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Social media makes a tremendous impact these days on how people understand climate change. Algorithms can help to provide multiple viewpoints to broaden people's points of view.

Climate Change

Social Media + Climate Change + The Power of the Algorithm

Social media makes a tremendous impact these days on how people understand climate change. Algorithms can help to provide multiple viewpoints to broaden people’s points of view.

Climate change is a complex issue where various subject areas — such as science, health, environment, economy, human development, public policy, and foreign relations — intersect. Scientists, politicians, and the media discuss and present climate change differently, which complicates how the public perceives climate change debates. Climate change is part of a larger problem with the state of science these days — in its 41-year-old history as the White House hub of innovation, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has never gone this long without a leader or official mandate.

In 2017, social media gaps between how scientists and the news media discussed climate change became increasingly profound. Because social media provide users a platform to react to mainstream coverage, mediated discourse about climate change issues more than ever recently affected people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

Social media in 2017 produced “silos” in terms of climate change perspectives, so, instead of people engaging in rational dialogue about climate change, many social media users became more entrenched in their own positions. Indeed, many in the US are being misled on serious scientific issues, especially those around climate change. In social mediia2017, science journalists spent an inordinate amount of time debunking myths about rising global temperatures, fossil fuels’ effect on climate, natural disasters as a consequence of climate change, humans’ contribution to climate change, and other climate change-related topics:

→ The effect of climate change on extreme weather was dramatically under-covered by media.

→ Some of Trump’s tweets generated more national coverage than devastating disasters.

→ The effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico’s residents have been so catastrophic that, at this writing, residents continue to suffer from electricity outages and a lack of clean water, a dire situation that continues to lack serious and sustained media coverage.

→ While nearly three-quarters of Americans know that most scientists are in agreement that climate change is happening, only 42% of Americans believe climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes.

→ In the first nine months alone of 2017, the US experienced 15 weather and climate disasters, yet most media failed to make the connections between natural disasters and climate change.

→ The media have a pattern of failing to state that, if we are to fend off the worst possible outcomes of climate change, we need to shift as quickly as possible to a cleaner renewable energy system.

How Social Media Became a Key Source of 21st Century Climate Change Information

Most adults in the United States (62%) get news on social media. The majority of those in the United States who use Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter get news while using these sites — indeed,  44% of all US adults get news on Facebook. Individuals who frequent popular social media sites tend to learn about news events from incidental sources– items people come across while being on the site for other reasons. Public opinion about controversial issues like climate change forms comfortably and readily when individuals are made psychologically closer to the issue — when there are personal and emotional connections to which the individual can relate.

Additionally, reading news on social media means it is filtered by friends, family, and their extended networks. Individuals’ perceptions about the news and issues in the news are also associated with the comments that the news stories generate, which can take on their own life and tenor. Information filtered through social media is such a personalizing experience that it brings climate change closer to individuals — with many consequences.

Climate change is an abstract topic for most people. Online social activities are increasingly important for how people consume news and information about a variety of important social issues, including anthropogenic climate change. In addition, social media use is often conducted in visual form, with half of social media users sharing or reposting news stories, images, or videos, and climate change is effectively communicated visually, which adds an important persuasive dimension.

The words that social media site composers choose contribute to the reproduction of relations of power. Questions of truth, whether by omission or falsifications for persuasive purposes, are often posed as equivalency. An example is from Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who told constituents,“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.” Walberg equates belief in a supreme being with solutions to climate change. Confidence that God will intervene to prevent people from destroying the world is one of the strongest barriers to gaining conservative evangelical support for environmental pacts like the Paris agreement.

There are structures and mechanisms for privileging the judgments of particular social groups and the discourses they deploy, including intellectuals. Critical discourse analyst Norman Fairclough argues that discourse concerns the “production, consumption and distribution of texts.” This intentionality causes composers to choose their words consciously. For example, Republican political strategist Frank Luntz advised conservative politicians to communicate about the environment by shifting terminology to favor conservative concerns. “It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming and ‘conservation’ instead of preservation.”

