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date: 22 March 2018

Online and Social Media Campaigns for Climate Change Engagement

Summary and Keywords

Communication campaigns play a key role in shaping what people think, feel, and do about climate change, and help shape public agendas at the local, national, and international levels. As more people around the world gain regular access to the Internet, online and social media are becoming significant contexts in which they come into contact with—or fail to come into contact with—news, debates, action, and social input related to climate change. This makes it important to understand the campaigning that takes place online. Many actors make concerted efforts to engage publics on climate change and go online to do so. These include businesses; governments and international organizations; scientists and scientific institutions; organizations, groups and individuals in civil society; public intellectuals and political, religious and entertainment leaders. Not all are ultimately concerned with climate change or engaging publics as such. Nevertheless, most campaigns involve at least one of four goals: to inform, raise awareness, and shape public understanding about the science, problems, and politics of climate change; to change consumer and citizen behavior; to network and connect concerned publics; to visibly mobilize consumers or citizens to put pressure on decision-makers. Online climate change campaigns are an emerging phenomenon and field of study. The campaigns appeared on broad front around the turn of the millennium, and have since become increasingly complex. In addition to the elements that produce variance in offline campaigns, scholars examine the role of online and social media in how campaigners render the issues and pursue their campaigns, how publics respond, and what this means for the development of the broader public discourse. Core debates concern the capacity and impact of online campaigning in the areas of informing, activating and including publics, and the ambivalences inherent in leveraging technology to engage publics on climate change.

Keywords: Internet, social media, digital media, campaigns, public engagement, the public


Engaging the public on climate change is a significant challenge. A number of actors make concerted efforts to engage individuals and communities in terms of what they think, feel, and do about climate change, and their public campaigns play an important role in shaping local, national, and international policy agendas (Whitmarsh, O’Neill, & Lorenzoni, 2013). At the same time, engaging publics on this issue is recognized to be a particularly difficult task. Many people experience the problems and politics of climate change as abstract and remote. They do not think they can make a difference, or they disagree on what measures matter (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007; Moser, 2010). These conditions make it interesting to consider what online and social media bring to climate change campaigning and public engagement. On the one hand, digital media enable a broad set of stakeholders to undertake public campaigns, in ways that could be expected to further intensify the pressures in and around the struggle to shape the public agenda on climate change. On the other hand, digital media provide rich opportunities for stakeholders to reach publics where they are and in ways they find relevant, and for publics to participate more vigorously in the debate.

It is clear that increasing numbers of stakeholders use the Internet in their climate change campaigns. Campaigners have worked with email lists, electronic newsletters, and websites since the 1990s. Since the early 2000s, many have also incorporated social media—that is, Internet-based applications that enable the articulation of online social networks and facilitate the creation and sharing of digital content. Social media already exist in many different forms. An early typology distinguished six types according to degree of social presence and media richness and degree of user self-presentation and self-disclosure: text-based collaborative bookmarking applications and wiki projects (e.g., Wikipedia); blogs or microblogs (e.g., Twitter, Sina Weibo); content-sharing communities that involve sharing text, video, photos, and other forms of media (e.g., YouTube; Instagram); social network sites (e.g., Facebook; WeChat); virtual environments seeking to replicate face-to-face interactions, such as virtual game worlds (e.g., World of Warcraft) and virtual social worlds (e.g., Second Life; Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010, p. 62; 2012 p. 102). The spectrum is still expanding, as new applications and services become more prominent (e.g., mobile messaging). In principle, campaigners can therefore draw on a broad spectrum of commercial or custom platforms and services that the public can access from a variety of devices, from computers to mobile phones.

It also clear that using online and social media as part of campaigns offers interesting potential for the purpose of engaging publics. At a time when news organizations are struggling to retain subscribers, many people get their information online. Official statistics of world Internet access showed that by 2015 almost half the global population (43%) was using the Internet at home (International Telecommunication Union, 2015). Use was still spread unevenly across regions and countries across the world. It was also spread unevenly within countries with respect to socioeconomic conditions, gender, and age. Nevertheless, the number of people with Internet access continued to increase rapidly across many areas (Pew Research, 2016a). Moreover, half of all adult Internet users in the world were on social networks, and people were increasingly likely to consume news on social media or through news aggregators instead of through the online sites of traditional news organizations (Newman, Fletcher, Levy, & Nielsen, 2016; Pew Research, 2016a, 2016b). Such factors suggest that for certain publics, Internet and social media communication may be among the most significant contexts in which they come into contact with—or do not come into contact with—news, debates, action, and social input related to climate change. This underlines the importance of understanding the campaigning that takes place in these forums and by these means.

That said, the study of online and social media campaigns to engage the public with climate change is still in its infancy. By 2010, two thirds of the empirical research on media representations of climate change studied print media, with research on broadcast and online media both distanced at 16% (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). A body of work on online climate change campaigning is emerging, and there are excellent contributions in the area. However, the field is spread out: the topic is studied across several disciplines, including media and communication, sociology, political science, computer science, business studies, and education. Its scholars use different terminologies, theoretical frameworks, and methods to pursue quite distinct analytical concerns. Many studies of climate change campaigns deal only peripherally with the online and social media aspects, and many studies of online climate change communication deal only peripherally with actual campaigns. Meanwhile, the conditions and forms of climate change campaigning continue to undergo rapid change. All this means that at this time, there is no overarching analytical narrative within the field that structures what we know or orders the most robust results (but for helpful overviews of related areas see, e.g., Cox, 2013; Cox & Schwarze, 2015; Schäfer, 2012a, 2012b). This article outlines noteworthy elements of this dynamic field as it stands in the late 2010s.

Aim and Structure of Article

This article takes stock of the emerging field of research on online and social media campaigns to engage the public on climate change to identify the key themes in the field, as well as the research challenges that are still outstanding. “The Variety of Online Campaigners and Campaigns” outlines the broad spectrum of actors and sectors that campaign online about climate change. “The Role of Online and Social Media in Public Climate Change Campaigns” discusses the role of online and social media technologies in relation to elements highlighted across the spectrum of campaigns. “Debates About Online and Social Media Campaigns to Engage Publics on Climate Change” sets out prominent debates over the role and implications of online and social media that have attracted particular attention among both campaigners and scholars. “Research Challenges” identifies important challenges for the field in the way forward. The overall focus in the first instance is on the role of online and social media in campaigning, as opposed to the content, rhetoric, or framing in the campaigns themselves.

