Social Media Activism: Scientists Take to the Streets

Courtesy of ShaneMcC

Where Twitter really works is when people are on the ground witnessing events and sending out real-time texts and pictures. On Twitter it requires the physical presence of observers to make the news come alive and have meaning. Twitter coverage which is no more than the retweeting of the already processed news stream lacks immediacy, scope and depth.

The coverage of the #scienceisvital march in London last week was an example of Twitter being used at its very best. Lots of accounts from real people at an ongoing event. It was fascinating to observe how so many people recounted so many different aspects of the same event even though at times they could have well been standing beside each other. There is nothing like that sort of coverage anywhere else in the media and it is something that makes Twitter truly unique.

The campaign and march was conceived and organised by Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and editor of the online magazine which concerns itself with “the culture of science in fiction & fact.”

On the 8th of September, 2010, the UK Government Business Secretary Vince Cable gave a speech which revealed that there was a strategy to cut science funding.

Jennifer was not present when the speech was given but she heard about it from the buzz it was causing on Twitter. She says, “I got very angry and I dashed off a blog post in about five minutes, put that live. Then on Twitter I linked to my blog post and said, forget this let’s march on the streets.”

Original tweets – read from bottom up.

“There was loads of retweets and people were really excited about what I said. Within about an hour I had been contacted by Imran Khan who is the director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering. He said, “I’m with you. What can we do to help?” About another hour later I got contacted on Twitter by Evan Harris who is a former MP and science friendly politician. He said, “I’m willing to help.” And from that it completely spiraled out of control.”

Five days later the first in-person meeting took place at the Prince Arthur pub in Euston, London. There was just a few weeks to put together a campaign and organise a march to make sure the voices of scientists and interested parties are heard before the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review on the 20th of October. That is when the announcement will be made as to exactly how much funding science in the UK will receive.

Jennifer describes how effective Social Media was in organizing the rally, “If it wasn’t for Twitter we would never have gotten almost 35,000 signatures on our petition. And that’s all down to, basically, famous people tweeting to their thousands of followers to sign the petition.

“People like Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, We had a link so everytime somebody famous retweeted we had a huge boost in people linking to our website and signing our petition. It was vital. I can’t imagine this would have ever happened without Twitter, well certainly not within three weeks or a month.”

Roughly 2,000 people turned up on the day of the march to publicly voice their concerns about the Government cutbacks. But thanks to mobile phones and Twitter thousands of others who were unable to attend could follow the proceedings via the use of the #scienceisvital hashtag.

One of the virtues that nearly all the social networks have is the ability transmit information extremely rapidly but there are times when even the most worthy of messages needs a helping hand.

“We actually had to work behind the scenes to get these people to retweet us.” Jennifer explains, “So one thing I would advise to those who want to change the world is sometimes you have to ring people up and say, “Listen, I’m going to tweet this at 5 o’clock can you be prepared to retweet it?

“You need a strategy. You can’t inundate your followers with Science is Vital 24/7. We were very careful to mix up the campaign stuff with fun stuff that had nothing to do with the campaign. We spread the load a bit. We had about twenty people who were strategically tweeting and we made sure they weren’t all doing it at once. We focused on events. OK, we’re at almost 10,000 signatures now let’s make a push. So we tried to do sort of news hooks…things that weren’t just over and over please support Science is Vital. You have to keep people’s interest going. So it’s important not to overload people with the same message.”

Despite all this effort the future for the UK Government’s investment in science looks grim. There is a hope that the work that Science is Vital has done in getting a traditionally reserved community involved in acts of social activism by means of Social Media may alleviate some of the worst of the cuts.

The Science is Vital petition asking Government to recognize that science is vital and to not reduce science funding is due to be handed into Downing Street on Thursday, October 14th. But the campaign will go on and you can find a guideline for writing a letter of protest to your MP on the website.

You can also engage with the campaign by joining the Science is Vital Facebook group which has over 5,000 members at the time of writing.

Dr. Jennifer Rohn is also a novelist. Her next book The Honest Look is due out in November.

She also has a blog called Mind the Gap