Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:


The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.

4 thoughts on “Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

  1. Your response was spot-on. I saw another study this week — the PR write up from the university said ‘Depression can be prevented with as little as one hour of exercise per week.’ Topic close to my heart, as a health promotion practitioner-researcher with a long history of depression. And the actual study estimated 12% of people could experience a statistically significant improvement from an hour a week. 88% against, but the headline reported a positive result. And p=0.05 is as little as a single point increase on some scales, so long as there’s a decent sample size. We really need to be talking about how university PR is contributing to an ecosystem of pseudoacademic bullshit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sheesh, that’s so… depressing! I agree about university PR, though I think the media also play an unhelpful role with their endless demands for soundbites and for headlines designed to sell products rather than to communicate accurate information. Perhaps the unholy marriage between the two needs attention, as well as their individual dysfunctions. Anyway, great comment, thank you.


  2. Haha I liked the #grimreaper tweet, Helen. So I saw a very similar interaction recently on Twitter, but the initial tweet of a science story (about BMI) was by a woman, and a man responded to argue this was incorrect (in a similar factually, argumentative way). The woman retweeted the man with a comment accusing him of mansplaining, and “unsolicited” views, and was quickly jumped on by Feminist Twitter. He then asked what gender had to do with all this… uh oh.. Things went rapidly downhill from there. Twitter can be a very confusing place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It can indeed. Twitter is aptly named, given the flocking behaviour it enables. It’s also a great place IMO – most of my interactions there are positive, and I pick up information I’d never find otherwise. But still – it’s odd.


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