Key to this endeavor is the notion of “campaign.” A well-established understanding of campaign identifies instances in which an actor deploys a strategic package of communication efforts aimed at a large audience for the purpose of achieving a specified objective within a limited time frame (Rogers & Storey, 1987; see also Baringhorst, 2009; Cox, 2013). Taking its starting point in this definition, this article also broaches its boundaries by encompassing concerted efforts to engage publics that make significant use of online and social media but do not invoke campaign terminology or only partially fulfill the classic criteria or expectations associated with strategic campaigns. This can include informal campaigns, cases where several campaigners converge, and campaigns that pursue tacit publicity rather than high visibility or that work with open-ended time frames and broader network-building goals. Such efforts at the margins are part of the emerging landscape in public climate change communication, as well as an important part of the context in which more classic campaigns now play out.

The Variety of Online Campaigners and Campaigns

A broad spectrum of actors campaign online to engage the public in climate change, and they do so in very different ways. The field ranges from those who are trying to explain scientific results to those seeking to sow doubts about them; it ranges from those who are urging policy solutions to those trying to slow decision-making down. Not all the actors are primarily concerned with climate change or engaging publics as such; some are trying to pursue other goals through climate change campaigns. Nevertheless, most campaigns involve at least one of four general goals: Approaching the public as the primary audience, some seek to inform, raise awareness, and shape public understanding about climate change, climate science, and politics and the roles specific actors can play in this context; or to change everyday behavior among consumers and citizens. They may also seek to network, connect, and support communities concerned about climate change. Approaching the public as a secondary audience, as a step toward the campaign goal, others seek to visibly mobilize citizens or consumers in order to put pressure on decision-makers (see further Cox, 2013; Moser, 2010; Schäfer, 2012a, 2012b).

Campaigners speak to publics within and across a number of sectors. Most of the relevant research has concentrated on the civic sector. Campaigns to engage publics in this area primarily seek to inform and increase awareness about climate change, change citizen behavior by promoting sustainable lifestyles, or mobilize public action to put pressure on government and corporate decision-makers. This category therefore encompasses campaigns by advocacy organizations and coalitions, as well as those initiated by social movement activists, local groups, and individuals. It encompasses sustained and punctuated attempts to influence policy and decision-making (e.g., Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2013; Hestres, 2014, 2015; Karpf, 2012, 2016; Kavada, 2012; Pickerill, 2003; Vromen, 2016). It also encompasses focused campaigns concerned with local crises, impacted communities, and climate risk management, as well as drawn out work to create a space for green discourse; reframe the problems of climate change to include issues of social, ecological, and gender justice and indigenous rights; or to develop systematically different ways of living (Dahlberg-Grundberg & Lindgren, 2014; McCurdy, Feigenbaum, & Frenzel, 2013; Mendler de Suarez, Suarez, & Bachofen, 2012; Pickerill, 2003; Suarez et al., 2008; Yang & Calhoun, 2007; Yang & Taylor, 2010). It further encompasses campaigns highlighting global alliances, events, and lobbying or direct action at international summits (e.g., Askanius & Uldam, 2011; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011; Hadden, 2015; Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2016; Sison, 2013; Uldam, 2013).

However, a number of other actors beyond the civic sector also campaign to engage the public on climate change, and they go online to do so. Governments and international organizations are often the targets of climate change-related campaigns, but they are also important campaigners in the area themselves. Governments and public agencies (and the European Commission) go online to conduct public awareness campaigns addressing individual responsibilities and public policies relating to low-carbon lifestyles and climate change, and to inform and coordinate citizens during crises, such as droughts or flooding (e.g., Corner & Randall, 2011; Eberhardt, 2015; Uggla, 2008; Walton & Hume, 2011). Following the Aarhus Convention, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters that was adopted in 1998, public authorities in ratifying states make concerted efforts to involve the public in policy and planning processes, to increase the public transparency of decisions, raise local awareness, and source local knowledge (e.g., Krätzig & Warren-Kretzschmar, 2014; Sheppard, 2012). Political parties campaign on climate-change political positions in elections, and use social media to negotiate other ongoing campaigns (Hutchins, 2016). International organizations, such as the United Nations and related bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also undertake a variety of online outreach initiatives to spread information about climate change and its science (e.g., Hickman, 2015; O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015; Pang & Law, 2017; Pearce, Holmberg, Hellsten, & Nerlich, 2014).

A further area in which there is significant climate change campaigning online is the business sector. Businesses and corporations unleash campaigns on short notice in order to limit damage and protect their reputations in response to crises (e.g., Aronczyk, 2015; Muralidharan, Dillistone, & Shin, 2011). Increasingly, on a longer term basis, many seek to present themselves as leaders and partners in climate protection, trying to persuade their customers that their brands and products promote sustainable environmental values and practices (e.g., Cox, 2013; Schlichting, 2013). This is a key public relations task for corporations in climate-controversial industries, such as oil (Du & Vieira, 2011; Greenberg, Knight, & Westersund, 2011; Smerecnik & Renegar, 2010), energy (Barrios-O’Neill & Schuitema, 2016; Trapp, 2012), and aviation (Burns & Cowlishaw, 2014). It is also practiced by a number of business actors in less controversial areas, including sports teams and stadiums (Chard & Mallen, 2013; Mallen, Chard, & Sime, 2013). Such work can involve informing consumers about measures the company is undertaking, but also promoting consumer behavior change (e.g., sponsoring school recycling competitions). Whether these attempts represent “greenwashing” or genuine efforts is often debated and difficult to disentangle. In a different kind of venture, industry actors also conduct public campaigns to promote or undermine government policy decisions (Aronczyk, 2015; Greenberg et al., 2011). Business campaigns can involve strategic partnering with not-for-profit actors (Du & Vieira, 2011). This is also one context in which the involvement of think tanks is studied. For example, in the case of the United States, studies highlight the increasing salience of the connection between the campaigns of industry actors and those of climate change think tanks since 2000 (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, 2015; Farrell, 2016).

Although they rarely use the terminology of campaigning, scientists and scientific institutions are also an important group using strategic communication to engage the public on climate change. The relevant literature in this area includes researchers’ reports on their own research project or area. Climate scientists go online to engage publics for different purposes: to inform about the state of scientific knowledge on climate change more broadly or to disseminate research results in relevant constituencies (Newell & Dale, 2015); to rapidly counter public misinformation in the blogosphere or mainstream news (Greenberg et al., 2011; Wanucha, 2014); and to educate citizens about climate change and scientific reasoning by involving them in research, for example, in the form of crowd-sourced data collection (Dickinson et al., 2012). Beyond the immediate remit of climate science, scholars in a number of other areas work on communication and public engagement with climate change from the perspective of their own specializations. This includes research to develop serious or educational climate change games (Lee, Ceyhan, Jordan-Cooley, & Sung, 2013; Reckien & Eisenack, 2013; Wu & Lee, 2015), social network applications for environmental learning (Dickinson, Crain, Reeve, & Schuldt, 2013; Robelia, Greenhow, & Burton, 2011), and digitally enabled collective intelligence-based collaborative systems with the capacity to help large numbers of people grasp and solve complex policy problems on the basis of sound scientific knowledge (Malone et al., 2009; Duhaime, Olson, & Malone, 2015). Government outreach goals and the research sector sometimes combine in the development of such applications.

