Climate Change Communication on Facebook, Twitter, Sina Weibo, and Other Social Media Platforms
Summary and Keywords
While initial research on climate change communication focused on traditional media, such as news coverage of climate change and pro-environmental campaigns, scholars are increasingly focusing on the role of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Sina Weibo. Social media platforms provide a space for three important domains of climate change communication: information, discussion, and mobilization. First, social media platforms have been used by scientists, activists, journalists, and ordinary people to share and receive reports about climate change. Policymakers and academics also use social media for climate change research. Second, social media platforms provide users with a space to discuss climate change issues. Scientists and journalists use social media to interact with the public, who also use social media to criticize policies, as well as media coverage. Finally, social media platforms have been used to coordinate rescue and relief operations in the aftermath of climate change–related disasters, as well as to organize movements and campaigns about climate change. However, most research about climate change communication in social media spaces are based on quantitative analysis of tweets from Western countries. While this body of work has been illuminating, our understanding of social media’s increasingly important role in climate change communication will benefit from a more holistic research approach that explores social media use in climate change communication across a variety of platforms, cultures, and media systems.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States made headlines in April 2016 for something that it did in cyberspace. When climate change doubters started posting comments on a thread started by science educator and former television host Bill Nye, the Facebook account NASA Climate Change stepped in (Samenow, 2016). In response to one commenter who claimed that NASA had confirmed that fossil fuels “were actually cooling the planet,” NASA’s Facebook account immediately responded: “Do not misrepresent NASA. Fossil fuels are not cooling the planet” (Samenow, 2016, para. 3). The federal agency’s account went on to respond to other climate change doubters in the thread. Others might dismiss this as a small incident but it is actually emblematic of how climate change discourse has shifted online.
Scholars have paid a lot of attention to climate change communication, recognizing the role of mass communication in not only informing people about a pressing—and depressing—problem, but also influencing public knowledge, attitudes, and behavior toward the environment (Russill & Nyssa, 2009). But most of these studies focused on traditional forms of mass communication, such as newspapers and television. While these are important platforms to study, given their influence on the public, technological developments have provided the public with alternative sources of information, as well as more active ways of interacting with information. Social media sites, in particular, have become deeply embedded in social life. They have become easy and popular platforms for different levels of communication: from self-expression, to mediated interpersonal and group communication, to news distribution. For instance, Facebook, the most popular social media site, has more than 1.23 billion daily active users as of December 2016 (Facebook, 2016). Such reach highlights the important role of social media sites as platforms for information exchange, an integral process for discussing and understanding complex global issues such as climate change (Schafer, 2012).
This article explores the role of these new information platforms in climate change communication. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow ordinary citizens not only to share news articles and other secondhand information with one another, but also to publicize their own opinions, thoughts, and feelings on issues that they care about, as well as distribute information on events that they happen to witness or experience firsthand (Hermida, 2012; Jewitt, 2009). These new ways of information and opinion distribution have important implications across different domains, especially in the area of climate change communication.
Climate Change and Social Media
Climate Change Communication
Climate change is a complex topic where various issues, such as science, health, environment, economy, human development, public policy, and foreign relations intersect (Takahashi, Edwards, Roberts, & Duan, 2015). It is as complex as it is relevant, and so research on climate change communication has grown and broadened over the years (Russill & Nyssa, 2009). In the field of communication, researchers and policymakers have paid attention to the role of the news media on public understanding of science in general, and climate change in particular (Liao, Ho, & Yang, 2016; Russill & Nyssa, 2009; Takahashi & Tandoc, 2016; Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000). But while the news media play an important role in informing the public, studies have also found that media coverage of environmental issues and risks is marked by “problems of inaccuracy, bias, and sensationalism” (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p. 1457).
