Why did it go viral? An informatics-based case study of exaggerated language in news and social media

03 April 2023

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News stories about science sometimes use exaggerated wording that was not used by the scientists themselves – words like ‘astonishing’ or ‘miracle’, for example. Words like these might lead to a science story ‘going viral’ across social media and other new sites, but could also lead to the public being misled and might foster distrust in news stories.

In this study, we looked at the viral spread of a science news story. A study was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in June 2022 and published at the same time in a prestigious scientific journal (the New England Journal of Medicine). It was about a new treatment (called dostarlimab) for a specific type of rectal cancer. Despite involving only 12 patients, the study led to a surprising amount of news and social media interest.

We used social media and news monitoring software to find posts and articles about the study, and we used artificial intelligence tools to get insights into which the first articles were and whether they used exaggerated language.

We found a few early articles from major news outlets that included exaggerated language (for example, ‘revolutionary’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘scientific miracle’). However, these were not picked up on social media until a few days later, when they were cited in several highly influential tweets from politically affiliated accounts. These early news articles were picked up by other news articles that used similar exaggerated language, which may have triggered the high levels of public interest and the viral spread.

We think that making plain language summaries of scientific publications available to the public might help to lower the risk of exaggerated reporting in the future.

In January 2023, we presented our poster on this study at ISMPP EU in London, UK, where it won an award for ‘most reflective of meeting theme’. The meeting theme was ‘fuelling creativity’. We presented the poster with co-authors from Dasman Diabetes Institute and Novartis. View the poster here.