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Whether you think it's fun and frivolous, or you worry it's bad for mental health and creating a generation who cannot live outside of their phones, there is no doubt that social media has become a global superpower. Used by people in all walks of life, from all over the world, it would be hard today to find someone who did not have a presence on one social media platform or another. Not only do these platforms create connections between people, but you can do everything on there from job hunting to shopping to education. But does social media have any impact on sharks? How are sharks presented on these platforms? And could social media even play a part in the future of scientific research?


Swimming with sharks - like these nurse sharks in the Bahamas - can make for some amazing social media photographs (Image Credit: finepic / Shutterstock)

Let's Share

Social media is certainly full of travel photos, funny articles, and frivolous content, like images of people's lunch, but it is also a platform where professionals can share high value content. There is a lot of educational material available on platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, where numerous groups devoted to sharks and marine biology are circulating credible scientific content (Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021).


"Social media represents a powerful tool ... to deliver scientific information to the public"

Whether you agree with the methods or not, social media influencers like Ocean Ramsey, sharing positive content online is increasing public interest in sharks and helping to shift public attitudes towards them (Image Credit: ON THE WAVE / WikimediaCommons)

In the Feels

The way that animals are presented in media content plays a huge role in how we feel about them. If a video of a shark is accompanied by deep, moody music that would not be out of place in a slasher movie, this can encourage people to see them as villains. However, if we share content that describes the wonder and mystery of these animals, we can switch people's perceptions to one of fascination and curiosity (Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021; Casola et al, 2022).


Sharing images and videos of sharks on social media is going some way to make people more familiar with sharks and less afraid of them (Image Credit: Chadybetour / WikimediaCommons)

Studies of responses to shark videos on YouTube have proven that, not only do positive presentations of sharks make viewers significantly less frightened of them, but it also drives people to reject lethal shark control measures, like beach nets and cullings. Scientific studies have also shown that people who live in areas where sharks are common tend to have a more positive attitude towards them, suggesting that the mystery plays some part in fueling some people's fear of sharks. So content that makes people more familiar with these animals - like videos on YouTube or photographs on Instagram - could go some way to changing people's minds about sharks (Neff & Yang, 2013; Kroetz et al, 2021; Casola et al, 2022).


"The use of social media platforms for shark conservation campaigns ... have the potential to reach a huge audience & raise awareness"

In recent years, shark-related content shared online has started to shift away from Jaws-themed sensationalism, more towards educational content, designed to raise awareness (Image Credit: Davis Anderson, U.S. Navy / WikimediaCommons)

As content can spread very quickly through social media platforms and they have an incredibly wide reach, they have the potential to spread positive messaging about sharks all over the world very quickly, with little to no cost involved. So these platforms could play a huge role in educating and engaging the public, shifting attitudes and garnering support for conservation initiatives (Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021; Kroetz et al, 2021).




"Shark-related social media may be leveraged to promote shark conservation"

Social media images have been used as a data source for scientists to study blue shark population demographics and critical habitats (Image Credit: Ben Phillips / Pexels)

In the Net

In recent years social media platforms have even been used to gather data for rigorous scientific analyses. Normally this process must be conducted in the field by scientists, so can be logistically challenging and very expensive. Alternatively, images that are posted on social media can be used a data source via "data mining". This means that scientists can perform enormous scientific studies very quickly, with a much wider reach than would otherwise be possible, and they can do it incredibly cheaply (Mcdavitt & Kyne, 2020; Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021; Kroetz et al, 2021).


That might sound far-fetched, but it's true! Social media has already been used in quite a few serious scientific studies and it seems to be gaining some traction as an alternative resource that does not rely upon patchy (and potentially biased) data sourced through fisheries (Mcdavitt & Kyne, 2020; Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021; Kroetz et al, 2021).



"Social media platforms ... represent an ever-growing source of data on wildlife [and] can play a major role in data gathering"

For example, social media data (from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Blogs) has been used to study the population demographics and distributions of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) in the Mediterranean Sea. This work has taken scientists closer to identifying the regions where pregnant females give birth and so local conservationists have a better understanding about where important habitats are located (Boldrocchi & Storai, 2021).


In another project using only photographs shared via social media, scientists discovered that a species of "batoid" (aka skate or ray) known as the clown wedgefish (Rhynchobatus cooki) was not extinct, as it had been feared. The scientists realised that, whilst very rare, these wedgefish can still be found on fish markets in Asia and they have a much broader distribution than we previously thought. This information will be vital for their future conservation (Mcdavitt & Kyne, 2020). To learn more, check out I Will Be Back.


It might sound like trawling through social media for data would be a big job and it's true that it is, but scientists are coming up with new technological advances that can help to cut the effort. Using "machine learning", we can train algorithms to recognise the outline of a particular animal, like a shark, in an image. This means the computer can search through thousands of images shared online very quickly and identify those that contain the target animals. Sometimes these clever machines can even be taught to identify particular species of sharks (Jenrette et al, 2022). It's like we are living in the future!



References

Boldrocchi G & Storai T (2021). Data‐mining social media platforms highlights conservation action for the Mediterranean Critically Endangered blue shark Prionace glauca. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 31:11. Access online.


Casola WR, Beall JM, Peterson MN, Larson LR & Price CS (2022). Influence of social media on fear of sharks, perceptions of intentionality associated with shark bites, and shark management preferences. Frontiers in Communication, 7, 1033347. Access online.


Jenrette J, Liu ZC, Chimote P, Hastie T, Fox E & Ferretti F (2022). Shark detection and classification with machine learning. Ecological Informatics, 69, 101673. Access online.


Kroetz AM, Brame AB, Bernanke M, McDavitt MT & Wiley TR (2021). Tracking public interest and perceptions about smalltooth sawfish conservation in the USA using Instagram. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 31:10. Access online.


Mcdavitt MT & Kyne PM (2020). Social media posts reveal the geographic range of the Critically Endangered Clown Wedgefish Rhynchobatus cooki. Journal of Fisheries Biology, 97. Access online.


Neff CL & Yang JYH (2013). Shark bites and public attitudes: Policy implications from the first before and after shark bite survey. Marine Policy, 38. Access online.


By Sophie A Maycock for SharkSpeak



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