Climate change communication is complex not only because climate change itself is a complex issue, but also because communication is equally complex (Nerlich, Koteyko, & Brown, 2010). For example, studies have pointed out gaps between how scientists, politicians, and the media discuss and present climate change issues (Russill & Nyssa, 2009; Weingart et al., 2000). While scientists deal with complex processes, the media have to simplify information to attract audience attention. But an important factor to consider is how early research in climate change communication assumed a linear, top-down approach to communication and information flow—one that starts from policymakers and scientists, then flows to the media, and ultimately trickles down to the members of the public (Nerlich et al., 2010; Weingart et al., 2000). This assumption, however, is no longer tenable, considering how the media environment has evolved. “Thus, rather than seeing the audience as ignorant or in need of instruction from expert communicators, maybe one way forward is to grasp the possibilities offered by a more deliberative model of the policymaking process” (Nerlich et al., 2010, p. 106). This idea of a deliberative process is potentially served by new communication and information technologies, such as social media.
Social Media Platforms
Social network sites are “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (boyd & Ellison, 2007, p. 211). Not only do social media platforms allow users to generate original messages outside the traditional control of journalists and media organizations, they also allow participation and collaboration among users (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Facebook, for example, allows users to create individual accounts where they can share comments, photos, and videos, connect with other users, and see what other users are posting. Twitter allows users to share 140-character messages and follow other users as well as participate in trending topics using the hashtag function (Louis, 2013).
The rise of social media has spawned numerous streams of studies. For example, scholars have sought to describe the types of people who use social media (e.g., Hargittai, 2007; McAndrew & Jeong, 2012). Others focused on explaining the motivations and reasons users turn to social media (Hogan, 2010; Ledbetter et al., 2011; Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008), while others also studied how the different ways people use social media affect their personal well-being (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall, & Lennie, 2012; Moreno, Jelenchick, Koff, & Eickhoff, 2012; Tandoc, Ferrucci, & Duffy, 2015). Others have expanded research on social media by studying them as platforms to distribute news (Tandoc & Vos, 2016), organize campaigns (Vergeer, Hermans, & Sams, 2013), and mobilize the public around certain issues (Lim, 2012; Uldam & Askanius, 2013).
Social media users can share both personal updates to express themselves and connect with their friends, as well as factual information they find elsewhere, such as news articles (Westerman, Spence, & Van Der Heide, 2014). Social media platforms can also transcend geographical boundaries. For example, climate change activists used the video-sharing platform YouTube to mobilize protests against the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2009 (Uldam & Askanius, 2013). The video sparked debate and provided a space where “alternative viewpoints have potential to circulate and be negotiated among transnational publics” (Uldam & Askanius, 2013, p. 1190).
Social media platforms have also facilitated information flow in countries where mainstream media channels are under tight state control. For example, while the government in China tries to control discussions on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, the most popular social media site in China, which merges the functions of Twitter and Facebook, users still get to discuss sensitive topics on the platform, such as food safety and climate change, that do not get much attention from traditional media (Rauchfleisch & Schäfer, 2015). Such varied uses of social media for intrapersonal, interpersonal, and mass forms of communication make these platforms important for climate change communication.
Communicating Climate Change on Social Media
Scholarly focus on environmental communication in general is hinged upon its impact on environmental citizenship (Burgess, Harrison, & Filius, 1998; Takahashi, Tandoc, Duan, & Van Witsen, 2017). This is particularly salient for climate change, a global problem that requires immediate response and large-scale participation from the public. Studies on environmental citizenship have focused on three important concepts: environmental knowledge, attitude, and behavior (Duerden & Witt, 2010; Kuhlemeier, Van Den Bergh, & Lagerweij, 1999; Levine & Strube, 2012). These concepts correspond to information, opinion, and mobilization with regard to climate change communication. This section provides an overview of the different uses of social media in the context of climate change communication in these three conceptual domains.
