• Book

Social networks and popular understanding of science and health: Sharing disparities


Southwell, B. (2013). Social networks and popular understanding of science and health: Sharing disparities. (RTI Press Publication No. BK-0011-1307). Baltimore, MD and Research Triangle Park, NC: Johns Hopkins University Press and RTI Press. DOI: 10.3768/rtipress.2013.bk.0011.1307


A chorus of voices is celebrating the potential of social media and other new peer-to-peer connection technologies for teaching people about science and health in the 21st century. Rather than encouraging equity in what we all know and think about scientific discoveries, household consumer tips, the latest health recommendations, or opportunities for medical services, systematic reliance on social networks to spread information may nonetheless be a recipe for inequity. An increasing body of research suggests that people are not equal in their tendency to share information with others around them. In general, people do not take advantage of the chance to share ideas with others, a paradox in our current era of apparent information abundance. But it also appears that some people are much less likely than others to share information. Some of the differences in peer-to-peer sharing represent disparity in that information sharing is constrained unjustly by factors outside of a person’s immediate control. This book explains why these information-sharing patterns persist, why they matter to society, and what, if anything, can be done to address these tendencies.

Author Details

Brian Southwell

Brian Southwell

Brian Southwell, PhD, directs the Science in the Public Sphere program in the Center for Communication Science at RTI International. His large-scale evaluation work has spanned behaviors and audiences, including cancer prevention and screening promotion efforts, national campaigns to discourage drug and tobacco use, efforts to bolster television news coverage of science, and various state-level campaigns. He also has studied public understanding of energy and related topics. Dr. Southwell holds faculty appointments at Duke University (through Duke’s Energy Initiative) and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also hosts the public radio show "The Measure of Everyday Life" on WNCU.


“Southwell is a leading expert on communication about science and health. This book is necessary reading for anyone interested in human survival and well-being and how communication through mass media and via social networks affects both.” — James Druckman, Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and former editor of Public Opinion Quarterly “An absorbing book. Southwell eloquently explains what few will have realized: that the explosion of opportunities to share knowledge through social media appears to exacerbate disparities in public understanding of health and science, rather than level the field. He challenges us to think more deeply about strategies for public communication that would prevent those most socioeconomically disadvantaged from being left even further behind.” — Melanie Wakefield, Director, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia “In Sharing Disparities, Southwell provides critical frameworks and findings regarding health and social media. Digitally enabled by social media tools, peer-to-peer connections can help amply voices by shaping health content and user experiences.” — Fay Cobb Payton, Associate Professor of Information Systems, North Carolina State University, and Founder and Director of My Health Impact Network