In Uppsala, people may be waking up to the fact that they have a global opinion shaper in their midst
Some scientists uphold a ‘strictly-research’ – ‘only-science’ — approach to Twitter. Their tweets are only either about their own research or the research of scientists in their own field.
Other scientists, sometimes more experienced ones, take a step further. They post about public issues based on their relevant expertise. In this way, a virologist might tweet about — say — vaccine policy.
“Even if it is time-consuming and perilous, academics should actively contribute to the political debate of the country”
Ashok Swain is one of these, and he believes that his own expertise and experience obligate him to engage with the policies of this age based on his knowledge of water co-operation and conflicts between nations.
Pinned to the top of his Twitter profile is the tweet:
“If the politics of a country goes seriously wrong, all contributions academics are hoping to make will become useless. Thus, even if it is time-consuming and perilous, academics should actively contribute to the political debate of the country.”
Inspired by PhD student
Scrolling down Ashok Swain’s Twitter feed is an insight into his world as a public intellectual. He is not afraid to tweet about the conflicts and issues of the age.
Ashok Swain is Professor and Head of Department of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research in Uppsala, but he also holds the position as UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation, and is Editor-in-Chief of ‘Environment and Security’ journal.
He is also, as I recently found out, a top scientist on my just-released TwiLiIndex for Sweden, which ranks the top 100 scientists on social media. He does this mostly on the back of his 430,000+ followers on Twitter.
Let that sink in for a moment. That is 430,000 — a medium-sized city.
So on a sweltering day in August I called him to ask WHAT it was that made him so hot on the social networks.
“If something comes out wrong, your whole reputation is on the line. This would not be the case if you had a small number of followers. You open yourself to larger scrutiny”
“I think it was my PhD student that more or less forced me to get a Twitter account back in 2009.” Ashok Swain laughs, “and now this PhD student has become a successful scientist in his own right, and I am very active on Twitter.”
It has been his position at the crux of conflicts in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa that has generated his following, he explained to me.
“I started tweeting about politics in connection with the Indian election of 2014. Here a new regime came to power that, in a European sense, would be considered far right. And there have been other big things happening in the world, where my tweets gave a boost to my follower numbers: For example the 2019 [Pulwama] attack in Kashmir, which involved India and Pakistan in conflict,” he explains.
“But apart from South Asia I have a large number of followers in the Middle East, partly because I write a regular column for the [UAE-based, ed.] Gulf News that is also related to my area of research. I also comment quite a bit on the Nile water dispute [involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia], which is of course related to my area of research on water cooperation and conflict.”
Quantity has a quality of its own
With his large following, Ashok Twain is not afraid to tweet about the issues of the day, and these are more likely to be picked up by news channels by virtue of his huge following. Like his recent take on the Finnish prime minister’s dance moves that was picked up by CNN.
Finland’s PM is again subjected to criticism for partying! Why can’t she party after work? Do we expect our leaders not to be human beings? pic.twitter.com/9fbrGVq9Wa
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) August 18, 2022
.. or a recent tweet that went viral:
Punjab Chief Minister openly drinks a glass of polluted water from a ‘holy river’ to prove that water is clean. Now admitted to hospital. pic.twitter.com/MH1OLwUlUw
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) July 21, 2022
“Once you have a certain number of followers you gain credibility, just as a result of that. But having lots of followers has its challenges, because you become a ‘target’”, he says, adding that “if something comes out wrong, your whole reputation is on the line. This would not be the case if you had a small number of followers. You open yourself to larger scrutiny.“
Awareness of the costs of not co-operating
It is not all world affairs, though. Like most scientists, Ashok Swain, has integrated his use of Twitter into a professional research routine.
“People give you feedback on your work via Twitter, and I promote their research via my Twitter account. Others help promote my own research also.”
If I was ‘just’ a researcher in Uppsala, without the following, I would not have had that reach. Twitter is significant in this way, potentially influencing decision makers
Sometimes, the high follower numbers on Twitter help Ashok Swain get his own research onto news sites in multiple countries, helping to put water co-operation on the agenda, and influencing a wider public debate.
Recent research work for Oxfam on the costs of non-cooperation of between these countries is an example of this.
Today, I presented the report “Understanding the Cost of Non-Cooperation in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin.” The Report prepared for @RiversTROSA of @oxfamgb. We have calculated that the basic minimum cost for basin countries for not cooperating is $14.2 Billion per annum. https://t.co/V3hZL5Rxil
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) May 5, 2022
“Journalists contacted me, wanting access to the paper. And it was covered in both Bangladesh, India and Nepal. If I was ‘just’ a researcher in Uppsala, without the following, I would not have had that reach. Twitter is significant in this way, potentially influencing decision makers,” he says.
When I ask him about his social media routine, Ashok Swain says that when he gets up at 7 am, he checks what is going on via Twitter, and responds to any direct messages. A few tweets may follow. Then he works, and may tweet again in the evening.
What about ‘working hours’?
“I am not a disciplined person, by nature” Ashok Swain answers by way of response, adding that he does indeed sometimes tweet during the day if the need arises either from his phone, his laptop, or desktop computer. “But I have several demanding jobs. And I have a family, although the kids are grown up now. And I still need to cook!” he laughs.
In Uppsala, in the meantime, the locals may have to wizen up to the fact that they have a global influencer in the field of water conflict and co-operation in their midst. A recent article on a local news site highlighting his social media influence may help.
“I don’t do research that I don’t sincerely believe in, neither do I have a problem with stating my opinions. So this is the platform for me”
In a recent month he had 76 million impressions in a month on Twitter, meaning that Ashok Swain’s tweets have been ‘seen’ 76 million times on the platform. As if more than the whole population of the UK scrolled past.
His activity on LinkedIn is much more limited, and his following, though significant at 4,700+, much smaller. For Ashok Swain, it is Twitter that still represents a kind of freedom for him:
“Twitter is a place where you can express your opinion without being restricted. I don’t do research that I don’t sincerely believe in, neither do I have a problem with stating my opinions. So this is the platform for me.”
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