Influencing the people with influence – Fellows’ seminar by Bai Lu

18 November 2022
– using social media to enhance science communication in China


‘We want to influence people with influence,” said Bai Lu of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. “We want to spread the idea that science should be a lifestyle.”

Lu pointed out that social media has led to a drastic change in how we receive, deliver and share information and knowledge. Compared with traditional media, social media is distinguished by fast (almost instant) and exponential dissemination to millions of people but also a short lifespan for readers facing an information explosion. Rapid dissemination also leads to inaccuracy, incompleteness, incorrect and, at times, deliberately fake information. “The barriers to write and publish are low. Information on social media is often incorrect, incomplete, or lacks authority. Copycat and plagiarism are common.”

STIAS Fellow Bai Lu during his seminar on 15 November 2022

In his seminar, Lu explored how social media has changed science communication and his own experiences with using ‘Public WeChat’ in China for rapid disseminate of information, articles and live broadcasts.

Lu is a neuroscientist whose distinguished career has spanned the full research pathway from basic science to translational and clinical research to drug discovery in the fields of learning and memory, Alzheimer’s and depression; as well as incorporating the academic, government and private sectors in both China and the USA.

“So this is not my specialty but something I have done for fun which has been exciting and highly impactful,” he said.

In 2015, Lu and two colleagues – Yi Rao of Peking University and Yu Xie of Princeton University – launched ‘The Intellectuals’ a Public WeChat dedicated to science communication. In China 90% of users access the internet via their mobile phones. WeChat is a powerful communication tool that has the functions of telephone, voice massage, email, video conference, as well as sharing photos and articles. It is like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all combined. One can also form ’group chat’, a discussion group of up to 500 people, through which everyone can share news, documents, video clips, opinions and articles. Another unique function is  ’Public WeChat’, an easy-to-use, low-cost, online publication tool that allows ordinary people as well as professionals to rapidly disseminate information, articles, and even live broadcasting. The public WeChat is also linked to WeBo, another form of social medium similar to Twitter allowing reading and forwarding articles without being a subscriber. By 2015 WeChat already had 650 million subscribers and has grown massively since then. “In China you have to use WeChat or you are not a social being,” said Lu. “It’s very suitable for the fast-paced lifestyle of today.”

‘The Intellectuals’ publishes several original articles a day, report on impactful, breakthrough discoveries, discuss science and technology policies, and live-broadcast special forums, Nobel Prize announcements and important conferences.

Lu pointed out that although it was originally hard to define exactly what ‘The Intellectuals’ was and encompassed, they settled on a focus including critical and independent thinking, balanced and enlightened views, social awareness and responsibility, and respecting different opinions.

“We wanted to develop a culture that respects science and scientific ways of thinking,” he said. “The vision is about impacting on ways to judge and evaluate S&T achievements, promoting reforms in the S&T system and influencing policies.”

Grow fast or die

The strategy to achieve this included garnering publicity, high visibility, acquiring dominance within the medium but also working closely with mainstream media.

The group quickly found themselves being invited to participate in major international conferences (like Davos), as well as in mainstream media via interviews and participation in programmes. Lu gave examples like being included in ‘13 Invites’ a show watched by 100 million people; a 30-episode TV series on AI innovation called ‘Superior to Man’; and TV lectures on ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’ and ‘Future of Science’, and even acting as judges for a programme judging children’s invention ideas.

Live-broadcasting of the Nobel Prize announcements with background stories on the winners and expert commentary has also proven extremely popular with audiences of up to 0.5 million watching live and another 4 million reading.

They also found themselves as media personalities with making the cover of the GQ China Men of the Year edition in 2016 a definite highlight.

Their audience includes industry leaders, academia, government and professionals, and the stories that have proven most popular tend to be those that focus on science issues that impact on people’s daily lives – like air pollution, GM foods and, of course, COVID-19.

“Major news agencies now take stories directly from us,” said Lu. “Many news media regard us as the authorities and our articles as a major source for their science stories.”

And they have had impact. Lu pointed to two examples – a debate around the construction of a Collider in 2016 and a ‘Gene-editing Baby’ story in 2018 – where they provided a forum for debate and discussion that drastically changed government decision making and a platform for the scientific community to express their views on science ethics. “We are sometimes able to say things others can’t say,” said Lu.

Of course all of this meant that the initial group of three had to expand drastically – the team now includes 200 science writers producing more than  a 1000 articles a year (with the top stories garnering as many as 100 000 reads), as well as an 88-member multidisciplinary advisory board that includes Nobel laureates, academics, university deans and others. They currently have 2.5 million subscribers on WeChat and 3 million on WeBo and have won a number of awards.

“It has become the most influential science media in China,” said Lu. “It’s increasingly clear that science social media such as ‘The Intellectuals’ have changed the way scientific reporting, government policies, and public understanding of science and technology is done. Through these activities, we are disseminating not only scientific knowledge, but also promoting ways of thinking and addressing societal problems. We hope to spread the idea that science should be a lifestyle and that using social media for science can influence the people with influence.”

Lu believes some lessons may be relevant to science communication in Africa and elsewhere. Because of massive competition in the social media space, the initial development period required substantial time and resources to establish the group’s reputation in providing accurate and insightful information in a way that was simple, attention-catching and easy-to-read.

“It was grow fast or die,” he said. “I initially devoted substantial time to it. It’s fast, high impact – if you don’t compete initially, you won’t get to exist. We don’t need to do that anymore. Once you are there people come to you.”

“I believe it affects the way science is done and science policy for the better,” he added. “It’s a platform for transparency and for a wider variety of opinions but always based on facts.”

“It’s about doing science differently, getting science to a wider audience, impacting on government policy, public opinion, lifestyle and the future direction of society. We hope to foster curiosity and exploration as part of a lifelong journey.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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