A picture of a guy underwater holding a bunch of straws receives 487 likes on Instagram. Alongside the popular hashtag #StopSucking (used for the social media challenge aimed at “Putting an end to single-use plastic straws”), the post also contains the hashtag #climatechange. A repost from the Instagram account of Cowspiracy says that “Eating a vegan diet could be the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact”. Self-stylist Rahost posts a hand-drawn diagram to show how fashion manufactures damage the ecosystem. These are examples of many different trending posts on Instagram that are connected to climate change. But what do all these different images tell us?
To query “climate change” on Instagram is like opening a window on a contemporary, louder version of the Tower of Babel. The only difference with the original is that at least, before losing their common language, people agreed on how to reach a better place.
The lack of a common language
While recently there is a growing agreement that the problem of climate change is real, researchers, policy-makers and the general public are still debating on which are the best solutions to solve it.
One of the causes of this science-action gap is a lack of a shared, understandable and engaging communication of such solutions.
More specifically, there is a call to reframe discussions on climate change so that people are more inspired to act, instead of presenting them with dystopian pictures of burning globes in hands that provoke what researcher call apocalypse fatigue. In the face of these overwhelming messages, even well-intentioned people may start to avoid conversations around seeking solutions.
During the last Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) Winter School a group of new media researchers, journalism students, and designers tackled the challenge to study how climate change solutions are resonating online.
Previous DMI Summer and Winter School projects have explored the visual vernaculars of climate change across platforms and over time, capturing visual responses to political events such as Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and responses to events such as Conference of the Parties (COP) conferences and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Through digital and visual methods, researchers and designers have tried to establish means for capturing visual languages per platform, taking into account metrics for ranking and engagement, and exploring means to allow for visual comparisons by way of visualisation (Colombo 2018: Pearce et al. 2018; Niederer 2018).
The EMAPS (Electronic Maps to Assist Public Science) project explored the adaptation turn in the climate change debate, which resulted in the climate change adaptation atlas climaps.eu.
In this new project, we develop visual methodologies for digital research and study an emerging chapter in the climate change debate, which is climate change solutions.
A visual methodology to find climate solutions
To investigate how climate change solutions are resonating online, we conducted a cross-platform analysis on Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and Google (the methods used to design the queries and collect data from each platform are described in detail in this report).
Here I will discuss more in detail about the method we used to explore how climate change solutions are resonating on Instagram, how they are being proposed and contested through platform-specific means and how relevant the discourse of climate change is in relation to lifestyle choices.
To collect Instagram data, we used the Instagram Scraper Tool, developed by the Digital Methods Initiative. It allows to query Instagram for recent posts containing a specific hashtag, or posted by a single user, or from a defined location. We downloaded the most recent 5,000 posts containing the hashtag #climatechange and the same amount for the hashtag #globalwarming. One of the outputs of the tool is a comma-separated values file containing links to the original Instagram posts and metadata such as the number of likes, comments, and timestamps.
After a process of data curation, the resulting mother-file of 9,134 posts containing the hashtags #climatechange or #globalwarming (or both) was ready for us to spend some time with the data. Below you can have a look at the top five most liked images of this dataset.
The ranked list opens with two images representing the icons of climate change communication: Polar Bears. The impact of this communication strategy in raising public awareness on the issue is questioned by Dorothea Born, a scholar in Science and Technologies Studies at the University of Vienna, that argues that
[c]learly, empathy and affinity play a major role with respect to this icon. But of late, its effectiveness has been questioned (Mooallem, 2014). Polar bear images may inhibit understanding the human aspects of the issue or imagining solutions for change (Dunaway, 2009) and might even be met with resistance (Stenport & Vachula, 2017). Manzo (2010) argues that, while the icon of the polar bear may arouse emotions, such pictures do not foster understanding. Since images that evoke fear also create emotional distance and feelings of disempowerment (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009), they might be “counter-productive for ‘meaningful engagement’” (Manzo, 2010, p. 198).
