Guest post by David Jarmul

Facebook, Twitter and other new social networks are making it easier than ever for people to share useful information about medicine and science, whether it’s about choosing a good physician or reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Adjunct professor Brian Southwell cautions in a new book, however, that the emergence of these forums doesn’t mean people will benefit from them equally. There are some significant disparities in how people use the forums – and not all can access them.

Cover of Southwell book“This book reflects a sense of urgency that I developed over several years as it became apparent that our networked future won’t guarantee the equity that some suggest it will,” writes Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI International in the Research Triangle Park and an adjunct professor with Duke University’s Energy Initiative. “Despite enthusiasm about 21st century possibilities for social contagion as a mechanism for public education, we have distinct reasons to expect not only inequality but also inequity.”

Southwell says disparities in information access present a host of ethical and policy challenges. “People involved in educating large masses of people about the latest research on topics like healthy behavior or the natural environment do not typically have access to bullhorns that can reach everyone at once,” he writes. “By acknowledging and addressing the reality of existing disparities between people and between communities in information sharing, we can work toward a future in which more people can participate in (and benefit from) ongoing dialogues, which in turn may help to craft healthier communities and even a healthier planet.”

At Duke, Southwell is exploring ways to engage low-income populations in a project he is pursuing with Dan Vermeer of the Fuqua School of Business and Laura Richman of the psychology department. Working with partners at Clean Energy Durham and the Bass Connections initiative, they will assess how innovative communication strategies might enhance household energy conservation efforts.

Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health: Sharing Disparities is published by RTI Press and Johns Hopkins University Press.