Marco Zozaya loves science. His bedroom wall is covered in photos of scientists. When he grows up, he wants to be a science communicator like Neil deGrasse Tyson. And for a moment at age 12, when he recorded a video about vaccines on an iPad in his backyard in northeast Mexico, it seemed like he was off to a good start.
“Every single bit of evidence there is in the observable universe that vaccines do cause autism is inside of this folder,” he says in the nearly two-year-old video. Then, in mock shock, he starts pulling out blank pieces of paper. “It’s nothing.”
The video got 8 million views on Facebook and was featured by HuffPost, CNN, Cosmopolitan and Latina.com. And that was when Mr. Zozaya started to discover that maybe it’s not correcting bad science that the internet loves. What the vast digital audience really wants is drama.
“I look back on it and see that I was actually quite rude,” Mr. Zozaya, now 14, said during a video call. “But everyone went crazy for it.”
Science communication is the art of making science accessible, and thanks to the internet, science is more accessible than ever. More research and original data is being posted publicly online, and a new generation of science ambassadors — in the tradition of Mythbusters or Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan — has found a large audience on social media. But they face a conundrum: the platforms that help get their message out sometimes favor a style that inflames as much as it informs.
Science enthusiasts have built enormous audiences online not only because they appeal to human curiosity, but also because they have a flair for entertainment. .
Michael Stevens, whose YouTube channel Vsauce often explores psychology, has described how he packages his videos to reach the biggest audience and has bragged that he could even make paint drying interesting. Derek Muller is known for using man-on-the-street interviews on his popular YouTube channel Veritasium to expose misconceptions about science. And Elise Andrew, who commands an audience of 25 million through her Facebook page, “IFLScience,” often shares science-themed memes.
A lot of the science stuff that goes viral ends up being “information-light and punchline-heavy,” said Yvette d’Entremont, who runs SciBabe, a popular Facebook page.
Ms. d’Entremont specializes in debunking myths around homeopathy, pet wellness, G.M.O.s and other trends. Her arguments are dense with citations, but she also dispenses a fair amount of snark, as in an essay for The Outline titled “The Unbearable Wrongness of Gwyneth Paltrow” about the Goop wellness guru.
“There are a lot of really wonderful science communicators on YouTube that find a way to break down science concepts; they do these long form videos,” she said. But she says the videos that really go viral are, “short punchy ones that seem to be taking a swing at things that we hate, or that we’re trying to combat in sci- comm or in the skeptic universe.”
Some of this trend may result from algorithms that promote certain content over others, often to maximize the time users spend on a site.
“The algorithm is trying to make people react, trying to make people engage,” said Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer who now advocates for greater accountability for tech platforms. “When you have these very combative videos, it’s very efficient at getting people to watch.”
His site, AlgoTransparency, shows how videos asserting that the Earth is flat and that vaccines are harmful were among those most recommended by YouTube’s algorithm in February. Another was “Bill Nye Destroys Noah’s Ark,” in which the famed scientist dismantles arguments from creationist Ken Ham.
Facebook has said it will make changes to its algorithms to favor “time well spent” over just time spent. (The company declined to comment.) A statement from YouTube pointed to its announced changes intended to combat misinformation.
After Mr. Zozaya posted his video, anti-vaccination activists left hateful comments, accused him of being a shill for the pharmaceutical industry and even posted personal information about his family. At first, he gleefully debated them, cheered on by 65,000 new Facebook fans.
It wasn’t just for the views, although he admits that aspect was gratifying. As a devotee of empiricism, Mr. Zozaya felt compelled to push back against the discredited autism-vaccines link. He also empathized with the autism community.
“Think about it from the from their perspective,” he said. “There’s people who are like, ‘I would rather have my child die of X deadly disease and be contagious and put everyone else in danger than have my child get this condition that you were born with.’”
As it happens, he later found out he is on the autism spectrum himself.
Mr. Zozaya realized he wasn’t convincing anyone by picking fights, nor was he doing much to further human understanding. But when he shifted toward more informational videos — like an analysis of the role snakes play in the environment — his viewership plummeted.
“I was really disappointed,” he said. “I thought I had a following mostly made up of people who loved science, because that is what I originally wanted to build on. I wish honestly that people were as much into science as they are into shutting people down.”
There is a real concern in the science communication community about how best to handle the tide of pseudoscience.
Emily Gorcenski is a data scientist and activist who has studied how fake science spreads on the internet. In her view, snark or cheeky videos are not the problem: If people are really committed to a piece of pseudoscience, a video from someone like Mr. Zozaya will not convince them otherwise, no matter how respectful. Rather, she’s more concerned with how much science is locked up behind university doors or in paid journals.
“We live in a time of deep polarization on many fronts,” she said. “We’re partly in this position that we’re in because scientific communication, scientific writing, is deeply inaccessible. If there is something that makes it more accessible for people, then I’m all for it.”
Mr. Zozaya believes he can build the kind of audience he wants: People who love science. It might just take a little longer.
In January, he posted a video tracing the origin of the mythical “el chupacabras,” a monster said to suck the blood out of livestock, back to the evolutionary advantage of fear. It has about 6,400 views — not viral, but not bad either. He is working on a video about the placebo effect.
“I will definitely keep making videos,” he said.