Social media echo chambers are hurting climate debate

We live in an era where emotional statements frequently trump cold and bland facts, raising questions over communication strategies for climate activists, says climate change writer Simon Pollock.

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Social media can be a force for good when used to advocate for climate change. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Image: Jason Howle, CC BY 2.0

The rise of social media is splintering, rather than strengthening, momentum for action on climate change. This may seem contradictory to what is expected.

New social media platforms are dissolving time and geographical boundaries.

Surely, the revolution of online democracy in communication brought by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram is bringing us closer together to save the planet?

But research around social media and the political convolutions brought by the Donald Trump and Brexit surprises suggest otherwise.

“Social media is good for allowing people to reach out to like-minded people,” said Luis Hestres, an assistant professor specialising in communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the US.

Most social studies show online interaction is reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and values, rather than opening minds, he added.

UK-based researcher Hywel Williams found in his study of the English-speaking Twitter community’s approach to climate change that Tweeters were conversing in “echo chambers” that merely reflects their existing views.

While a small number of Twitter users communicated with others holding different views about climate change, most did not interact at all with the other side.

“As the online debate fragments, existing views are likely to become reinforced and extreme,” said Williams, an environmental scientist at the University of Exeter who is analysing complex social systems. 

Even if we are not talking to those with different views, there is no doubt that social media, especially Twitter, has become a formidable weapon in climate activists’ arsenals.

Most social studies show online interaction is reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and values, rather than opening minds.

Another climate-social media scholar, David Holmes at Australia’s Monash University, was surprised by the online efficacy of NGOs at the Paris climate change summit at the end of last year.

His study of the impact of Twitter at that seminal international gathering found that NGO tweets were retweeted eight times more than those written by news media journalists.

“This indicates people trusted NGOs more than the mainstream media,” said Holmes.

While journalists are still writing the core information about climate change, it is the NGOs that are “curating” the sort of news media articles that are widely disseminated, according to Holmes.

Social power

The Australian academic credits the NGOs’ highly effective online activism as being instrumental in coercing government delegates in Paris to sign on to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels” in the international gathering’s final agreement, rather than just aim for two degrees as had been widely expected.

But the flow of social media is not going all the climate activists’ way.

Witness the rise of Republican presidential candidate and climate change doubter Donald Trump. The feisty billionaire is a product of television.

His meteoric rise to prominence among the US public began with his role as the former host of The Apprentice reality television programme, which pitched contestants against each other over their business pitches.

But it is Trump’s ability to use cut-through, and often incendiary, comments to viral social intent that most lifted his profile in the run-up to the bruising US presidential battle.

Some of Trump’s more controversial comments are testing the maxim that any publicity is good publicity, but he is certainly continuing to set the social media world alight.

While television viewing in countries like the UK and the US have declined by three to four per cent per year on average since 2012, it remains a formidable weapon in the US presidential campaign.

University of Texas at San Antonio academic Luis Hestres said Trump has been highly effective in marrying the twin powers of television and social media.

“Trump has been able to get plenty of free TV time by making outrageous comments that are picked up by the social media,” said Hestres. 

Arguably though, it is the meaning – rather than the medium – of the social media messages that empowers Trump and others who are able to cut through the cacophony of the online world.

While anathema to climate activists, Trump’s stated belief that climate change is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive” – along with his pledge to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement – is simple and emotive.

Such strong and clear messages provide solace for opponents of climate action, and may help to sway those with little interest but general suspicion of global bodies and liberal agendas.

Of course, the heady brew produced by combining powerful and un-nuanced messages with the instantaneous information web of the internet is not peculiar to the US.

It is evident the victory of emotional statements over the use of cold and bland facts was a major contributor to the success of the Leave supporters in the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union in June.

Simple narrative

“A key mistake of the Remain campaign was the assumption that the EU debate could be settled by statistical models and elite expert opinion,” writes climate change commentator George Marshall of Climate Outreach in a recent blog.

Marshall believe the Leave campaign’s effective use of anti-establishment messages portraying the Remain supporters as self-serving experts who did not understand the concerns of ordinary people is mirrored in the online activism of climate change deniers.

The simplicity of the emotive, cut-through messages used by those opposing climate action is likely to continue to be effective as they bypass the boring details and uncertainty of scientific investigation.

The main problem with communicating climate change is that it is complicated. This is not surprising as the scope of this unintended planetary experiment is unprecedented.

Recent research shows humans are releasing carbon about 10 times faster than during any event in the past 66 million years.

Even as social media is now splintering into a host of new platforms, many relying increasingly on video clips such as Instagram and Vine, a fragmented contest of ideas is likely to remain as a defining feature of online interaction about climate change.

Such differences are bound to become even more pronounced when we don’t share opinions with those holding divergent views.


Simon Pollock is an Australian-based climate change writer and journalist. This article was reproduced with permission from the author. 

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