Science and the social media in an African context The case of the Square Kilometre Array telescope
Research focussed on Africa is a critical gap in the science communication literature. This paper presents a media content analysis of representations of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope on Twitter by South African users. On this basis it explores how representations of the SKA have been constructed by public and private actors to frame the project as a symbol in the public sphere.
The analysis of information flows reveals that proactive social media campaigns led to significantly higher profiles on Twitter. However, the overall composition of messages is dominated by large media firms, indicating that integration between traditional and online media plays a key role in shaping representations of the SKA on Twitter. On the other hand, there remains substantial scope for individual agency in shaping the discourse, particularly for high-profile users and leading science journalists. Micro-determinants played a key role in shaping the virality of messages. The influence of other social media platforms, as well as conferences, symposia, celebrity personalities, and positions of political influence, all strongly shaped the extent to which messages from individual users were re-tweeted.
The SKA is largely represented as a validation of African and South African science and technology capabilities, with a focus on the competitive bidding process against a rival Australian site. This formed a proxy discourse for politico-symbolic themes that framed the project as essentially African: as a symbol of African achievement, as an affirmation and validation of African capabilities, and as a symbol of modernity and membership of the global scientific and technological community. On the other hand, there is little detailed representation of the science and technology aspects of the project. The roles of individuals and institutions in framing the project are explored in light of key themes and the viral propagation of messages through the social media.
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