Author: Daniela Orr, Technion Institute of Technology, Israel

Co-author: Ayelet Baram-Tsabari

The ways in which the two prominent science communication models – the deficit Model and the dialogical/engagement with science model – can contribute to an understanding of the sociological
aspects of decision-making in social media context have rarely been studied so far. According to the first model, the public lacks sufficient information. According to the second, the public brings many different arguments to the decision-making process, out of which only few are scientific. This paper quantitatively examines how each of these models can contribute to an understanding of debates on Polio vaccination, carried out in a Facebook group called ‘Parents talk about the Polio vaccination’. A content analysis of about 1800 items sampled from discussions in the group authored by 321 commentators, out of which 22 were M.D.’s, Reveals that the largest share of items (60%) addressed scientific or medical content. However even a greater majority of items (89%) did not present any evidence at all to support their arguments. While most items did not employ any evidence, a significant connection has been found between the position held toward Polio vaccination and the use of evidence. The topic of the discussion was not significantly associated with the use of evidence.

The findings raise important questions regarding the relevance of both models in to the debates on Polio vaccination on Facebook. The clear presence of scientific topics leads us to the conclusion that the commentators are interested or preoccupied with scientific topics. On the other hand, our findings do emphasize the epistemological breadth of public decision-making regarding vaccinations when taken in a social media environment.

We hence propose an original conceptualization to account for scientific debates in social media contexts: the broad justification, according to which, scientific character of debates does not necessarily go hand in hand with empirical justification.