Finally, there are climate change campaigners that are less easy to characterize and place. A number of public intellectuals seek to engage publics through personal blogs and social media, as part of often complex campaigns promoting their personal brands, books, and talks (Nisbet, 2014). Political, religious, and entertainment leaders or celebrities may also seek to engage publics on climate change in strategic communication campaigns on their own or in collaboration with an advocacy organization (Alexander, 2013; Boykoff & Goodman, 2009; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2008). Moreover, media actors, such as traditional news organizations, occasionally conduct their own climate change campaigns. For example, prior to the 2009 COP15 Copenhagen summit, the Guardian (U.K.) newspaper published a collaboratively authored editorial in 45 countries, to which readers were invited to respond in the comments section or by writing their own editorials (Holliman, 2011).

A broad range of climate change campaigns follows from this variety of actors and purposes. Just as several factors shape nondigital campaigns, many factors combine to shape online and social media campaigns, including the roles of online and social media technologies within them.

The Role of Online and Social Media in Public Climate Change Campaigns

Many of the elements that shape variance in offline campaigns also contribute to shaping online and social media campaigns. With focus on the campaigner, these elements include the campaign goals (e.g., whether campaigners are trying to inform, activate, or network publics or to mobilize them to put pressure on a decision-maker); the campaigner’s culture of organization and communication (e.g., whether a group prefers hierarchical or decentralized organization and communication); the public they are targeting and their perception of that audience (e.g., as a passive recipient or an active partner); the historical register of campaign repertoires (i.e., the tools and tactics that are meaningful for the campaign actor and public); the campaigners’ and their target publics’ resources, skills, and access to technologies and what communication technologies they find relevant; and the political and social context in which the campaigners operate (see further, Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2013; Chu & Tang, 2005; Greenberg et al., 2011; Hodges & Stocking, 2016; Hestres, 2015; Kavada, 2013; Merry, 2011; Pickerill, 2003; Stein, 2011; Uldam, 2013; Vromen, 2016; Yang & Calhoun, 2007; Yang & Taylor, 2010).

With respect to the platforms, technological architectures and user cultures characterize them differently in ways that matter for the purposes of a campaign. A pivotal feature is the structure of user relationships. In the mid-2010s, Facebook centered on reciprocal connections among the profiles of “friends,” who could like, comment, and share content with each other (although campaign organizers using the platform often favored the “Page” alternative, which allowed the campaign organizer as profile administrator to accept “fans” but retain control over content). This was a different kind of communicative space from that of Twitter, Weibo, and Instagram, which all offered more open-ended communication: these platforms built on asymmetrical “follower” connections, in which users could follow, address, and repost messages from any public account and track content via hashtagged (#) keywords. It also differed from the kind of space created by blogosphere conventions for signalling recognition via hyperlinked blogrolls, and the fine-grained roles, rules, and tools that regulate the open invitation to contribute and edit content in collaborative spaces such as Wikipedia. Sites also differed in subtler ways, for example, in how they invoked temporality through the organization of content streams, archives, and trending topics. Taken together, such elements can influence a campaigner’s decisions about where to conduct a campaign, but also help shape how campaigns play out in the composition and structure of the publics that form around a site and how the issue of climate change is rendered.

Climate change campaigners therefore leverage online and social media in diverse ways. They may use altogether different platforms or use the same technologies to different effect in terms of how they leverage their “affordances” (i.e., the actions that the technologies enable and constrain). Basic affordances discussed in this context include interactive and social affordances, such as peer influence. They also include spatial and temporal affordances, which facilitate the coordination of simultaneous or asynchronous action and communication over large distances, and networking affordances that enable the articulation and extension of networks. Despite the possible variety, the literature primarily highlights three elements of public campaigns that campaigners across sectors seek to enhance by leveraging online and social media affordances: the elements of attention and visibility, motivation and persuasion, and organization and networking. All these elements can appear as parts of the same campaign, and it is almost always the case that there continue to be significant offline components in the campaigns as well.

Attention and Visibility

Climate change campaigners across sectors leverage online and social media to capture and sustain public attention. One of the most basic ways of doing this is to tailor the campaign communication to attract and speak to a particular target public. Low communication costs allow campaigners to calibrate their choice of channels, rhetorical style, and content according to what is relevant and appropriate for the intended audience. This sometimes includes novelty applications meant to capture interest, but often it is the “mundane” tactics and technologies that are familiar to the target audience that play a key role in a campaign (Nielsen, 2011; see also Rootes, 2011; Newell & Dale, 2015). However, what is considered mundane will vary with the audience and may change over time, as is exemplified by the shift from email-centered to social media-centered campaigning that has been observed in some online campaign organizations (Vromen, 2016). In addition, campaigners use the enhanced capacity to target multiple audiences at the same time, varying their communication in layers and across platforms (Askanius & Uldam, 2011; Hestres, 2015; Merry, 2010, 2012; Stein, 2011; Smerecnik & Renegar, 2010).

Climate change campaigners also use their enhanced visibility online to reach broader audiences, beyond their core constituency. Even an individual or a small group can start a campaign website, blog, or microblog. To capture the attention of the mainstream news media, some campaigners incorporate familiar tactics such as staging image events or collaborating with celebrities into their online repertoires, although others report that news media are becoming less responsive to such moves (Anderson, 2011, 2013; DeLuca, 1999; Lester & Hutchins, 2012; Uldam, 2013; Vromen, 2016). To capture public imagination more generally, campaigners create funny, shocking, or novel material and memes that people will want to share in their networks. A variation has climate change activists exploiting the conditions of digitally enhanced visibility as part of their campaign. One way of doing this is to create fake public relations material, in the form of video press conferences, websites, or social media accounts that attract public attention, in order to increase pressure on brand-sensitive corporate targets (Anderson, 2013; Bennett, 2003, 2005; Kaur, 2015; McQueen, 2015). Using visibility to a different effect, sometimes discussed in terms of astroturfing, other campaigners create websites and social media accounts to create the impression that there is already widespread popular support for their position (Aronczyk, 2015; Boykoff, 2011; Dunlap & McCright, 2011; Greenberg et al., 2011).