Information About Climate Change
Initially called web logs, blogs are “frequently updated websites in which messages are posted in reverse chronological sequence, typically by a single author” (Herring, 2004, p. 31). While other bloggers treat their blogs as personal diaries, others blog about public issues, such as politics or business (Cenite, Detenber, Koh, Lim, & Ng Ee Soon, 2009). Others have also used blogging specifically for environmental issues and advocacies, such as discussing climate change (Merry, 2010) or promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles (Haider, 2015). Scientists, environmental activists, and even skeptics have used blogs to disseminate information about climate change.
Studies have found gaps between how scientists and the news media discuss climate change (Russill & Nyssa, 2009; Weingart et al., 2000). Scientists often speak in technical language, given the complexity of the issues that they study, and this presents a challenge to journalists who need to simplify complex issues for their audiences. This is a possible reason for the problems that studies have found regarding the news coverage of climate change (Boykoff, 2007; Carvalho & Burgess, 2005). Thus, some scientists have turned to blogging to reach the public directly and bypass journalists. Scientists engage in climate change communication online for a variety of reasons, such as to educate the public, further scientific discussion, and allow for public participation in science (Schafer, 2012). An analysis of 50 Antarctic blogs published during the International Polar Year (2007–2008) found that scientists themselves acted as citizen journalists (Thorsen, 2013). Some of them uploaded captivating photos and videos and wrote in accessible language that allowed simple explanations of complex processes (Thorsen, 2013). Through blogging, these scientists were able to condense scientific terms into more interesting and accessible terms that were more palatable for laypeople so they could understand the effects of climate change (Thorsen, 2013).
Many environmental bloggers also tend to be environmental activists, and they see blogging as another platform to reach out to the general public to communicate their advocacies (Tandoc & Takahashi, 2014). Compared with environmental journalists, who value the norm of being objective in their output, environmental bloggers tend to see their social role more as being advocates for the environment and mobilizers of the public (Tandoc & Takahashi, 2014). Nongovernmental organizations engage in online climate change communication for numerous reasons, such as providing information, addressing the news media, increasing outside support for their causes, and changing people’s behavior and mobilizing them into action (Schafer, 2012). Similarly, climate change skeptics have also used blogging to communicate their stance. Climate change skepticism is defined as “doubting certain aspects of a generally accepted body of climate scientific research” (Koteyko, Nerlich, & Hellsten, 2015, p. 150). For example, Stephen McIntyre, who is well known for questioning an early statistical model used to support the conclusion of human-induced global warming, communicates most of his arguments and challenges through his blog (Jolis, 2009). Some traditional news outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, have publicly refused to publish letters to the editor that deny climate change, citing the scientific consensus on human-made global warming, which partly explains why some climate change skeptics have turned to blogging. These skeptic blogs tend to focus mostly on the scientific elements of climate change, often presenting the issue as a debate. They tend to use scientific terms rather than emotional language to express their opinions (Sharman, 2014). While there are relatively few barriers to blogging, maintaining a blog requires time and personnel. These requirements can mirror the political economy of traditional media, where economic capital can determine the extent of one’s reach and influence. Thus, “[n]ot surprisingly, the groups that are most likely to blog and to post frequently are the large, well-financed organizations that have dominated in the environmental policy domain for decades” (Merry, 2010, p. 653).
Social media are also used to report quickly about climate change events. For example, Twitter is often used to share information in the context of climate change–related disasters (Acar & Muraki, 2011; Sakaki, Okazaki, & Matsuo, 2010; Takahashi, Tandoc, & Carmichael, 2015). The term reporting can refer to either firsthand or secondhand information. First, studies have documented how populations affected by natural disasters have turned to social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to ask for immediate help (Takahashi, Tandoc, & Carmichael, 2015). In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in November 2013, survivors turned to Facebook to seek assistance from their relatives and friends (Tandoc & Takahashi, 2016). Real-time reporting during disasters has become useful for scientists and responders as well. When an earthquake occurs in quake-prone Japan, many tweets originate close to the actual location (Sakaki et al., 2010). This provides scientists and responders additional information from people on the ground. There are also many Twitter accounts that primarily report on earthquake occurrence. One example would be the U.S. Geological Survey, which tweets information on earthquakes around the world. While this might not be useful for prediction or early warning, it shows that the nature of Twitter allows real-time information to spread to the larger public.
