in user engagement between the two sets of pages.
  2. See Senapathy, Kavin. Jan. 1, 2016. “A New Year’s Resolution For Science Advocates: Don’t Cry Wolfe” Forbes.