Clickbait or conspiracy? How Twitter users address the epistemic uncertainty of a controversial preprint - Mareike Bauer, Maximilian Heimstädt, Carlos Franzreb, Sonja Schimmler, 2023
peter.suber's bookmarks 2023-12-05
Abstract: Many scientists share preprints on social media platforms to gain attention from academic peers, policy-makers, and journalists. In this study we shed light on an unintended but highly consequential effect of sharing preprints: Their contribution to conspiracy theories. Although the scientific community might quickly dismiss a preprint as insubstantial and ‘clickbaity’, its uncertain epistemic status nevertheless allows conspiracy theorists to mobilize the text as scientific support for their own narratives. To better understand the epistemic politics of preprints on social media platforms, we studied the case of a biomedical preprint, which was shared widely and discussed controversially on Twitter in the wake of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Using a combination of social network analysis and qualitative content analysis, we compared the structures of engagement with the preprint and the discursive practices of scientists and conspiracy theorists. We found that despite substantial engagement, scientists were unable to dampen the conspiracy theorists’ enthusiasm for the preprint. We further found that members from both groups not only tried to reduce the preprint's epistemic uncertainty but sometimes deliberately maintained it. The maintenance of epistemic uncertainty helped conspiracy theorists to reinforce their group's identity as skeptics and allowed scientists to express concerns with the state of their profession. Our study contributes to research on the intricate relations between scientific knowledge and conspiracy theories online, as well as the role of social media platforms for new genres of scholarly communication.