Tricky topics and managing your social media presence


Fear of being flamed, trolled, or other forms of negative engagement is one of the main reasons many researchers I work with are wary of social media. There is good reason in some contexts for these fears (see Jonathan O’Donnell on how crowdfunding may not suit all research areas because some may attract “the attention of well-organized opposition groups, such as animal liberationists or anti-vaxxers” [O’Donnell 2020]).

For researchers who work in tricky research areas, this can be a very significant barrier.

For researchers from minoritised backgrounds or contexts, this is even more of a concern (e.g. for Indigenous Australian women).

While social media platforms can be sites of hazard and toxicity, they can also generate different and surprising outcomes, such as “productive expressions of cultural citizenship and solidarity” (McCosker and Johns 2014). Being on social media is not just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but can have better and worse elements. Those who love and value being on social media can dislike aspects of it; those who don’t love it can appreciate reasons for engaging on it and enjoy parts of it.

This post is inspired by a cluster of happenings across last year: a query from one of the researchers from my university who works in the area of queer identities and subcultures; being part of a panel about how to manage your social media presence if you research contentious topics; and the recurrently expressed and common fears from researchers about engaging with a public audience.

First thing is: you don’t have to be on social media. Don’t force yourself to be in the space if it only causes you constant anxiety and bad feeling.

This is post is for you if you’re interested in hearing about how others manage concerns about their tricky topics, and what strategies and tools might help you feel safer and more confident to engage.

If a researcher wants to establish a social media presence, I usually have a series of things I discuss with them to support their broader engagement and the development of their digital profile. Stuff that’s covered by what these posts on social media engagement say. If you are a researcher with a tricky topic, I would say that it’s good to have a risk management strategy – however informal – in place so you can feel confident dealing with any incidents that may arise.

And it’s all very well to say that but what does this actually mean in practice? What makes up a good risk management strategy for researchers when they are developing a social media presence? To answer these questions, I started gathering a few perspectives on how people do this. Big thanks to my colleagues who contributed below and shared their takes and insight!

PhD researcher and health promotion strategist Daniel Reeders (@engagedpractx) has worked in HIV education and prevention, and written about and participated in discussions about public health aspects of COVID responses and communications. Daniel, who isn’t shy about getting into energetic debates on Twitter, says:

“It takes practice, so it’s essential to get started, and be exploratory about it — don’t dive into the most sensitive topics but start with something a bit less spicy and see how it goes. You have to tweet about everyday stuff as well to build up a following and establish you’re a human being.

Ideally, you’re intentional about touching on the tricky topics; my worst experiences have been when circumstances or my own feelings have pushed me into touching on a topic when I’m not prepared for the reaction. But those negative experiences have also been learning opportunities. Twitter offers a range of tools you can use to manage your exposure, e.g. I only see mentions from people who follow me, and I block and mute people and mute keywords liberally.”

Professor of Media and Communication Kath Albury (@kathalbury) has worked for many years in the areas of gender, sexuality, and digital media. She gets interviewed about topics like teen sex and dating apps, among other fascinating topics, so you can imagine the potential for her digital presence to be tricky. Kath says:

“I tweet sexuality and gender-focused content but it’s mostly very academic (not ’debating’ as such). It’s interspersed among digital media studies generally. I am pretty vigilant at blocking any new followers that look like bots or sock puppet accounts and I also check the lists I’m added to. I also mute keywords [and] share different content on different platforms. For example, on Twitter, I literally assume I’m talking to a journalist.

That said, I do that as a person who has been interviewed many times about sexuality and gender, and I’m very used to discussing scary topics like porn and sexting in public. For academics getting started in this space, I usually recommend following others you’re interested in and watching how they tweet and how others respond. It helps you access new work/ ideas and join conversations gradually. I know it’s generic advice but it’s a good way to learn to be public about ‘controversial‘ issues.”

Another gender and sexuality researcher, who has a different perspective on engagement on social media, said:

“I don’t comment on (i.e. make posts on or comments about) the stuff that could get me trolled or George Christensen-ed.* I just keep it to the general level themes. This isn’t perfect but I would freak out if I got trolled so it’s self preservation.”

On working in areas that are geopolitically sensitive, a colleague said, “My position for many years has been to try and remain a-political”. They flagged, however, that taking this stance can become problematic; saying nothing could be taken as implicit support of contemporary events. To counter this, and still maintain boundaries around their engagement that enable them to feel safe, they focus on the kinds of work they write and promote. For example, they share work that “present[s] divergent and nuanced views” or “highlight that governments, newspapers and individuals can have differing views”.

Lecturer in Professional Communication at RMIT University Jay Daniel Thompson (@JaysProofs) acknowledges that he occupies a privileged position online and flags that which platform you are on matters:

“I would guess that researchers from marginalised groups – e.g. those who are not white, or cisgender, or able-bodied, or who are female – would be most at risk of online toxicity, especially when they write about contentious and controversial topics. . . .  Yes, I have been chill thus far – I feel no shame in saying that I want to be accessible to the public but that could change if I start copping negativity from the public.

I try not to post anything overly ‘inflammatory’ on social media (‘inflammatory’ can be so subjective, though, especially in the social media world). I should also point out that the social media platform upon which I’m most active is Facebook, where my posts are predominantly visible to only ‘friends’, as opposed to the broader audience that a Twitter account could reach.”

As you can see from the range of advice, researchers have different levels and types of engagement online, and have strategies for which platforms they use. They also list various ways that you can make use of the social media platforms’ functions to manage what you have to see or deal with. I block accounts and mute keywords on Twitter all the time to ensure that my stream isn’t a constant push of microaggression.

Here are a few resources that can help if you are thinking through your social media usage and engagement, and wanting to know a bit more about the risks of trolling and the tools you can use to manage your feeds:

Author: George Christensen is a controversial Australian Member of Parliament who has links with the alt-right and has recently been embroiled in corruption allegations