We live in an era in which scientific evidence is falsely equated with opinion. Fox News recently cited a quote that Pope Francis made at the Bonn climate talks without offering scientific contextual details about the issue: “Pope Francis blasted global warming skeptics on Thursday as having ‘perverse attitudes.'” The implication — made through particular word choices and omissions– was derogatory and hurtful to Fox News’ audience. Items like this that relate to climate change become tweeted and repeated on other social media sites, arousing emotion and contention rather than deliberation and contemplation.

How Social Media Feeds Persuade Us through Algorithms

Social media use is an important area within climate change communication. Because it has both expressive (offering opinions/ information) and consumptive (absorbing messages) functions, social media can foster democratic processes and the creation of social capital. However, the consumptive aspect of social media is generally considered to be more passive, with users seemingly culpable to absorbing news and information with disinterest and lack of critical analysis. Knowledge communities for specific perspectives on climate change exist in the social media environment, incorporating hashtags encourage the development of spaces for those particular communities.

social mediaThe relationship between online social media and news use in climate change discussions is important because it exemplifies the connection between how people use social media and how they perceive important social issues, including scientific issues. Social media users can personalize their information feeds by following, liking, and sharing information from other users who are like them, forming clusters of like-minded individuals. Opinion leaders influence other persons in their immediate online environment on climate change, including consumer behaviors and political participation. Social media is a space where opinion leaders can share information about how and whether to get involved in climate change advocacy.

Algorithms are ways for researchers to discern the kinds of social media feeds that users see. Social media algorithms are a way of sorting posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of publish time. Social networks prioritize which content a user sees in their feed first by the likelihood that they’ll actually want to see it. When algorithms rely on both active and passive forms of social media use by its users, such as sharing a post or clicking through to a link, an individual’s news environment becomes highly personalized. Algorithms may also rely on users’ preferences to portray future content, restricting the totality of content with which users interact. Such restricting of content samples can occur in search engine contexts for scientific issues and among social media feeds.

A common concern with social media is that sites create echo chambers — people end up being exposed to only the information that their personalized communities share. They’re not as frequently exposed to different viewpoints but are often confined to their own. This happens especially with controversial and divisive topics like climate change. The result? The two issue camps become remote, and opportunities for social media consumers to become aware of nuances and layers of argumentation become rare. In essence, it’s one position, all the time.

Conflicting Views on Climate Change Can Be Balanced by an Algorithm

social media

We can think about algorithms in many ways. Algorithms can actually do much more than determine and filter information that personalizes social media feeds. They can help to analyze trends on Twitter and Google to help predict vaccine scares that lead to disease outbreaks.

An algorithm can also be used to balance the social media information that users receive so that exposure to information from both sides of the climate change discussion is possible. Researchers from Aalto University and University of Rome Tor Vergata have designed “a greedy algorithm paradigm.” Its purpose is to find optimal degrees of information across an issue spectrum to that  social media users can be exposed to information from both sides of the discussion.

In this study, the algorithm works by efficiently selecting a set of influential users, who can be convinced to spread information about their side to the other side. The goal is to maximize the amount of users exposed to both viewpoints.

“We use word clouds as a qualitative case study to complement our quantitative results, whereby words in the cloud represent the words found in the users’ profiles. For instance, if we look at the topics related to the hashtag #russiagate, we can see not only that the two word clouds that represent the conflicting viewpoints are rather different, but also that they indicate either support or hate for Trump,” describes Aalto University researcher Kiran Garimella.

Similarly, a topic like fracking has two circles of users talking among themselves, strengthening their conflicting campaigns.