Motivation and Persuasion

Climate change campaigners across sectors leverage affordances of interactivity and peer networks to further adjust campaigns to a specific audience and to enhance their capacity to motivate and persuade. This can involve enabling interactions between an organizer and participants, for example, through live chats or feedback mechanisms, or among campaign participants, for example, through invitations to post content (e.g., photos of an event) or to participate in online community spaces. It can also involve offering technology outlays that allow participants to download campaign material (e.g., printable posters or digital banners they can embed in their social media profile) or to act online (e.g., donate or sign a petition). Besides inviting participation, interactive content can help publics explore campaign information. For example, campaigners use digital imagery such as satellite images or animations with interactive elements to augment the recognized potential of visuals to convey complex information and motivate action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Cox, 2013; Hestres, 2015; Merry, 2010; Krätzig & Warren-Kretzschmar, 2014; Liu, J., 2011; Newell & Dale, 2015; O’Neill & Smith, 2014; Salter, Campbell Journeay, & Sheppard, 2009; Schroth, Angel, Sheppard, & Dulic, 2014; Senbel, Ngo, & Blair, 2014; Sheppard, 2012; Uldam & Askanius, 2013).

Peer networks are regarded as powerful mechanisms through which to fine-tune campaign communication and enhance the capacity to motivate and persuade. Campaigners invoke a social context by encouraging participants to bring their social networks into the campaigns, enacting parts of the campaign project in social contexts to heighten the effects of positive peer pressure and using the input of the peer group to help hone the local relevance of the material (Hestres, 2015; Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015; Mendler de Suarez et al., 2012; Merry, 2014; Senbel et al., 2014; Sheppard, 2012; Suarez et al., 2008). Harnessing the power of peer influence more indirectly, campaigners make sure that campaign material is easily spreadable, and some deliberately seed digital opinion leaders to shape public sentiment, for example by enlisting trusted members of a community to blog on their issue (Aronczyk, 2015; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2008). Several studies note that public climate change campaigns across sectors increasingly incorporate gamification, and in particular digital climate change games: digital games embed interactive and social affordances in a comprehensive context, and add the fascination of fun (Katsaliaki & Mustafee, 2015; Kelly & Nardi, 2014; Lee et al., 2013; Malone et al., 2009; Mendler de Suarez et al., 2012; Reckien & Eisenack, 2013; Reeves, Cummings, Scarborough, & Yeykelis, 2015; Schroth et al., 2014; Senbel et al., 2014; Smerecnik & Renegar, 2010; Wu & Lee, 2015). At the level of the campaign organizer, hyperlinking to other actors can help mark recognition and prestige, and heighten the campaign organizer’s credibility by association (Ackland & O’Neil, 2011; Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Rogers & Marres, 2000; Sima, 2011; Sullivan & Xie, 2009).

Organization and Networking

Climate change campaigners across sectors utilize the temporal and spatial affordances of online and social media to enhance the organizational elements within a campaign. Online and social media can facilitate organizational flexibility, enabling coordination and the rapid deployment of campaigns. This in turn enables organizational hybridity and repertoire switching between conventionally distinct roles, arenas, and repertoires to organize and conduct a campaign (Chadwick, 2007, 2013). Such practices are observed in the campaigns of political parties, corporations, and single-actor climate change campaigners, such as eco-celebrities (Alexander, 2013; Hutchins, 2016; Trapp, 2012). Some campaigners go further, developing organizational forms that could not function without the spatial and temporal affordances of online and social media.

The most studied cases of emerging organization in the area of climate change are Internet-mediated campaign organizations. These include multi-issue organizations, such as U.K.-based 38 Degrees (Chadwick, 2013), U.S.-based MoveOn (Karpf, 2012), Australia’s GetUp (Vromen, 2016), and International Avaaz (Kavada, 2012), and issue specialists, such as (Hestres, 2014, 2015). For such organizations, which build on a small core of professional staff and loose supporter networks, the website, social media accounts, and petition platforms play key organizational roles. They become crucial to how the organization coordinates and scales up public engagement by building networks of supporters and structuring targeted actions. Advocacy coalitions in which a website and associated social media accounts become both the public face and the organization for the standalone campaign display a similar dynamic (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013). Outside formal campaign organizations, individuals and groups, working on their own or in collaboration with organizations, leverage similar affordances to create and extend campaigns (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chu & Tang, 2005; Lee, 2015; Xu, 2014). Online and social media are integral to the organization and performance of these campaigns, as opposed to being solely communication instruments that the organizer deploys.

In many of these cases, networking affordances play an organizational role that is distinct from their contribution as sources of (peer) persuasion. Online campaign organizations’ efforts to develop social media supporter networks for timely campaigns can here be added to the long history of electronic networks built on older digital media, such as email, in the tactical repertoires of climate change campaigning (Frederick, 1992; Pickerill, 2003). Other campaigns showcase existing networks, for example, by launching a website as the public face and focal point of a new alliance (Takahashi, Edwards, Roberts, & Duan, 2015). In yet other cases, digital networking mechanisms serve to articulate emerging campaign networks. Websites, email lists, and blogs played this kind of role early in the climate justice movement, as part of public work to build loose action and communication structures that could encompass diverse participants and extend the emerging climate justice master frame (Dietz, 2014; Hadden, 2015; Roberts, 2007; see also Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

This section has outlined common ways in which campaigners leverage the affordances of online and social media to engage publics with climate change. It primarily reflects research that directly studies campaigns, campaigners, and their publics using such methods as content analysis, interviews, surveys, or focus groups. In this context, it is important to note that a significant body of work does not study campaigners’ uses of affordances but instead utilizes the affordances to study traces of campaigns. This work often explores networking affordances. One approach applies social network analysis. For example, scholars analyze blog or website hyperlink networks to investigate connections among climate bloggers or environmental social movement organizations, or they analyze Twitter mention, follower and retweet networks to investigate polarization dynamics in online public debates (Ackland & O’Neil, 2011; Sharman, 2014; Sullivan & Xie, 2009; Williams et al., 2015). A distinct approach traces the issue’s network rather than that of the campaigner. Pursuing controversy analysis (Latour, 2005), it deploys computational techniques to detect, analyze and visualize public contestation around common problems (Marres, 2015, p. 657). This work follows the specificity of the medium (Rogers, 2013) to study the politics of knowledge across website hyperlink networks (Marres & Rogers, 2005; Niederer, 2013; Rogers & Marres, 2000) or the trajectories of contestation around reverts, vocabularies, and source references across edit histories in Wikipedia (Weltevrede & Borra, 2016). Such approaches offer a distinct analytical view on the use of affordances in both overt and tacit climate change campaigns.

Debates About Online and Social Media Campaigns to Engage Publics on Climate Change

Both the possibilities and problems of online and social media campaigning to engage publics on climate change have been debated ever since such campaigns started to emerge. Four key themes regarding the role and implications of online and social media have attracted particular attention among campaigners and the scholars studying them.

