Tweets Spark Rival Zika Scientists to Collaborate Raising the Question, Is Social Media a Force for Good?

 

    The participants in the Aedes Genome Working Group led by Leslie B.         Vosshall, top center, inspired by Twitter posts by Dr. Vosshall.

One can get a tiny dopamine squirt from the headline, “Tweets Inspire Rival Scientists To Come Together to Fight Zika.” Does this mean that cyber-bullying, nasty tweets by presidential candidates demeaning their rivals’ wives, and other less-than-noble Internet ill-wishes can be over-shadowed by the good that some collaborations produce?

Yes and no.

The horrors of an unchecked zika virus continue to vex scientists not to mention the families whose lives are turned upside down by its ravages visited upon babies born to infected mothers in the form of microcephaly (unusually small heads) and accompanying cognitive impacts.

It turns out that the contingency of scientists trying to tackle the diseases spread and its vectors (such as the Aedes aegypti mosquito) involves those from assorted backgrounds and disciplines.  They rarely collaborate and, according to those familiar with such research, often compete for funding not to mention separate clinical paths for dealing with the disease.  Some think a repellent is the answer; others gene manipulation to render the mosquitoes infertile or perhaps uninterested in biting humans.

that all changed with a mosquito researcher at Rockefeller University, Dr. Leslie B. Vosshall, issued a plea on Twitter for advice on constructing a detailed mosquito DNA map.  It worked.  It sparked a nine-way videoconference call and the formation o the Aedes Genome Working Group.

So, Twitter was a vector itself in offering a glimpse of an ad hoc way of uniting self-interest, new technology, and pressing social and medical needs.

Yet research suggests that social media’s impact on collective action is as unpredictable as predicting which collective action campaigns will go viral while others lie dormant, like a match thrown in wet woods.

social media analytics is getting increasingly sophisticated.  For example, “topic modelling” reveals what people are talking about; “sentiment analysis” gives an idea of how they feel; “network mapping” identifies the most important “nodes”; “visualisation” software turns the information into colorful pictures. And using such programs is becoming cheaper all the time.

One initiative is the company Graphika in New York. Its speciality is identifying communities of interest within social networks, finding the most influential members and tracking what they are talking about. Most of the firm’s customers are companies such as fashion brands or media firms, but it also looks at political issues. Its software revealed, for instance, that during the Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14, Russian “spam bots”—programs that automatically send messages—had a much larger presence in Ukraine’s Twittersphere than tweets by the Russian political opposition.

Such analyses have answered many of the questions asked about collective action online. They show that social media play a key role under any kind of regime.

And what causes some campaigns to spike and others to fizzle?

Misinformation can go viral when it coincides with information overload, which is common online. “People just pass on stuff without thinking,” says one researcher.

Bottom line: Virality seems to spring from the bottom up, often reacting to events. Online mobilization can develop explosively and seemingly at random. Most online petitions, the authors of a new book called “Political Turbulence” found, attract only a small number of signatures, but the successful ones took off in the first few days. Success does not seem to depend on the subject matter: similar ones often fare quite differently.

In the meantime, let’s hope Dr. Vosshall at Rockefeller and her Aedes Genome Working Group, inspired by Twitter, help conquer zika virus and may other such social media initiatives similarly advance what is good.

For more detail, see Amy Harmon’s piece in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/us/mapping-a-genetic-strategy-to-fight-the-zika-virus.html and the piece in The Economist on “A New Kind of Weather”: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21695192-social-media-now-play-key-role-collective-action-new-kind-weather.

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