Other researchers, activists and educational institutions are pointing out the need for finding new ways to communicate the issue of climate change. Currently, climate change threats are depicted with artist impressions of apocalyptic future scenarios, desert wastelands, and frightening forest fires. Natural imageries where people — and their connection to nature — are almost completely omitted.
Going down in the list of most liked pictures about climate change on Instagram, we encounter more diversity. Specifically, we see a shift from the representation of the problem to different mitigation strategies, like the Liuzhu Forest City project in China, and the suggestion of personal lifestyle solutions, such as a meat-free diet. The hashtag #vegan is, in fact, one of the most prominent in this climate change Instagram dataset.
To dig deeper into the realm of climate change solutions and related issues within the Instagram space, we relied on another feature of the Instagram Scraper tool: the hashtag co-occurrence network. The tool calculates which hashtags are used more frequently together with #climatechange and #globalwarming, generating a network file that we explored with Gephi, open-source network analysis, and visualisation software.
This practice is useful to spot clusters of hashtags that people use frequently together when posting on Instagram. It is important to say that this tool does not cluster hashtags with a similar meaning or a semantic connection. In this kind of network, two hashtags are closer to each other the higher the number of posts they appear in together.
We used this network as a base map to identify relevant clusters of hashtags representing climate change solutions related topics. For each cluster, we identified the most used and characterising hashtags, by close reading the related posts in the database. Then we explored eight topics related to these main hashtags: #renewableenergy, #peace, #sustainablefashion, #vegan, #zerowaste, #plasticfree, #sustainableliving, and #globalwarmingisreal. For each topic, we extracted all the posts containing the related hashtags from the original database.
To see how these climate change personal solutions are communicated on Instagram, for each hashtag we looked at the top 10 most liked posts and downloaded the related images in separate folders.
Once different sets of images are saved in folders, a question arises on how such content can be observed systematically, considering a general lack of image-specific tools and techniques for the qualitative analysis of visual content (Colombo 2018: p.21). To tackle this question, we applied two different visualisation strategies.
Comparing images in a grid
The first visualisation shows the top 10 most liked images per hashtag. For each hashtag, the ranked results have been downloaded, ordered and scaled to fit into a grid, maintaining their original proportions: each line shows the top liked images for a specific hashtag.
This visualisation method allows for both a horizontal reading and a vertical reading. Focusing on the single hashtag, one can explore whether there are recurring themes (such as windmills in the #renewableenergy hashtag, or the abundance of text in the #peace hashtag).
The vertical reading allows to spot similarities and differences across different hashtags: e.g. the recurring image of a black t-shirt print in the #globalwarmingisreal and #renewableenergy, or #zerowaste being the only hashtag with no human presence in its top results.
In this first overview, we see differences both in the contents and in the type of images used, which for most of the cases appear distant from the stylish and well-curated design we are used to when looking at our Instagram feed. Some images talk naturally about climate change, but others seem to be completely out of topic.
Comparing composite images
To compare at a glance how different collection of images look like, we used a methodology of composite image design. To design the composite images, the top 10 images per topic were opened with graphics editor Adobe Photoshop, separated into different layers, resized to the same width and aligned to the vertical and horizontal centre. Using auto-blend layers, a built-in command of the software, the 10 images were stacked to obtain a single image. The command tries to keep the most specific features of each image, blending them in a single layered image.
This technique — experimented in a previous project on the representation of pregnancy online (Confronting Machine Bias in the Online Representation of Pregnancy, Bogers, Niederer, Bardelli, De Gaetano - 2019/under review)— returns an average of all the visual features of the 10 stacked images, regardless of the order in which they have been layered.
When looking at the individual composite images, it is possible to make some considerations at a glance about the orientation of the images (i.e. do they mostly have a landscape, portrait or square orientation?), the nature of the images (i.e. are they mostly pictures, text or charts?), the presence of human and non-human elements (e.g. is the space more human, or more technological?), the consistency of the objects portrayed (do the pictures have recurring content? Do they share the same perspective?) and the general vernacular of the collection, in terms of colours, objects and contexts.