Credit: Kiran Garimella, Aalto University

“We see in our data that the network is fragmented into two sides, one set of users supporting fracking and using terms such as ‘oil’, ‘energy’, and ‘gas’, and another set of users opposing fracking and using terms such as ‘environmental’, ‘green’, and ‘energy.’ There is small overlap in the keywords used by each side, indicating that users are in an echo chamber,” Aristides Gionis adds.

The algorithm helps to identify a small number of influential users who are exposed to both campaigns and have a more balanced viewpoint. “Examining the content of those users we see that it uses terms from both sides of the discussion. Thus, these users can play a significant role in initiating a social debate and help spreading the arguments of one side to the other,” Garimella concludes.

How Can We Draw upon the Opportunities within Social Media to Inform Others about Climate Change?

Internet communication, including social media, is also a useful tool for environmental advocates to engage other to communicate, coordinate, and mobilize climate action. There is initial evidence that social media is productive in encouraging more environmentally friendly behaviors that will mitigate climate change and in sparking activism around climate change. Since social media provides opportunities to increase information sharing, participation, and engagement with climate change, we can facilitate learning experiences through our knowledge of how social media algorithms work. Here are some hints.

Social media algorithms are primarily based on engagement. The more frequently people like, share, and click posts about the importance of climate change, the stronger correlations social networks will make between climate change and those users. So push out those climate change social media stories that are important and that increase background knowledge across multiple constituent groups.

Asking questions about tweets encourages people to reply or leave a comment. Sometimes, social media contains phrasing that is hyperbolic and illogical. This type of news would not typically be present in a professional news setting. It’s important for us to call out tweets which lack the commonly accepted conventions for scientific journalism, like the following, which set the tone and tenor of he who would later be the US #fakepresident.

Ask your network of social media contacts to seek out different versions of climate change news stories whenever possible to obtain the fullest, most nuanced understanding of positions and issues. For instance, in a post-2017 presidential election survey led by the Pew Research Center, Americans who said they voted for Trump relied heavily on Fox News as their main source of election news leading up to the 2016 election. Clinton voters named multiple news information sources, with no one source named by more than one-in-five of her supporters. Expose your social media network to site like CleanTechnica, PlanetSave, and Gas2, which are dedicated to protecting the environment through innovation and empowerment.

In office, Trump has used a wide variety of persuasive techniques to disseminate political information in ways that preference his ideologies. Learn about persuasion and point it out when you see it on social media stories about climate change. If you need some materials to help with persuasion, the Mind over Media site is fabulous.

Learning is, ultimately, local. We can help others to determine how climate change issues affect us in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. We know that materialistic people see and treat their Facebook friends as “digital objects,” aligning themselves with friends more than less interested in possessions. Because these materialists have a greater need to compare themselves with others on social media, let’s help them to find ways to see climate change as an issue that has personal ramifications. What about all the smart cleantech sensors available in homes today? A luxury EV charging in the garage helps the environment and compares nicely to the Jones’. Fields of solar panels on a family’s roof shows innovation and 21st century readiness to the neighbors. The list is quite extensive.

social mediaWe can recognize how imagery is key to shaping perceptions of real-world issues like climate change. For many decades, mass media images have been harnessed and woven into texts in a variety of ways to develop narratives on complex and abstract issues about climate and the environment. We should take the time to create infographics, locate alluring graphics, design word clouds, and incorporate other appealing visuals when we use social media to disseminate information about climate change.

We need to  integrate principles of self-reflection with subtler looks at how climate change discourses are mobilized in everyday life. We can pose questions such as:

→ How can I gain critical distance when I’m the audience target of a climate change social media message?

→ How do audiences react differently when media genres change in climate change discussions?

→ How can I develop sociocultural empathy, critical thinking automaticity, and a situational identity as connected to critical habits of mind through social media messages about climate change?

And remember to choose your words carefully when discussing climate change on social media. “If you ask people what they think about climate change — not global warming — we find that the partisan gap shrinks by about 30 percent,” says Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication at Cornell. “There’s actually more agreement here than we think.”

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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