In The Politics of Autism, I examine the role of social media in the development of the issue. Social media can spread vaccine disinformation, but they can also provide autistic people and their families with a way to access peer-reviewed research.
At The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Anne Longo & Brittany N. Hand have a brief report titled "The Impact of Social and News Media Coverage on the Dissemination of Autism Research."
In the past decade, there has been more research on social media use and its effects on article dissemination, including the effects on article downloads and citations (Palamar & Strain, 2021). Our paper provides the first analysis of the relationship between autism research dissemination on social and news media and downloads and citations. Even after controlling for open access, which is known to greatly increase the chance of article downloads and citations, we found that social media shares and news media coverage were significantly associated with more article downloads and citations. Specifically, our analyses showed that article downloads increased significantly with every 10 Twitter shares, at least one Facebook share, and any news media coverage (Table 2). Articles citations increased significantly with every 10 Twitter shares and any news media coverage.
Our findings also provide the first description, to our knowledge, of characteristics of autism research articles with most downloads, citations, social media shares, and news coverage. Interestingly, despite being the largest area of funding for autism research, studies on the biology of autism were not among the most downloaded, cited, or shared articles (Harris et al., 2021). In contrast, most of the highly downloaded, cited and shared articles focused on high-priority research areas identified by the IACC like treatments and interventions and services (IACC, 2018).
Autism is a popular topic of online discussion among researchers and the autism community. The autism community is incredibly active on social media, as autistic individuals spend more time using the internet and computer-mediated communication than non-autistic individuals (Kim, 2019; MacMullin et al., 2015). Widespread sharing of an article increases visibility among autism community members who, if interested, may download the article to learn more. Additionally, sharing an article via social media allows for engagement and opportunity for discussion with the autism community and researchers. Articles in this study tended to be shared most on Twitter, which is not surprising as it is the most used researcher posting cite (Dol et al., 2019) and is used by the autism community more than Facebook (van Schalkwyk et al., 2017).
Our results showed that having news media cover a research article had a large positive association with downloads and citations. However, relatively few articles in our study (< 10%) were covered in news media. The five articles that were most covered in news media (Supplemental Table) tended to be open access (80%), focus on autistic children and adolescents (100%), and cover topics like: (a) outcomes as a function of race or ethnicity (40%), or (b) novel treatments and interventions (40%). This result shows that despite increased focus on social media, news media still plays an important role in widespread reach of research findings and provides insights as to the types of articles most likely to receive media coverage.