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Horsemeat and meteors: What makes science stories ‘sticky’?

Horsemeat and meteors: What makes science stories ‘sticky’?

Sarah Castell, head of public dialogue on science at Ipsos MORI, analyses how some science stories are reported online, using initial findings from our Public Attitudes to Science social media research.


Do you remember the horsemeat scandal? How about the Russian Meteor strike?  Which of them do you remember more clearly?  Horsemeat, right? I bet you’ve got a couple of horsemeat jokes, too.

If you remember reading about either of the stories, you’ll likely also remember they were discussed quite differently online. Between January and April we at Ipsos MORI used our social media analysis tool to measure internet traffic volumes across a range of online sources, including Twitter, forums, blogs, news sites, and Facebook.  We did this to find out how people talked about these two science-related stories – the horsemeat contamination scandal and the meteor strike over Russia. We identified some of the things that made the stories ‘sticky’and shared across social media.

Continuous revelations

The story that illicit horsemeat products had been discovered in UK foodstuffs unfolded in several ‘hits’. News of different brands and products implicated in the scandal happened over days and weeks, so there was different news emerging on different days, and online discussion also hit several peaks over that time period.  Globally, on three different days, mentions spiked, with smaller peaks on other days. Looking at the results from the UK alone, the pattern was similar with three spikes at least, (as you might expect; indeed most of the global mentions came from the UK in the first place). 

The meteor strike had one peak of mentions, about the same intensity as the horsemeat content, but this was just once on the day of the strike itself. This was global; in the UK, the meteors didn’t shift the dial so much and the volume didn’t approach that of the horsemeat story.

New information emerging over time gives fuel to a story online. Scientists with stories to seed might want to think about the order in which they release information; or if reporting on a single happening, find ways to bring out new information before and after the main event.

The Horse-tweet scandal

People were having different sorts of conversations about the two topics. As we’ve said, there were more total mentions of horsemeat than meteors, but proportionally, around 40% of the mentions from each story came from traditional media – news websites and so on.  Meteors had a more ‘traditional’ dissemination, it seems people saw the subject in the news then followed up by sharing traditional news content and links across social media through Facebook, blogs and Twitter. For the horsemeat story, by contrast, around half the total mentions came from Twitter. The spikes in Twitter volume came after spikes in news coverage, but the content was different from simply links to the news stories. 

Where were the meteor and horsemeat stories discussed?

So what was it about horsemeat that made it so tweet-able? We think the horsemeat story had the following qualities which made people want to share it.

“Did I eat a horseburger?”

The story had a potential personal impact on everyone in the UK. Our experience, in public dialogue on science issues, is that people seek the personal angle in anything they are told, to make initial sense of complex and nuanced issues. Also, when science stories have a human element, people don’t feel so intimidated about commenting as they feel they need no special expertise to weigh in. Scientists might find it easy to link science stories to personally relevant issues; we’ve seen in the first wave of our online qualitative work for Public Attitudes to Science that people see the links between life and science everywhere - from cooking to gardening to personal relationships to work and transport.  However, there is always the challenge that the most important elements of the science are missed if the story focuses on personal elements.

Horsemeat burgers: high in fat and Shergar

There was potential for a lot of jokes and puns within the horsemeat story because of its closeness to everyday life and its shock value over eating something we don’t usually eat. Horses are typical joke subjects (why the long face?) as well as being the hilarious “food of foreigners”. It’s always worth thinking about the value of jokes in science communication.  However, it may be that scientific or more serious elements got ‘swamped’ by jokes, which could potentially be a problem for scientists wishing to communicate.

Not much horsemeat in the food, not much science in the stories

While the Twitter coverage did not talk much about the specifics of the science behind testing the food products, the story did highlight the issue of risk and food safety, as people debated whether or not it was a problem to eat horsemeat. Scientists could use stories like this to introduce concepts such as how scientific evidence informs policy; for example, explaining that testing can uncover the amount of horsemeat in a product, but that the boundaries of acceptable safety and regulation are matters for judgement.  Again, in public dialogue, members of the public often have a knee-jerk reaction; that science should tell them “what to do”. In reality, some issues involve other considerations, like public acceptability and ethics. Stories like the horsemeat scandal could provide a start point for talking about the role of science in society.

What are your experiences of ‘sticky’ science stories?  Which other stories should we take a look at, in social media? Let us know.

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