Informing Publics

A central issue for campaign actors and their observers has revolved around the prospect of being able to offer the public augmented, amplified, or, simply, important information relevant to the science, problems, and politics of climate change (Cox, 2013). A key point concerns campaigners’ capacity to communicate directly with core constituencies and broader publics, bypassing other intermediaries, in particular the gatekeepers in the mainstream news media, to get the message out in a form the campaigner can control.

The value of direct or disintermediated communication has been discussed in several climate change campaign contexts, from radical direct activists to NGOs to businesses to scholars communicating climate science (e.g., Muralidharan, Dillistone, & Shin, 2011; Pickerill, 2003; Stoddart & MacDonald, 2011; Uldam, 2013; Yang & Taylor, 2010). What is communicated can take many forms, including original and repurposed content (Baym & Shah, 2011). But the issue is especially salient for groups that find it difficult to get their issues and perspectives covered in the mainstream news media. One noteworthy example is indigenous groups who are trying to highlight issues relevant to impacted communities and to bring traditional ecological knowledge into the arena of national and international negotiations (Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2016; Stoddart & MacDonald, 2011). Other prominent examples are the parts of the climate countermovement that turn to the blogosphere as an alternative to mainstream media (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, 2015; Matthews, 2015; Niederer, 2013; Sharman, 2014), and industry actors that opt directly for blog or multimedia campaigns instead of trying to engage the mass media (Aronczyk, 2015; Boykoff, 2011). In a different context, scholars emphasize the importance of being able to create alternative spaces for information and communication under the conditions of authoritarian communication control (Liu, J., 2011; Xu, 2014; Yang & Calhoun, 2007).

However, despite the hopes for direct communication, it has long been recognized that “unfettered self-publication” is a complex issue (Rogers & Marres, 2000, p. 142). Simply going online and uploading content, does not guarantee a campaigner visibility in a crowded debate. It may fail to attract attention within the immediate community, let alone gain traction beyond the core constituency. Many campaign organizers therefore continue to regard the traditional news media as an important mechanism for amplifying the campaign message and disseminating it to a broader public. For example, online campaign organizations have tended to prioritize online and social media for mobilization purposes, and broadcast and print news media for publicizing and validating the campaign (Chadwick, 2013; Karpf, 2012; Vromen, 2016; see also Chu & Tang, 2005; Cox, 2013; Uldam & Askanius, 2013; Uldam, 2013). Nevertheless, there is also some indication that campaigner perceptions of traditional news media’s role in publicity are changing. Groups that previously sought news media out now seek other paths (Lester & Hutchins, 2012; Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2016). It is increasingly recognized that though the traditional news media may be a key element, it is not the sole element in the complex mesh of actors and processes that help shape the public dissemination of climate campaigns (Hutchins, 2016; Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014; Lück, Wozniak, & Wessler 2016; Tegelberg, Yagodin, & Russell, 2014). Scholars point to the processes of network gatekeeping (Barzilai-Nahon, 2008), in which a variety of actors—from lay citizens to professional public relations strategists—filter and curate content (Aronczyk, 2015; Greenberg et al., 2011; Veltri & Atanasova, 2015; see also Thorson & Wells, 2016). They also highlight the role of digital intermediaries, such as search engines and social media platforms, in shaping public information, given that their architecture and algorithms structure and filter search results and feeds. In 2017, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter took account of users’ activities (e.g., what accounts they follow or interact with, contents they “like”) in selecting what those users see in their (News) Feeds or Twitter Trends (Facebook, 2017; Instagram, 2017; Twitter, 2017), and studies have suggested that civil society organizations and traditional news media were trying to accommodate this in their own work (Vraga, Anderson, Kotcher, & Maibach, 2015; Nielsen & Ganter, 2016; see also Nielsen, 2017). The capacity to spark user engagement takes on additional significance under such conditions since it shapes the information they will encounter in the future.

A different question is whether campaigning online actually has any demonstrable effect on public attitudes and knowledge. Does digitally communicated information matter? Some campaigners, such as online campaign organizations, track the analytics of interest and attention within their campaigns (Chadwick, 2013; Karpf, 2016), but campaign success is sometimes simply assumed to imply awareness-raising success. Preliminary or pilot studies on the design of educational social networks and games suggest initial support for attitudinal and learning effects associated with such features as engaging in peer contexts or virtual environment settings (e.g., Lee et al., 2013; Robelia et al., 2011; Schroth et al., 2014; see also Wu & Lee, 2015). From a different perspective, scholars are starting to use unobtrusive computational methods to explore public attention and information-sharing dynamics in the public communication on climate change, in particular on Twitter (Fernandez, Piccolo, Maynard, Wippoo, Meili, & Alani, 2016; Holmberg & Hellsten, 2016c; Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014; Veltri & Atanasova, 2015). Nevertheless, robust knowledge of attention, attitude, knowledge, and belief outcomes related to online and social media campaigning is still being established (see further Ballew, Omoto, & Winter, 2015; Bostrom, Böhm, & O’Connor, 2013; Capstick, Whitmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015).

Other parts of the discussion focus on the implications of online campaigning for the broader information landscape and the way it shapes the public debate on climate change. Publics may come across campaign material from a diverse spectrum of campaigners in a variety of contexts, from an electronic newsletter to a meme on social media. One question is therefore whether more information and stakeholder positioning is better from the perspective of public understanding: people may find a plethora of information confusing rather than enlightening (Whitmarsh et al., 2013). Another question is whether publics will become increasingly divided. The concerns revolve around the implications of digitally enhanced polarization, as some campaigners deliberately restrict the scope of their address to particular audiences, and people engage selectively within echo chambers or filter information through what they already believe (Boykoff, 2011; Collins & Nerlich, 2015; Corner & Randall, 2011; Cox, 2013; Hestres, 2014; Holmberg & Hellsten, 2016a; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson, 2012). The empirical evidence based on interactions in blog or microblog networks is ambiguous: network analysis of climate debates confirmed expectations of likeminded clusters, yet emerging evidence also reveals pockets or patterns of interaction among actors expressing different standpoints (Elgesem, Steskal, & Diakopoulos, 2015; Haeussler, 2016; Holmberg & Hellsten, 2016c; Liu, J. C., & Zhao, 2017; Williams et al., 2015). Finally, the quality of information is a persistent concern. There is a risk that targeting people at their existing level of interest and knowledge may tempt campaigners to oversimplify their messages. However, a series of cross-sectional studies of U.S. environmental groups shows that instead of “dumbing down” their online communication, the groups deliberately vary and layer the complexity and appeal (Merry, 2010, 2012, 2013). Other scholars argue that quality in this context should not be considered only in terms of scientific correctness but also, for example, in terms of emotional resonance (Auer, Zhang, & Lee, 2014; see also Veltri & Atanasova, 2015; Vromen, 2016).