The comparison of multiple composite images opens new avenues of visual analysis: this dynamic analysis is particularly suitable for the identification of differences and similarities between multiple image sets.
Comparing the #plasticfree, #sustainableliving and #zerowaste composite images we notice an abundance of text elements, with a clear focus on plastic consumption and pollution. The posts suggest very actionable solutions to climate change, by reducing the plastic consumption, picking up litter from the beaches, or stop using Nespresso caps.
Looking at the kind of imagery used within the solutions space, the composites of #renewableenergy and #sustainablefashion seem to be outliers. Images of innovative tech solutions, such as floating solar panels in the ocean and fantasy-like green cities, give us a suggestive mirage of a possible future where human beings and nature are no longer separated. In the #sustainablefashion composite, the dominance of nature photography in holiday places doesn’t suggest a clear link with sustainable fashion, apart from some illustrations about the impact of fashion production on climate change.
How far are the solutions to the problem?
A question we asked ourselves during the data sprint while exploring at the climate change Instagram dataset, was about finding the relative distance between climate change and its solutions. When looking for climate change on Instagram, are everyone debating about the impacts of the problem or about possible solutions? How far you have to dig before finding any sort of solution?
We calculated the total amount of posts related to the eight solution spaces we identified before and compared them to the overall frequencies of other topics within the climate change Instagram dataset.
The resulting experimental visualisation shows that certain solutions, like veganism, are very prominent when talking about climate change. Others, like sustainable fashion, are buried deep below under a list of completely different topics.
But if #vegan is one of the first hashtags you encounter when looking at climate change on Instagram, is it the same the other way around? Is climate change a relevant topic among all the vegans Instagrammers?
We tested the resonance of climate change in the ‘solution’ space, by scraping the top 5000 posts on Instagram for #renewableenergy, #peace, #sustainablefashion, #vegan, #zerowaste, #plasticfree, #sustainableliving and #globalwarmingisreal, and checking the presence of climate-related hashtags in the results.
Apparently, climate change is not as significant within the ‘solution space’ as the other way around. For example, people posting about veganism on Instagram are more interested in using hashtags like #crueltyfree or #rescuetheanimals before even talking about climate change.
Personal lifestyle solutions
When searching climate change on Instagram, we mostly encounter a space that offers mostly actionable, personal lifestyle solutions, like eating less meat, not using plastic straws or avoid fast fashion. Even though these solutions are not primarily solutions to the issue of climate change, but more strongly related to other topics, like cruelty-free products for #vegan or social justice for #peace.
We also spotted a general trend in using the #climatechange hashtag in combination to a broad range of different hashtags, sometimes remotely connected to the climate issue, other times completely detached (like hashtags related to the LGBT community and the #metoo movement in this post, which is one of the most liked for the hashtag #peace)
In recent years, more and more research has been conducted on climate change communication: if finding “a unified, strategic narrative for climate change is key to making meaningful progress”, then we first have to spend more time to understand how people are currently engaging with different narratives. Exploring the Instagram space during this one-week data sprint was an attempt to know which (visual) languages are more engaging when discussing climate change solutions.
The good news is that solutions exist and many people are already making efforts to support them. But which are the right words to ignite a positive change? Which the images that will make us foresee the safest place to be?
The work described in this article was done in collaboration with the facilitators Sabine Niederer and Warren Pearce, and the participants Erika Grimes, Laura Briganti, Laura Boog, Ilona Bos, Frederieke Weel, Judith Eigeman, Katarina Schul, Emma Knight, Noémie Brion, Louise Dugas, Mathieu Soulabaille, Gary Mai , Eliza Connolly, Mathias Braad Petersen, Jedrzej Niklas, Xueyi Meng, as part of the DMI Winterschool 2019
The Digital Society School is a growing community of learners, creators and designers who create meaningful impact on society and its global digital transformation. Check us out at digitalsocietyschool.org.