Second, studies have documented how users turn to social media during disasters to share news reports. Indeed, a study found that information sharing and news reporting are among the top reasons that people use Twitter (Java, Song, Finin, & Tseng, 2007). For example, during Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical storms recorded on the planet, many users turned to Twitter to also share secondhand information about the disaster, such as links to news articles, breaking news stories, and YouTube videos (Takahashi, Tandoc, & Carmichael, 2015). A study in South Africa also documented how tweets about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Durban in 2011, were mostly based on reports from mainstream news media (Bosch, 2012). However, news events on climate change are covered in the mainstream media differently from how they are reported on Twitter (Olteanu, Castillo, Diakopoulos, & Aberer, 2015). For example, mainstream media coverage is usually based on governmental meetings and publications, while Twitter news about climate change usually refers to legal actions and official statements (Olteanu et al., 2015). Another study found that Twitter is also prone to hoax stories, just like traditional news media (Clark, 2009; Niederer, 2013).
Social media have changed not only how people communicate, but also how communication can be studied. “Just as social media technologies have changed the ways we interact, consume, and create in everyday life, these Internet-based platforms, which share attributes both with interpersonal and mass communication, have also opened up new areas for researching public engagement with climate science” (Koteyko et al., 2015, p. 150). For example, some scholars have argued that Twitter offers a platform to study climate change discourse efficiently (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). While public opinion on issues are usually measured using surveys, Twitter offers a less intrusive way of capturing a snapshot of public sentiment on particular issues, such as climate change. Twitter data is readily available and is relatively simple to collect (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). The inclusion of geolocation information in tweets also allows comparative studies (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014).
A study also proposed a way to classify users’ stage of environmental behavior based on their tweets (Fernandez et al., 2016). By analyzing tweets around two climate change events in 2015—Earth Hour and the United Nations Climate Change Conference—the study found that most social media participants to those events were at a stage where “they want to change but do not know how” (Fernandez et al., 2016, p. 93). Such use of social media in research can help environmental campaigners in tailoring messages to particular groups of social media users based on their social media behavior (Fernandez et al., 2016).
Twitter also allows users to group posts by using hashtags. For example, a user wanting to join conversations on climate change can use a certain hashtag. When other users search for that hashtag, Twitter displays tweets that used the hashtag. One of the earliest documented hashtags on Twitter focused on monitoring wildfires in southern California in October 2007 (Clark, 2009). Thus, a study argued that Twitter “may be a useful asset in the ongoing battle against anthropogenic climate change, as well as a useful research source for social scientists, an unsolicited public opinion tool for policy makers, and public engagement channel for scientists” (Cody, Reagan, Mitchell, Dodds, & Danforth, 2015, p. 15).
Trends in tweet sentiments and patterns across hashtags and searches can also give scientists clues on what is about to come. For example, scholars have argued that Twitter activity around specific events at particular locations, such as an earthquake, can complement sensor systems for event monitoring and awareness (Crooks, Croitoru, Stefanidis, & Radzikowski, 2013). Sentiments about worldwide events can also be collected by searching particular hashtags, just like during Earth Day celebrations, which was marked by the hashtag #EarthDay (Hamed et al., 2015). “Twitter data allow studying manifestations of public opinion as they naturally occur” (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014, p. 181). However, scholars should use Twitter for research with caution, since in many countries, only a fraction of the actual population uses Twitter. Gauging public attitudes about climate change using social media platforms might not accurately reflect the whole range and actual distribution of public opinion on this issue (Resnyansky, 2014).