Activating Publics

Another key area of debate centers on the capacity of online and social media campaigns to activate publics on the issues, problems, and politics of climate change. The debate concerns public behavior, mobilization, and the character of the publics that the campaigns engage.

One part of the debate focuses on the capacity of online and social media campaigns to impact public behavior. Do campaigns that leverage interactive and social affordances to activate publics and motivate behavior change actually lead to pro-environmental behavior? As is the case with information effects, it is difficult to isolate the behavioral impact of online and social media campaigning in the complex environments of these campaigns, especially since the social context that can help motivate action might also backfire if peers are critical (Ballew et al., 2015). However, preliminary studies in the context of educational social network applications and competitions show a degree of actual or self-reported short-term behavior change, and indicate that this is enhanced by the participation of friends or likeminded peers (Robelia et al., 2011; Senbel et al., 2014). Similar effects are reported in relation to game mechanics, especially in the context of serious games that focus on action in the present as opposed to an envisioned future (Wu & Lee, 2015; Lee et al., 2013; Reeves et al., 2015). Nevertheless, behavioral effects are still being elucidated even in controlled contexts, and there is a particular need to investigate the long term (Wu & Lee, 2015).

Another part of the debate focuses on the capacity of online and social media to mobilize publics to engage in political action and protest around climate change. Online campaign organizations, transnational coalitions, and social movement groups have reported growth in the numbers of supporters and large turnouts at demonstrations. This is attributed to a host of factors, including ease of participation and coordination, mode of participation and (connective) action, and associated narrative techniques (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2013; Karpf, 2012; Sison, 2013; Vromen, 2016). One factor is traced to the campaigners’ expansive relationship with their publics. Some campaigners, such as the large online campaign organizations and coalitions, assume that their supporters want to be active participants, not just passive recipients of information and instructions, and that they will seek different ways to engage with the issue, the organization, and its campaign. These campaigners therefore trade communication control for the sake of engaging active publics and mobilizing large numbers of supporters, enlisting online and social media affordances in doing so (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2013; Karpf, 2012; Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015; Hestres, 2015; Kavada, 2012).

However, it is difficult to balance control and engagement: to steer brand, message, and action for the purposes of the campaign and, at the same time, to give supporters leeway in their participation. The more a campaign organizer invites broad interaction and dissemination in high-visibility contexts, the more vulnerable to challenges the campaign becomes. Well-meaning supporters who take campaigns in their own direction create problems for organizers, who need to maintain the strategic capacity to end the campaign once its immediate goals have been met (Bennett, 2003). Aggressive critics can cause problems by copying and leaking damaging material and continuing to spread it even after the original posts have been taken offline (Boykoff, 2011; Cox & Schwarze, 2015; Holliman, 2011; Leiserowitz et al., 2012). In this sense, the same features of online and social media contexts that help animate climate change communication and facilitate public engagement also make it more complicated to pursue campaigns. That said, several studies have noted that not all climate change campaigners cede very much communication control in practice. Even among campaigners who support a participatory rhetoric, many limit themselves to a principle of “controlled interactivity” in their public face (Stromer-Galley, 2014, p. 14).

Scholars instead highlight the intensive behind-the-scenes work that goes into activating the public in online and social media campaigns about climate change. This has been studied in particular in connection with industry actors and well-resourced online campaign organizations. The ability to fine-tune alignment with particular publics assumes a sophisticated understanding of what one is doing. Such campaigners therefore invest substantial effort and resources in researching and surveying their audience in order to refine their message and tools. They use online polling, monitoring, data mining, and search-engine optimization to select and shape their campaigns. Seemingly loose mobilizations in these cases therefore build on carefully run backstage work (Aronczyk, 2015; Chadwick, 2013; Karpf, 2012, 2016; Vromen, 2016). In these contexts, it can be argued that the behind-the-scenes role of online and social media is equally significant to their role in engaging people in the public face of the campaigns.

These findings relate to a third area of debate about how to characterize the public engagement we see in these contexts. Critics have focused on the nature of publics that act online and on the connection between online mobilization and how much people care about an issue. Some observers, particularly in the early years, suggested that it was too easy to participate in online campaigns. For others, the public in online and social media campaigns appear more managed than engaged. Counter to such concerns, researchers studying campaigning in a variety of geographical contexts note that such objections often misconstrue the engagement involved (e.g., Vromen, 2016; see also Earl, 2015; Svensson, 2016). Other scholars treat the identity of the publics activated in climate change campaigns as an open empirical question. This body of work studies the publics that emerge in conjunction with climate change campaigns: it analyzes intentional digital traces in social media data to discern digitally enabled ad hoc publics (Bruns & Burgess, 2011) and issue publics (Marres & Rogers, 2005; Rogers & Marres, 2000). Digital mechanisms, such as Twitter hashtags (#) that allow users to collate messages according to a keyword, help articulate an emergent network of actors. Ad hoc publics have been traced in explicit association with a campaign, such as when distant supporters combine multiple campaign hashtags to highlight connections and create a public that the organizer had not envisaged (Dahlberg-Grundberg et al., 2014), and as a byproduct of a campaign or event, such as in the Twitter debates that follow IPCC work-package releases (Holmberg & Hellsten, 2016c; Pearce et al., 2014). A third example is the hybrid ad hoc public that emerged around the #cop15 hashtag to cut across the densely populated action space and multiple campaigns at the 15th UN Climate Conference in 2009 (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011). Ad hoc publics and issue publics highlight a different aspect of what it means to activate a public, and thereby raise a distinct set of questions about public engagement and campaigns.

Including Publics

Underpinning the first two debates has been a third issue: the drive toward inclusion and inclusiveness. Several areas of online climate change campaigning have operated from the notion that it is important to include the public (in different ways and for different reasons), and that digitally enabled campaigning can be seminal in helping to achieve this.

Among online climate change campaigners, the efforts toward inclusion have had three distinct strands. The first revolves around the pedagogical mechanics of active learning and social learning. The importance of active participant involvement, in particular in peer contexts, is emphasized as a means to increase public understanding of, for example, scientific results and reasoning or the local implications of climate change (Dickinson et al., 2012; Malone et al., 2009; Newell & Dale, 2015; Suarez et al., 2008; Mendler de Suarez et al., 2012; Robelia et al., 2011). The second strand revolves around inclusive processes that are needed to build a relationship between an organization and its participants, customers, or audiences. This is often discussed with emphasis on the role of transparency and responsiveness in improving public perceptions of an organization’s authenticity, trustworthiness, and leadership capacities to act as a partner in dealing with climate change (Barrios-O’Neill et al., 2016; Hickman, 2015; Korschun & Du, 2013; Sison, 2013; Yang & Taylor, 2010). The third strand invokes inclusiveness as an explicitly democratic concept. Environmental groups emphasize the importance of inclusion and equal participation in the internal organization and decision-making of the group, while government policy and planning consultations focus on the quality and perceived legitimacy of the decision-making process (Krätzig & Warren-Kretzschmar, 2014; Pickerill, 2003; Whitmarsh et al., 2013). A general notion has touched on the possibility that expansive communicative opportunities will entail the inclusion of a fuller range of stakeholders, as well as a more level playing field across stakeholders, in the public debate about climate change and its politics (see O’Neill & Boykoff, 2011; Schäfer, 2012b).

