For days, emergency doctors, virologists, infectiologists and even epidemiologists have been multiplying messages on Twitter and telling their subscribers how to follow them on other platforms if the social network bought by billionaire Elon Musk should fail.
The company with the blue bird laid off half of its 7,500 employees, and several hundred others slammed the door, voicing concerns about the network’s viability. The unpredictability of his new boss also raises fears of measures that would fundamentally change the nature of the platform.
However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, many medical professionals have turned Twitter into a real tool: to get information, share their research, communicate public health messages or even build working relationships with colleagues.
The pandemic “was really a game changer in how researchers use social media as a resource, I think,” Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, Canada, told AFP.
In January 2020, Covid-19 spread like wildfire around the world. Studies are being conducted everywhere to understand how the virus spreads and how best to protect yourself from it. They are being shared at full speed on Twitter in response to concerns from healthcare professionals and the general public.
This is the advent of “preprints,” the first version of a scientific study before it is peer-reviewed and published in a recognized journal.
“In the midst of a pandemic, the ability to quickly share information is critical to spreading knowledge, and Twitter is enabling this in ways that ‘specialist journals’ cannot match,” underscored an April 2020 commentary published by the Canadian Journal of Emergency medicine.
The process of reviewing the results takes place almost live on Twitter, with scientists publicly sharing their interpretations and criticisms of each new study. Certainly with a sometimes perverse effect: certain works receive attention that they do not deserve, and researchers comment on topics that are far removed from their field.
Thanks to Twitter, many experts have also started collaborating remotely.
“There are people I work with now from relationships that were formed on Twitter. To think that might change in the near future is a source of concern and regret,” said Jason Kindrachuk, 22,000 followers, who focuses specifically on Ebola in Africa.
In addition to pure research, the social network also plays an important role in communication with politicians and the public.
By the time the Omicron variant emerged in late 2021, “this information was shared publicly via Twitter by our South African and Botswana colleagues,” stresses Jason Kindrachuk, “allowing many countries to start preparing.”
The effect is all the greater as Twitter has long been heavily frequented by another professional group: journalists.
“Because Twitter is a platform highly followed by journalists, it helps” amplify the message, which is then likely to end up in traditional media, points out Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist with 88,000 subscribers.
Amid concerns about the future of Mr Musk’s network, she told AFP that she had postponed a private discussion with a dozen colleagues to Signal Messaging and restarted her publications on professional network LinkedIn or the Post News platform.
Many experts share their profile name on the competing Mastodon network, and others share a link to their substack news feed.
In the event of a problem with Twitter, “we will find other platforms”, puts Jason Kindrachuk into perspective, “but it will take time and unfortunately infectious diseases do not wait for us to find new communication mechanisms”.