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Linda Silka


Keon West


Impacting the policy world through social media

Change is afoot. Many of us as scholars, scientists, educators, students, and professionals have become accustomed to relying on peer-reviewed journals to reach people with our research so that the work will have an impact. Recently, however things have evolved. Increasingly, social media has become an important additional tool to reach people—to amplify our work, engage with the policy world, and communicate with the public on policy-relevant research. So, how do we learn to use social media effectively? What are the risks associated with using social media? What are the opportunities? These are questions we explored during a full day pre-conference workshop “Bringing Research to Policy: Building a Social Media Presence.”

Central Office staff, Cyndi Lucas and Sarah Mancoll, together with the SPSSI Policy Committee, created an exciting full day pre-conference workshop “Bringing Research to Policy: Building a Social Media Presence” that was offered on June 28th preceding the “Bridges to Justice: Building Coalitions and Collaborations Within and Beyond Psychology.” The interest in this topic was apparent in the diverse participants: students at various stages of their graduate training, new PhD’s, and scholars who have been immersed in their careers for years. Some participants were deeply involved in using social media for their professional or advocacy goals, and some had yet to start using social media to move research-to-policy efforts forward.

As chair of the SPSSI Policy Committee and someone who completed her PhD in social psychology in 1978 (where did all of the time go??), I was very eager to learn from my colleagues about how to use these important tools to make a difference. I was not disappointed. The presenters, as well as many of those who were in the audience, brought a wealth of expertise and examples.

Cyndi Lucas started us off by encouraging us to be clear and specific about our individual purposes for using social media. This point was echoed by other presenters as well. Social media is a tool, not a goal, and “likes” are not an end in themselves. The strategies used to (for example) to amplify SPSSI’s voice may not be the same as those used to communicate with journalists, or policy makers, or advocates or as individual academics. It’s important to understand your particular goals to waste less time on diversions or unproductive paths.

Participants in the workshop then had opportunities to learn about real world examples of state-of-the-art social media being developed by SPSSI members and our partners. For example, we learned how SPSSI’s Communication Committee is developing a video series to explain how psychologists can use video formats to share policy-relevant research and expertise and enhance one’s academic career (e.g., effect of social media on impact factors). We learned from the SPSSI Graduate Student Committee members about their very well-received and informative methodology and policy webinar series, and we learned how a doctoral student (Sara Baumann at University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, Behavioral, and Community Health) has made social media an integral part of her efforts to highlight the impacts of lack of available menstruation supplies on homeless women and Bangladeshi girls missing school and educational opportunities because of the lack of available menstruation supplies.

One of the issues that came up—one that is central to SPSSI--is the hatefulness and anger that seem to be so much in evidence on social media. Keon West (@drkeonwest) offered his insights for dealing with this. He advised that we should never feel like you have to “win” or even engage with every argument. We do not owe anyone our time or attention. Some people hold a position for ideological or emotional reasons and some people just hate being wrong in public. Arguing with such people, even if all available facts are on your side, is much like teaching a pig to sing. As Robert Heinlein pointed out “it wastes your time, and annoys the pig”. As with all things, ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with each argument. If, for example, you simply want to alert an audience to the fact that a speaker’s evidence is incomplete or inaccurate, you can accomplish that goal whether the speaker ever acknowledges it.

In Keon’s experience, focusing on the facts, rather than on vitriol, brought him more long-term respect (and followers), even if it didn’t look like the high-school version of winning an argument. Remember, you are an actual expert in sometime. The average person cannot work their way around a t-test. Even if you are still a student, you probably know much more than they do about your topic of study. That said; avoid pretending to be an expert in all things, or more of an expert than you are. It is better to post things of substance relatively rarely than to post a steady torrent of unsupported opinion. Wandering outside your area of knowledge may make you an entertaining talking head, but undermines your long-term credibility.  Also, sometimes, we’re the person with an unsupported or inaccurate position. If that’s ever pointed out, we should feel free to change our minds without animosity or guilt. Growing and learning in the face of new information is certainly in line with the spirit and ethos of SPSSI.

There was more useful and practical advice than could ever be squeezed into a brief article: small group discussions; discussions on how to work with publishers around use of social media; and practice sessions that helped us learn to use all of these techniques. As the workshop was ending, the attendees were full of ideas on how they might move forward. Our advice? Build a social media profile and get out there and build your online presence. And don’t be afraid of self-promotion. On which note, do follow us on Twitter (@SPSSI) and YouTube (search: SPSSI). See you on the web.

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