However, there is limited evidence of the extent to which the inclusion of publics is successfully established or vigorously pursued in practice. As noted in the section “Activating Publics,” some campaigners deliberately retain strict control of the amount and kinds of interaction enabled on the public face of their campaign. Beyond this, several studies indicate that campaign organizers, for a variety of technological and nontechnological reasons, make relatively little use of the digital mechanisms for interaction and inclusion that are available. An initial wave of studies showed this to be the case in website-based climate change campaigning. The tendency seems to hold for campaigns that incorporate social media such as Facebook or Twitter, although to a lesser extent and with some differentiation between sectors and according to the conditions under which campaigners are operating (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Bortree & Seltzer, 2009; Fernandez et al., 2016; Greenberg & MacAulay, 2009; Hodges & Stocking, 2016; Holmberg & Hellsten, 2016b; Merry, 2010, 2014; Stein, 2011; Yang & Taylor, 2010).

From the general perspective of the public debate on climate change, shifting to online and social media campaigns has not automatically leveled the playing field for stakeholders. It is clear that some campaigners are more visible online than others (e.g., Liu, J. C. & Zhao, 2017; Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014). Moreover, while campaigning online is one way of making up for scant resources, resources do still play a role in online campaigns. As noted, the formation of campaigns is delimited by access, resources, and skills (e.g., Chu & Tang, 2005; Pickerill, 2003; Stein, 2011; Uldam, 2013). Resources may also play a role in the amount of attention a campaign attracts, thereby playing into its visibility in the overall debate. An early study of environmental websites in the United States indicated that a group’s resources (as opposed to its ideology or tactics) is a key predictor of website popularity, as measured in web traffic, since well-resourced groups are able to provide more content and to receive and send more links, and they are better positioned to make use of online marketing and content delivery (Merry, 2011). Nevertheless, other studies indicate that such popularity may not necessarily translate across platforms or point to the tenacious communication in the long tail of small blogs in the climate change blogosphere (Chen & Fu, 2016; Holliman, 2011).

Still, these issues relate to the broader matter of the geography and demography of inclusion (O’Neill & Boykoff, 2011). Some online campaigners use their capacity for narrowcasting to focus on already converted publics, instead of directing their attention to the general public (e.g., Cox, 2013; Hestres, 2015; Sima, 2011). Against this background, it is important to recognize that online and social media campaigns may have limits with respect to some groups. In 2015, there were still significant digital divides in Internet access and time spent online in terms of age, gender, income, and education across developed and developing economies (Pew Research, 2016a). Knowledge of such divides can be used in designing campaigns, for example, developing the information and communication technologies (ICT) skills of women as key family actors in sustainability and disaster-reduction projects (Khalafzai & Nirupama, 2011). However, some underrepresented groups, and the organizations that try to engage them, find it difficult or inappropriate to imitate successful online campaign styles (Vromen, 2016). Such observations raise questions about whether particular publics remain unaddressed, and what this means for the broader public agenda on climate change.

Technological Ambivalences

The final theme concerns the ambivalence campaign actors express about using digital technologies to campaign about climate change. Whereas the variations on the first three themes have also been debated in relation to digitally enabled campaigning in other areas, this fourth theme has particular salience in the context of climate change campaigns.

Technology-enabled climate change campaigns can be controversial. Observers can be quick to criticize industry actors’ claims to be leaders in the struggle against climate change (Cox, 2013; Greenberg et al., 2011; Trapp, 2012). Yet civic advocates for climate action also grapple with ambivalent situations. The long history of different perspectives among and within environmental groups about technology in general, and its role in environmental activism in particular, continues into the era of Internet and social media campaigns (Pickerill, 2003). Much of the discussion concerns the quality and styles of engagement and organization rather than the environmental aspects of the technology. However, there is also some debate about conducting climate change campaigns that utilize technologies that may themselves contribute to the problem, such as social media platforms that depend on large computer server complexes powered by fossil fuel sources. This is recognized to be a complex issue. For example, Greenpeace activists acknowledged the irony of campaigning on Facebook against Facebook’s plans to use coal as the main power source for a new data center, but then tried to turn this into a constructive dimension of the actual campaign itself (Katz-Kimchi & Manosevitch, 2015).

A similar dilemma faces climate change activists who identify the capitalist system as part of the climate change problem. Free-to-user social media platforms are a double-edged sword for these campaigners. On the one hand, large commercial social media platforms are deeply embedded in the market-driven media environment that the activists reject. Moreover, such companies have their own goals and considerations, which may lead them to enforce terms of service that complicate their use by radical activist campaigners (e.g., forbidding anonymity; Uldam, 2016; Youmans & York, 2012). On the other hand, these same platforms are often the most easily accessible communication alternatives available to both the campaigners and the publics they are trying to reach (Askanius & Uldam, 2011; Pickerill, 2003).

A more general concern with communications technology has to do with surveillance and censorship. For campaigners, there is a flipside to their digitally enhanced capacity for coordination, communication, visibility, and the opportunity to hold brands hostage: the same conditions that make this possible allow police and corporate targets to monitor the campaigners in turn. Climate activists have long been aware they may be targets of online surveillance, in particular police monitoring. Nevertheless, it appears that offline infiltration continues to seem a more distinct risk for many, in particular in the United Kingdom following revelations regarding long- term undercover police operations in the climate justice movement (Pickerill, 2003; Uldam, 2016). Pursuing a different line of inquiry, studies in authoritarian contexts examine how state and corporate communication control productively contributes to shaping online climate change campaigning. For example, scholars studying the Chinese context highlight the innovative ways in which public environmental communication circumvents censorship and surveillance through the use of puns and images online (Chen, 2015; DeLuca, Brunner, & Sun, 2016; Yang & Calhoun, 2007; see also Poell, 2014).

Research Challenges

It is clear that a broad spectrum of stakeholders campaign online and in social media to engage the public with climate change. These campaigners leverage online and social media in different ways, stemming from a variety of factors that help shape their campaigns. The breadth of disciplinary perspectives brought to bear on online climate change campaigning is a rich benefit for this emerging area. At the same time, a crucial task for future research is to continue to develop a comprehensive, contextualized, and temporally grounded analysis of the campaigns and the publics they engage.

