Diederik Gommers is standing in the front yard of his home in an unsightly but heart-warming Feyenoord Christmas jumper. Next to this photo on Instagram, he has placed a large section of text where he calls for celebrating Christmas in a small group. “December days have always been dark days for lots of people, but this time it’s even worse thanks to Covid. There really is light at the end of the tunnel and we are almost there. Hang in there!” Gommers’ reach is considerable, within a day he has received ‘hearts’ from 60,000 people for his message and even though he has only been on Instagram for two months, he already has 382,000 followers.
That scientists are active on social media is a relatively new phenomenon. Nevertheless, Professor of Transition Studies Jan Rotmans has been busy on Twitter for years. With almost 50,000 followers and 30,000 posts, he is the most active of all EUR professors. He has long advocated that scientists should have a presence on social media. “I recall sitting on the Scientific Advisory Board of the European Climate Institute in Potsdam, where I was invited to give a lecture. I started talking about Twitter and Facebook and they just stared at me! I received a lot of negative reactions about that. That was around ten years ago. In the meantime, I see a number of prominent people from that institute who are now active on Twitter. It is a start, but it’s still not enough.”

Missed opportunity

He also mentions that he sees far too few eminent scientists from Erasmus University on Twitter. “Bas Jacobs is active and really goes into details in his own way. But I can’t for the life of me name ten others and that’s a real missed opportunity. It can be an important source for the diffusion of knowledge, but you can also use it to take a stand and make news. Radio or television broadcasters often call me up because of what I tweet.”

He sees absolutely no reason not to do that. “You obviously can’t be nuanced, which is why I sometimes create a thread -as I did the other day with Lubach (a well-known Dutch TV political satirist, ed.) -one made up of twenty-five tweets.” Rotmans offered a few critical comments and added nuances to Lubach’s critical broadcast on natural gas. “I also put that on LinkedIn and it has since been viewed there more than 420,000 times.” That reach is an important goal for him. “When I was a scientist pur sang and was publishing a lot, I managed to reach a thousand people with one article, at most. Who reaches hundreds of thousands or millions of people? Surely that’s every scientist’s dream, isn’t it? This is why I don’t the understand the utter disdain it attracts. That is just so outdated.”

Despite being the most prolific EUR scientist on Twitter with 16,018 posts so far, political scientist Chris Aalberts finds it of no importance whatsoever whether scientists are active on social media or not. “No, absolutely not!” He has a good laugh about it. “When I look at the names on the list of the ones from the EUR, that really reveals a lot, and I basically don’t fit in there. I am the only one who actually does something concrete with social media. This list has been drawn up based on the numbers and they represent public renown, and not that people there are doing anything particularly useful.”

He makes an exception for Rotmans. “I would like to assume that he does do things, but Gommers? A photo now and then. Balkenende does almost nothing, Putters tweets a brief commentary once in a while and a bit of news. So basically, as public figures, they have their own small private media channel. In that sense -and now I’m going to sound a bit arrogant -on that list, I consider myself to be the most relevant when it comes to Twitter. Without Twitter you will likely come across the rest at some point, but not me.”

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In any event, he casts doubt on the relevance of social media for scientists. “Ultimately, the question is, if you want to know something about Covid, if you will end up on Marion Koopmans‘ Twitter page or Diederik Gommers’ Instagram. There are newspapers, websites and talk shows and all that information can be found in them. The question is actually whether Marion Koopmans does anything different on Twitter than what she says on a talk show. All these famous people have relatively high levels of media exposure, so the chances that they’ll say something on Twitter that they can’t say anywhere else aren’t that great.” The opportunity to respond to each other does not impress him either. “Koopmans may be able to offer a reply to a few individuals, but in terms of the big picture, that’s just a drop in the ocean.”
Rotmans has even stopped responding, he claims. “I’m not engaging in any more discussions because there’s no end to them. I used to do that in the past. This is how I once ended up in a discussion with Diederik Samsom (a Labour Party MP, ed.) until 2 o’clock in the morning. He was passionate too and wouldn’t give up. Someone said back then: ‘Can’t you guys go for a drink together?’ He did have a point there, so that’s what we did. You’ve got to be able to put things somewhat into perspective.”

Not much interaction

Even though there is not so much interaction on his Twitter feed, plenty of people thank Rotmans for the information that he does share. “I know that when I respond to current events, as I did with Lubach, I get a plethora of reactions. Perhaps it’s not purely scientific knowledge that I am sharing, but I do translate my scientific knowledge into these kinds of threads in a more mainstream way, in order to answer the question: How do we get rid of natural gas in a smart way? That translation is tremendously important.”

Could he put his story out there in the newspapers as well? “That is a typically conventional way of thinking. When I write an opinion piece for a newspaper and I am free to choose between digital and paper, I always choose the first one. That is far more widely read. There is also an audience that I no longer need to reach, between 500- and 600,000 people, let’s call them the Tegenlichtpubliek (something like critical thinkers amongst the general public, ed.) They are already aware of themes like sustainability. I see colleagues addressing people who they have already reached. Which is not where the challenge lies. It’s about those people who are willing, but don’t know how to.”