Opinions About Climate Change
Climate change discussion “is abundant on Twitter” (Cody et al., 2015, p. 15). However, studies have found that the largest spikes in tweeting activity about climate change were linked to news, weather events, or a combination of both. One study found that the most authoritative sources of information on climate change in Twitter discussions were the Guardian and the Huffington Post, showing that the most frequently referenced sources were traditional media (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). This reinforces the fact that discussions on Twitter continue to react to traditional media. However, social media provide users a platform to react to mainstream coverage of climate change issues. For example, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, survivors used Facebook and Twitter to critique government response, question mainstream media coverage, and discuss the larger issue of climate change (Takahashi, Tandoc, & Carmichael, 2015; Tandoc & Takahashi, 2016).
Sina Weibo also provided a space for such opinions in China in the aftermath of the Yushu earthquake in 2010. Many users used the social platform to question the stability of structures in China and comment on the government’s role in keeping citizens safe (Qu, Huang, Zhang, & Zhang, 2011). In a media system such as China, where traditional media rarely criticize the state, social media sites such as Sina Weibo provide a platform for ordinary citizens to air their grievances. Sina Weibo also functioned as a platform for survivors to vent their emotions. Users did not just memorialize victims and expressed their grief, but they also communicated their anger and frustration (Qu et al., 2011).
Social media have also served as platforms for the online public to discuss climate change. For example, most blogs allow readers to leave their comments as well as respond to others, helping facilitate public discussion on climate change. A study of blogs by scientists found that some scientists respond to reader comments, creating a bridge of communication between scientists and the general public. “This emergent form of science reporting provides an important contrast to traditional forms of journalism, where the process of climate change is a difficult fit for conventional, event-led news agendas” (Thorsen, 2013, p. 98). Despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is also used as a space to discuss climate change. A sentiment analysis of tweets containing the word climate found that those tweets, in general, “are less happy than all tweets” (Cody et al., 2015, p. 15). Many of these tweets were about the consequences of climate change, such as extreme weather events and threats to particular species.
While a study that examined tweets about a landmark report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September 2013 found that “users were most likely to converse with users holding similar views,” a small community of users also interacted with those who hold contrasting views (Pearce, Holmberg, Hellsten, & Nerlich, 2014, p. 1). Another study that focused on tweets that used climate change–related hashtags also found a similar pattern, finding a “strong attitude-based homophily and widespread segregation of users into like-minded communities” (Williams, McMurray, Kurz, & Hugo Lambert, 2015, p. 135). Most users interacted with those who think like them. However, a minority of users interacted with those with differing views (Williams et al., 2015). These findings demonstrate a potential for opinion exchange about climate change on social media. However, another study found that while Twitter allows interpersonal communication among users, majority of the 1.8 million tweets about climate change included links or mentions that referred to only a small group of information sources, composed of mainstream media, news aggregators, celebrities, prominent organizations, and elite bloggers (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). It appears that even on Twitter, “opinion leaders remain important to the discourse on climate change” (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014, p. 180).
The reactions and discussions on social media about climate change also involved framing. In simple terms, framing refers to the process of making one aspect of an issue more salient than others, affecting how others subsequently understand the significance of the issue (Nisbet, 2009). For example, the use of the terms climate change and global warming involve some degree of framing, and which term is used has significant implications. A survey conducted in southern England found that the term global warming tends to be associated with human causes, while climate change tends to be associated with natural causes (Whitmarsh, 2009). The former also evoked a higher degree of concern than the latter (Whitmarsh, 2009). A study based on sentiment analysis of tweets also found that climate change tends to be discussed in a slightly more positive manner than global warming (Lineman, Do, Kim, & Joo, 2015, p. 9). Such differences in framing also occur on social media. For example, an analysis of tweets from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States examined “hoax frames,” or discourse that questions the reality of climate change. The study found that “hoax frames were more frequent in the US than in the other countries and were particularly prevalent in traditionally Republican-leaning states” (Jang & Hart, 2015, p. 15). Twitter users who used the hoax frame also tend to use global warming rather than climate change (Jang & Hart, 2015).
