Social media platforms, for example, are a ubiquitous communication tool, with nearly 2 billion people using Facebook every day. However, these platforms curate their offerings, with neural networks employing algorithms to recommend content to users based on inputs such as age, gender, and location. In the sciences, including astronomy, the result is a predominantly male audience watching, listening to, and reading content created by men. Dr. Becky Smethurst of the University of Oxford is now working to overcome this bias, not least through her YouTube channel, which has 400,000 subscribers. On Tuesday, July 13, she presented her findings at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Warwick.
TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are frequently excellent ways to reach and engage a large global audience with scientific topics. The challenge for science communicators is to overcome their inherent bias, as science is a “male” topic, with men running 23 of the top 25 YouTube science and technology channels. Algorithms then recommend them to other men, excluding other audiences, such as young girls, from seeing that content unless they go out of their way to find it.
Smethurst is best known for her YouTube channel “Dr. Becky,” which has over 400,000 subscribers and 28 million views. She employs this to circumvent the limitations imposed by recommendation algorithms and connect with “unreachable” audiences. Part of her strategy is to disguise a science video as something else, such as a meme review or a day-in-the-life video. People will watch the video if it is in a format, they are familiar with, and they will learn some science in the process.
As a result, they are more likely to be recommended more science content. Smethurst notes that using this approach for her channel increased engagement with 13–24-year-olds by a factor of 4, and with women by a factor of 11, above the recommendation algorithm’s base level.
Smethurst expresses her appreciation for her work “as a science Trojan horse, bringing people to astronomy through the use of completely different ideas We desperately need to broaden the pool of people entering science, and I hope that my channel is making a real difference in making astronomy something that everyone can engage with and enjoy.”