The Challenges of Social Media for Climate Change Experts

For the past three decades the world has become increasingly digitalised. Digital media have become ubiquitous to the point of being invisible, a phenomenon achieved through converging technologies and social communications. While Web 1.0 enabled large-scale global communications and networks already in the 1990s, Web 2.o offered a two-way or many-to-many interactive communication model; it made digital media social. For climate change experts ranging from humanitarian organisations, scholars, activists, policymakers, to the scientific community, this trend has had contentious effects. Social media have shown to be a double-edged sword, offering both vast opportunities and also extensive challenges. Controversies around social media feature in the private and public sector, and they are ever present in digital research. The field is underlined with uncertainty, a theme that has strongly featured in my previous research. When I asked humanitarian actors about how social media affected their work, there was little agreement. Social media are and remain a complex, contentious, and uncertain field.

Benefits of Social Media
One of the many controversies around social media is whether its benefits outweigh its challenges. Social media have been praised for offering new ways of communicating, advertising, campaigning, participating, and mobilising. Aside from offering new routes, social media have also been seen as particularly valuable due to being fast — even immediate, integrative, cheap (compared to alternatives), global, mobile, multimedia, and for providing more direct and equal access to and for large audiences. As such, social media should be beneficial for social and political actors, and therefore for climate change experts.

Challenges of Social Media — a territory of vast data
However, despite its many affordances, social media have also created new challenges in the socio-political sphere, in particular with regards to the vast amount of data now available. There are challenges around the organisation, management and standardisation of information, in particular information overload — which may lead to what has been called ‘information fatigue’ and even ‘compassion fatigue’ (Brophy and Halpin, 1999; Kavada, 2005: 210). Aside the amount of data now available, its quality has also been contentious. Scholars have raised concerns around data currency, accuracy and credibility, easy manipulation, adaptation or misuse of content, literacy barriers and English language dominance, data verification, and general reliability. For climate change experts this means that despite the new opportunities it offers, the web remains an uncertain, dispersed, and complex field. Social media have therefore added to the complexity of an already complex subject (see Schäfer, 2012; Pearce et al., 2015).

Challenges of Social Media — the lack of filters & control
Other issues arise in the lack of filters and control in digital space, which leaves individuals open to harm. In the last two decades, the web has come under continuous critique for not protecting individuals from commercial exploitation, government surveillance, privacy breaches, and harm through other individuals such as trolling and cyber-stalking. As a politically and scientifically controversial phenomenon and a highly contentious item on the global public policy agenda, climate change has historically attracted a lot of tension and has therefore been particularly prone to trolling (e.g. Molloy 2016 in The Telegraph). More recently, with Donald Trump’s US presidency, the issue has received strong public reactions via social as well as traditional media (e.g. Kastrenakes, 2017). Thus, while social media have offered new opportunities to respond to the public Climate Change debate, the resulting dialogue has not always been constructive or positive, but has also shown to be ideological and vitriolic and may include trolling.

Challenges of Social Media — widening participation
In part, the fiery debates are a result of the widening participation in public debates through digital media. With social media being open to the general public, the new terrain for climate change debates integrates organisations, institutions, policymakers, as well as individuals. Its, essentially, open to everyone. Popularity of a given space is, however, based on Google’s search engine listings and therefore on advertising or search term popularity (Kavada, 2005), and partly on popularity among individuals’ personal digital networks. Therefore, more formal outlets such as institutional websites or posts are in direct competition to individuals’ content production and circulation — user-generated content. While traditional power dynamics still exist in digital space, the web also offers opportunities for counter-movements and niche communities. As a result, climate change communications have become more mainstream, but as a complex scientific and political issue climate change communications faces challenges.

Making Climate Social
Overall, the challenges of social media for climate change communications are tied to a variety of factors, for example information overload, lack of formal control or filters, and widening participation on the social web. While social media have created more diversity through integrating new actors, media channels, platforms, and contents, more diversity has also created more complexity and fragmentation. — Those effects are palpable across sectors. Following and participating in climate change debates online is therefore increasingly difficult for experts in the field, despite the many affordances of digital technology. Social media are essentially busy due to the large amount of users, vast data, and the lack of controls and filters to manage the new spaces. Thus, social media remain contentious for climate change communications. Aside cyber-optimism and pessimism, social media have without doubt created a range of new challenges for climate change experts. In an attempt to provide more clarity, Making Climate Social will collect data and visualize climate change communications and actors over the next few months. In particular, MCS will answer who is active on climate change on social media platforms (types of actors), what types of climate change debates take place on those platforms, and how topics, actors, and debates compare across different spaces? Updates on the social media climate change discourse can be followed via Twitter on @MakCliSoc and here on the project blog.

References

Brophy, P. and Halpin, E. (1999). Through the Net to freedom: information, the internet and human rights. Journal of Information Science, 25(5), 351–364.

Kastrenakes, J. (2017). Conservatives are trolling Trump with climate change ads on Fox News and Mornin Joe. The Verge [Online]. Last updated: 01.05.2017. Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2017/5/1/15503648/conservative-climate-change-tv-ads-trump

Kavada, A. (2005). Exploring the role of the internet in the ‘movement for alternative globalization’: The case of the Paris 2003 European Social Forum. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 2(1), 72–95.

Molloy, M. (2016). Astrophysicist destroys climate change troll with brilliant comeback. The Telegraph [Online]. Last updated: 17.08.2016. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/17/astrophysicist-destroys-climate-change-troll-with-brilliant-come/

Pearce, Warren and Brown, Brian and Nerlich, Brigitte and Koteyko, Nelya (2015) Communicating climate change: conduits, content, and consensus. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6 (6). 613–626.

Schäfer, M. S. (2012). Online communication on climate change and climate politics: a literature review. WIREs Climate Change, 3(6), 527–543.

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