Scholars have found that attitudes toward climate change on Twitter have a high degree of polarization—tweets with strong opinions far outnumber neutral views (Williams et al., 2015). A potential explanation is that activists are among the most active users of Twitter (An et al., 2014). Climate change activists are believed to be more active on Twitter than skeptics (Cody et al., 2015). This conclusion was based on the words commonly found in the tweets analyzed in the study, such as crisis and combat (Cody et al., 2015, p. 7). In contrast, climate change deniers tend to use the words fraud, lie, and scandal (Cody et al., 2015, p. 7). The study also found that while skeptics tend to use the term global warming more than climate change in their tweets, activists use both terms (Cody et al., 2015).
Mobilization About Climate Change
Facebook can also serve as a platform to encourage pro-environmental behavior. This is because individual behavior is influenced largely by what one’s peers are doing, rather than by a top-down approach of spreading information (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008). For example, Greenpeace, a popular environmental activist group, used Facebook in its environmental campaigns (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015). A study on how Greenpeace used Facebook in its International Unfriend Coal protest against Facebook’s energy policy, for example, found that Facebook “complemented news media, rather than replaced it” (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015, p. 262). The group “introduced a new line of e-tactics that were based on the affordances of the Facebook platform” (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015, p. 262). For example, Facebook’s “like,” “share,” and “comment” functions provided an easy way to encourage public support for and participation in the online campaign. Greenpeace also used Facebook to organize events, such as a photo competition, in support of the protest (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015). The study argued that “the use of Facebook not only transmitted a message that the public is an active participant, but actually enabled and encouraged such participation via empowering rhetoric and mobilizing technical features” (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015, p. 263). Facebook’s affordances for organizing were also useful for coordinating rescue and relief efforts following climate change–related disasters. In the aftermath of the 2010 Yushu earthquake in China, for instance, many users used Sina Weibo to organize donation drives to help survivors.
Social media platforms provide both big and small environmental groups a way to reach more people with their campaigns. For example, Greenpeace used various platforms, including YouTube, to campaign against the oil company Shell’s operations in the Arctic Circle (Dosemagen, 2016). A YouTube video uploaded by the account Greenpeace Video that targeted the toy company Lego, a partner of Shell, has gotten more than 7 million views since it was uploaded in July 2014. An updated description of the video said that Lego has announced that it would not renew its contract with Shell. In Singapore, social media was credited to have complemented traditional media reporting in 2015 in mobilizing consumers to boycott companies based in Indonesia that contributed to the haze problem that has plagued many parts of Southeast Asia (mUmBRELLA, 2015). Thus, “[s]ocial media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all” (Dosemagen, 2016, para. 2).
A study on the use of Facebook for a nationwide climate change challenge for students in Canada also found that the platform was “effective in informing students about upcoming events and provided a way to quickly invite people to attend” (Senbel, Ngo, & Blair, 2014, p. 91). This is facilitated by Facebook’s “event” function, where users can create an event and invite other users, who can then indicate if they are joining or not, as well as share the event with their other friends, thereby increasing its reach. However, while Facebook can be particularly effective in organizing events, awareness does not automatically translate into discussion. The same study in Canada, for example, found that Facebook “was not effective as a discursive platform for peer engagement” (Senbel et al., 2014, p. 91). However, the study was based on a formally organized competition, when most discussions on Facebook tend to be organic, especially among friends. Future research on climate change communication should investigate the impact on peer discussion of personal posts about climate change.
While initial research on climate change communication has focused on traditional media, such as news coverage of climate change and pro-environmental campaigns, scholars are increasingly focusing on the role of online communication platforms, such as blogs and social media, on climate change discourse. This is a timely and important shift in the study of climate change communication, especially because social media sites have become embedded in people’s everyday lives. This article reviewed the different ways that these platforms have been used in climate change communication, demonstrating how useful and widespread these platforms are in the context of climate change discourse.