In the late 2010s we possess a partial view of the landscape of online climate change campaigns. The research that has been surveyed here is not a formally defined sample in the sense required in a meta-analysis. Nevertheless, it gives some indication of the shape of the field. As earlier observers have noted, substantially more is known about the campaigning of some actors, sectors, and geographical areas than others (Schäfer, 2012ab). Studies of European and North American media sources dominated the research on media representations of climate change published up to and including 2010 (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). A half decade later, the geographical focus in the research on online campaigning is similarly delimited. Of the 89 articles and monographs reporting original empirical research referenced here, half (48%) deal with campaigning in North America, Europe, and Australia and a further third (33%) focus on campaigning in international contexts (e.g., around international summits, events, and campaigns or decontextualized studies of international nongovernmental organizations, transnational corporations and global data samples that, in most cases, build on English-language data). Beyond this, 10% percent of the studies focus on China. This leaves knowledge gaps with respect to a number of regions in which the campaign context may be substantially different from those primarily studied to date.

There is a similar lopsidedness in the focus on media. Methodologically, just over half the publications analyze online campaign content (e.g., through content, framing, or rhetoric analysis); just over a third turn directly to the campaigners and publics through interactive methods; and almost 20% apply network analysis to digital data. Strikingly, however, research relating to particular platforms dominates. Of the 68 studies that analyze one or more online media platforms or related data, most focus on websites (38%) or blogs and microblogs (43%). A full 30% focus on the microblogging site Twitter. By contrast, comparatively few studies deal with commercial social networks such as Facebook (12%), the same proportion that reports on the development and testing of custom educational collaboration platforms, games, and social networks. It is even less common to consider content-sharing sites such as YouTube (9%), collaborative content creation wikis such as Wikipedia (1%), or other forms of digital communication such as email (2%). The lopsided focus on particular platforms in part reflects differences in researcher access: in the early 2010s, Twitter was comparatively more accessible in terms of data collection and analysis than other social media (see e.g., Bruns & Burgess, 2016; Burgess & Bruns, 2015). Nevertheless, it seems desirable to find ways to extend analysis to other key sites of online climate change communication, especially since these may encompass different dynamics and insights about campaigns and the character of the publics that are engaged.

This overview suggests that there are basic gaps in our knowledge about online campaigning to engage publics with climate change. It is difficult to discern the broader landscape and also to separate out empirical patterns from the effects of research concentration and technological delimitations. One of the important tasks at hand for the emerging field will be to develop a more comprehensive view that starts to fill such gaps in. Such efforts can in turn underpin the development of a comparative typology of contemporary climate change campaigning and a more fine-grained understanding of the campaigning itself.

Beyond filling in the gaps, a comprehensive perspective will benefit from continuing attention to two points. The first is the effort to analyze online climate change campaigning in context. This refers to political, social and technological context more generally, as for example, emphasized by scholars studying China (Liu, J. 2016; Liu, J. C. & Zhao, 2017; Yang & Calhoun, 2007). It also refers to the broader campaign context in which specific tactics and technologies are embedded. It counts as much for online petitions and climate change games as for digital images and Twitter hashtags (see e.g., Katsaliaki & Mustafee, 2015; O’Neill & Smith, 2014; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011; Vromen, 2016). It also counts for platforms. A “one medium bias,” which privileges the analysis of a single platform (Treré, 2012, p. 2361), skews our understanding of particular campaigns, as well as the more general conditions for engaging the public with climate change. This said, it is important to recognize the methodological and analytical challenges of contextualization. Methodologically, researchers encounter difficulties in relation to both the public face and the backstage of a campaign. Regarding the public side of campaigns, scholars have limited access to public communication on commercial online platforms for the purposes of research. Going behind the scenes of a campaign, it is difficult to access campaign work that takes place in closed channels and groups (Aronczyk, 2015; Karpf, 2016; Uldam, 2016). Analytically, in the case of online data, scholars need to continue to consider such questions as the extent to which the digital traces under analysis indicate the contours of an engaged public, the dynamics of the issue, or the characteristics of the platform itself (Marres, 2015; see also Ackland & O’Neil, 2011; Elgesem et al., 2015; Rogers, 2013).

The second and related point has to do with the effort to examine these campaigns in temporal context. A meta-analysis of research on media representations of climate change showed a strong tradition of longitudinal studies (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). By contrast, there are few longitudinal studies related to online campaigns. Yet, online climate campaigns emerged during a period of intense change on several fronts. Public perceptions of climate change shifted, stakeholder paradigms transformed, and the communication ecology in which campaigns operate evolved: professional journalism came under pressure, social media emerged, and new platforms appeared (and faded or changed). Meanwhile, earlier campaign communication structures, such as email lists, could be seen to inform later repertoires (Capstick et al., 2015; Chadwick, 2013; Moser, 2010; Van Dijck, 2013; Vromen, 2016). Temporally grounded analyses that are sensitive to change, continuity, and hybridity will therefore be helpful in shedding further light on the trajectories of particular campaigners and repertoires, as well as the trajectories of online climate change campaigning within and across domains (see e.g., Farrell, 2016; Liu, J., 2016; Vromen, 2016). This article has not focused on the contents, rhetoric or framing processes in online climate change campaigning, but this is one point at which it is important to bring such dimensions back in. Further, as long as researcher access to historical digital material remains limited, it will be important that researchers timestamp (i.e., record the conditions of) the digital data and platforms that underpin their analyses, and thereby leave connective threads for others to take up.

A final question for the emerging field is what the development of online and social media campaigning implies for the notions of campaigns and their publics in the context of climate change communication. The contemporary communication environment complicates classic practices of campaigning and calls for a reconsideration of how to think about effects (see Cox & Schwarze, 2015). In the midst of this, some actors continue to pursue strategic alignment and well-identified publics. Others, such as online campaign organizations, campaign to achieve defined outcomes via hybrid organization and blurring boundaries with publics. In cases where network building is a significant part of the message and work of the campaign, pursuing alignment may be less relevant, and the organizational affordances of online and social media come more strongly to the fore. For still others, when ad hoc publics around a crowded event become an integrated focal point for heterogeneous actors with their own objectives, these networks can become sites of not just hybrid organization but of hybrid campaigns. From this perspective, the landscape of online climate change campaigning encompasses a broad spectrum consisting in focused campaigns targeting known publics, focused and less-focused campaigns engaging blurred or emergent publics, and ad hoc publics collating around what could be conceived of as hybrid campaigns. Understanding what this means for public engagement with climate change is imperative. It is both intriguing and important for the field to continue to develop a comprehensive view.


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