Does that work? “Yes, quite well really. Nowadays, I am more often in the Algemeen Dagblad and De Telegraaf than in De Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad.” (All Dutch daily newspapers, ed).
For Aalberts, it is precisely this interaction that is more important than sharing knowledge. “What’s interesting about social media is that you can get something in return and learn from it, and that’s very different when it comes to the information coming from the NRC. The added value lies in coming into contact with other voices and suggestions for your work. Except that they are scientifically irrelevant, more journalistic in nature and fall under the scope of opinions more.”

He has followed the Forum for Democracy closely since its foundation and wrote a book about Thierry Baudet (a controversial, right wing Dutch politician, ed.). “If I share an article by a scientist who has written an interesting piece about the Forum’s European fraction, then that doesn’t generate any interaction at all. It does if Baudet says something weird and I say: ‘Baudet also said the same thing two years ago.” For me, the added value is that people get to know me via the Forum and have information for me. They are less likely to run into me if I did not have that public profile.”

Not a private matter

The EUR neither encourages nor discourages the use of social media, according to spokesperson Meral van Leeuwen: “We view that as the personal choice of an individual, which does not mean that it is ostensibly a private matter. If you have a public profile and you post about issues on I, then they are public. Regrettably, the outside world does not regard this as a private matter either, so we cannot treat it that way either.”

Rotmans does encourage his own people to be active on social media. “The uni is lagging a few years behind in this respect. I often talk about it with Ph.D. students and I see how someone like Derk Loorbach is expressing himself more and more on social media. Excellent, that’s what I advised him to do.”

Societal impact

In his opinion, having societal impact, as opposed to having a scientific impact, is becoming increasingly more important at the university. “They are finally going to measure this and map it out. I am one of the ones with the greatest amount of social impact at Erasmus University, at least I am in the top 5, and social media does play an important role in boosting your social impact. Which is why I expect that more and more scientists will start using social media, also to boost their social impact.”

He even dares to contend that, if you are a scientist who has a great deal of social impact, you, by definition, use social media. “In five or ten years’ time, that might carry as much weight as scientific impact. I can already see that the KNAW, NWO and VSNU are moving in that direction. (Respectively, The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Dutch Research Council, and The Association of Universities in the Netherlands, ed.). And as soon as that all takes off, everyone will automatically follow suit.”

All the same, there are still exceptions to the rule. “Someone like Willem Schinkel does not use social media at all and does have enough significant social impact. So does Henk Oosterling, who doesn’t even have a mobile phone, which is the other extreme. They can still do things the traditional way. It’ s everyone’s own choice, but this is just the beginning. In five years, you won’t need to write this kind of article anymore, because a lot more people will be active on social media. Then I’ll probably quit because I won’t stand out so much anymore.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Tip: keep your tweets short

He does have a few more tips. “It is an art, and I don’t see many people who have mastered it. I see scientists, I won’t name names, who come up with incomprehensible tweets. Far too long, without a clear message. No idea what they actually mean. In that case, they haven’t spent enough time on it. Put down on paper exactly what you want to say and who you want to reach. Don’t just start randomly tweeting. I think carefully about every single post, I weigh up every word. If you look at my tweets, they are razor-sharp, not a single unintelligible word is included. I’m busy half an hour with them each day, spread out over three to four separate times.” After all, in addition to the actual content, timing is important, he emphasises. “For instance, I work at night, but then I’m preparing them for the morning. On Monday morning at 10 o’clock everyone is sitting around having zoom sessions, then it’s pointless. You should do it during the lunch break, or at the end of the day. And you have to follow what’s happening on social media.”

In his opinion, one drawback is that Twitter has become an open sewer, full of swearing matches. “Last year was a low point. I was in De Telegraaf a couple of times as a green protagonist and got into a debate with Thierry Baudet about the EUR. After that, all of his trolls jumped on me. Fortunately, a charlatan like that never lasts very long, which turned out to be the case. As soon as I tweeted something, they would warn each other, and it started all over again. When they yelled obscenities at me, I ignored them, and when they threatened me, I blocked them. In the meantime, there are a few thousand of them and that takes a lot of time. They once threatened to set my house on fire, then I told them: “Make sure I’m home, otherwise it’s a waste.” According to him, it is essential to have a thick skin and to deal with things dispassionately. “Otherwise, it’s better not to go there at all. I don’t lie awake at night for a second, but my children and my wife sometimes read these things with me too. Which is particularly disturbing. Like the man who wanted to have me locked up in a closed psychiatric institution near my own address, because he knew where I lived. Or a guy who constantly called me Joseph Goebbels. So, I thought about quitting. But then I received so many messages of support from people who are keen to hear about these kinds of knowledge and opinions, that I kept going.”

Troll armies

Aalberts is also acquainted with the troll armies. “Screaming obscenities, harassment and bullying is a daily occurrence. But there is such a thing as an ignore and block button. So, I double-click here and there and then it’s gone, that’s how I keep things nice and neat.” Back to Diederik Gommers, who is mainly receiving comments on his Feyenoord jersey for now. Has he become even more vain from all the attention he is getting? “No, I haven’t become more vain, but I do have a goal: I want to conquer this virus together. This is how I want to do my bit, by passing on the limited knowledge I have. Nothing more and nothing less.”

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