Issues with Social Media
Social media platforms have provided a faster, more efficient, and arguably more inclusive venue for climate change discourse. Blogs allowed scientists to bypass journalists to reach the public and explain complex information and processes in their own words (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009). Facebook allowed discussion through posting and exchange of comments about climate change (Senbel et al., 2014). Twitter also provided a network through which different discourses about climate change can cascade to users (An et al., 2014; Cody et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2015). Thus, in general, these platforms provide alternatives to traditional news media, which have been criticized for sensational, incomplete, or even biased reporting of climate change (Boykoff, 2007; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004). Climate change discourse is complex, and social media and blogs provide a complementary platform to traditional media where people can share, discuss, deliberate, and mobilize on an issue as complex and important as climate change (Gess, 2012; Schafer, 2012).
However, social media are not without problems. One issue is the concept of self-selection bias. Social media discussion about climate change is marked by a high degree of polarization. Social media users usually have strong views on climate change, rather than having a neutral stance, and so the Internet is divided into climate change skeptics or activists (Williams et al., 2015). Since sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow users to self-select other users to include in their network, users can decide to engage only with people who share similar views as them. This can result in silos in terms of climate change perspectives (Williams et al., 2015), instead of people engaging in rational dialogue about climate change. The nature of discussion, the range of perspectives, and the quality of climate change discourse on social media are important since “discussion of climate change on social media is likely to affect the wider ‘offline’ climate debate” (Williams et al., 2015, p. 136). Social media users can function as opinion leaders, influencing other people’s opinions based on what they know from the information sources that they use.
Most of the studies that informed this review focused on Twitter. But while this body of work is illuminating, focusing only on Twitter has limitations. The number of studies done about Twitter can be explained by the relative ease of access and analysis involved in studying tweets: They are short messages by definition, and they can be collected and analyzed quickly. However, Twitter users do not necessarily represent the whole population of social media users. For example, when researchers set out to do fieldwork in Tacloban City, which was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, they originally planned to focus on Twitter, only to find out later that most people in the region used Facebook (Tandoc & Takahashi, 2016). As new social media platforms emerge and the popularity of existing ones declines, the focus of research on the role of social media in climate change communication should be not only on specific social media brands, but also on the nature of affordances they provide and the interactions they facilitate.
The body of research in this area is also highly skewed toward Western countries. An analysis of tweets about climate change found that more than 40% came from the United States. In contrast, the Philippines, one of the countries considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, only contributed 1.4% of the total tweets (Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). A potential explanation for this unequal geographic focus in climate change communication research, particularly in the area of social media, is the diversity of languages involved, which presents challenges to analyzing and comparing social media messages. However, capturing such diversity is essential because while climate change is a global problem, climate change communication occurs in different cultures, media systems, and political climates. More cross-country collaborations will expand our understanding of social media’s role in the various facets of climate change communication.
Finally, most social media research in the context of climate change communication is based on large-scale, quantitative analyses, facilitated by the increasing sophistication in much of the software used in scraping and analyzing social media posts. However, many studies recognize that online behavior is not exactly the same as offline behavior (Fernandez et al., 2016). Such a gap is particularly salient in studying climate change communication and its impact on knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. As social media platforms become increasingly embedded into people’s daily routines, a more holistic research approach is needed—one that can examine climate change communication as individuals weave in and out of social media platforms.
Social media sites are likely to play a more central role in communication in the years to come. Scholars have found that media coverage of climate change directly affected level of public concern (e.g., Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012). This is also true about the effect of climate change discourse online, as more and more people interact through blogs and social media. Considering how important climate change communication is, more effort should be channeled into understanding climate change discourse in social media and how such mediated discourse can affect people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior toward climate change (Schafer, 2012).
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