Making Climate Social: Contributors, Content, Connections and Contexts in Social Media Climate Change Communication

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Sociological Studies

Abstract

Social media is a transformative digital technology, collapsing the "six degrees of separation" which have previously characterised many social networks, and breaking down many of the barriers to individuals communicating with each other. Some commentators suggest that this is having profound effects across society, that social media has revolutionised the communication of controversial public issues such as climate change, and that this has significantly increased the volume and variety of scientists, politicians, journalists, non-governmental organisations, think tanks and members of the public in contact with each other. For example, in 2012 over 4000 tweets about climate change were sent every day.

Social media communication can act as a trusted source of public information about climate change, foster public participation in climate science, be a campaigning tool and trigger polarising events with far-reaching effects (e.g. Climategate). However, despite these broad changes in the communication environment, we lack a detailed understanding of the characteristics of social media climate change communications, the wider contexts for these communications, and what the social media revolution means for the relationship between science, politics and publics. Using an innovative interdisciplinary methodological approach that combines social media big data analysis with fine grained ethnographic description, this project aims to: 1) discover the key contributors to social media climate change communication, the content they discuss, and how these change over time and space; 2) locate the connections between contributors, explore how social media usage is influenced by personal, professional and intellectual backgrounds, and how these influences vary over time and space; 3) identify the opportunities and challenges presented by social media for future public discussions of climate change. In this way, Making Climate Social will establish the contributors, content, connections and contexts which make up social media climate change communications, how these change over time and space, and what they mean for future public discussions of the science and politics of climate change.

The Met Office is a project partner, hosting a knowledge exchange visit by the PI, where he will interact with key climate scientists, the Communications Team and Customer Centre and give a seminar to research staff in both climate and weather research. The PI will also meet regularly with the Met Office, Department for Energy and Climate Change and the cross-sector project Advisory Board to ensure that research findings reach and affect relevant audiences: i) academic audiences in science and technology studies, climate change communication and social media researchers; ii) publics interested in climate change and/or social media usage; iii) government, scientific organisations and universities with responsibility for supporting social media usage by climate change researchers. The project will achieve this through: i) high-quality research articles published in leading journals across a range of specialist academic journals; ii) a dedicated project blog, Twitter account @MakCliSoc, and series of Guardian blogposts to build awareness with, and disseminate findings to, a broad range of stakeholders and publics; iii) the Climate Change Social Radar: an innovative and interactive collaboration with digital developers to provide an engaging web interface through which to explore project data and reflect on broader ethical issues of social media; iv) succinct policy briefings tailored for key stakeholders and written in plain English.

The long term goal of this project is to make Making Climate Social a trusted source of information that tracks the dynamics of social media climate change communications, providing a counterpart to the Media and Climate Change Observatory (Colorado) which focuses on traditional media coverage of climate change.

Planned Impact

Making Climate Social seeks to make a positive impact on society through changing the social media climate change communication practices of organisations and individuals, increasing public understanding of climate change and social media, and enhancing the knowledge and skills of climate change communicators. Building awareness and understanding of particular social media practices and approaches across different groups of users will provide a foundation for improved dialogue and begin to address the issues of polarisation and antagonism. Key stakeholders groups include scientists and scientific organisations, policymakers, journalists, non-governmental organisations, universities and members of the public:

i) climate change scientists and scientific organisations (e.g. European Geophysical Union) who will benefit from a better understanding of how they might use social media to communicate their own work, gain feedback from networks of interested publics beyond their own professional sectors, and contribute to broader public debates; ii) government policymakers (e.g., DECC) who will benefit from a better understanding of how climate change is discussed by diverse publics (including experts), how to assess the quality of information in these discussions, and how they might communicate through, and be informed by, social media in the policymaking process; iii) science journalists (e.g. Webster, Carrington, Rose) who can gain an improved understanding of how expert communities discuss complex scientific issues through social media; iv) non-governmental organisations (e.g. Avaaz) who can learn how the content and contexts of social media communications feed into 'bottom-up' climate activism; v) universities who can learn how to support a greater number of academics wishing to meet an identified public demand for social media climate change communication (Hawkins et al., 2014); vi) broader publics interested in climate change and/or social media usage who will have access to the Climate Change Social Radar, a digital data visualisation project which will encourage playful exploration of social media data collected about climate change, and enable reflection on how publicly accessible social media data can be utilised for research. Public understanding of climate change debates will also be enhanced through a series of "ethnographic self-portraits" written by the PI for The Guardian, describing and analysing what key contributors say on social media and how their views are informed by their backgrounds.

To these ends, a co-production approach has been employed in preparing this research proposal, and will be continued throughout the project itself. Key research users from the Met Office and DECC have been consulted, and three climate change communication practitioners are included in the project Advisory Board, in order to ensure that relevant research questions are addressed. Advisory Board members will also act as project ambassadors, publicising Making Climate Social within their own sectors with the aim of maximising the uptake of research findings.

Social media communication can act as a trusted source of climate change information for publics, as well as a trigger and means for controversy and contestation, so research impacts are important in maintaining the quality of information and discussion available through social media. In this way, Making Science Public seeks to improve the culture of social media climate change communication. Succinct, tailored policy briefings will be provided to stakeholders, potentially covering areas such as the institutional support provided to social media communicators by universities, the role of scientific organisations in encouraging and supporting its members to communicate via social media, and the role which social media communication can play in government open policy making.
 
Description Findings are in two parts: from 'big data' analyses of social media data, and from in-depth interviews with climate scientists using social media.

SOCIAL MEDIA ANALYSIS
1. The 2017 announcement by the US Government that it planned to withdraw from the Paris Agreement prompted a huge social media backlash, particularly on Twitter, to the extent that mentions of climate change on the platform far exceeded those at any time for which we have data (since 2012).

2. Use of images on social media varies significantly by platform; for example, highly engaged with images on Instagram are typically professionally-shot, aesthetically pleasing images, whereas on Twitter they are more likely to be text/image combinations designed to have memetic quality. These constitute distinctive 'visual platform vernaculars' of climate change. Preliminary findings suggest a change in highly-engaged with climate images on Instagram between 2017 and 2019, with a move to more 'Twitter-like' memetic text/image combinations.

INTERVIEW DATA:
Some climate scientists have recognised the increasing centrality of social media technology in shaping public communication of climate change (both by supporters and critics). This has led some scientists to engage more systematically on social media in recent years, most notably on Twitter. The very openness that attracts scientists to Twitter also unsettles the boundaries of their expertise - with ethical issues regarding the motivations and content of communication often being raised by others. The ease with which cross-national conversations take place on Twitter also makes visible cross-national tensions around these issues.
Exploitation Route Insights into the use of climate change images across different social media platforms provides important context for existing best-practice guidance on visual climate communication from Climate Outreach, published in 2017.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment

 
Description Research carried out on the project has been used by climate communication professionals, Climate Outreach, as part of their professional training programme "Climate Visuals Masterclass", held at Thompson Reuters in London, 4/9/17). The event included talks on climate change imagery by organisation (and organiser) Climate Outreach, journalists, and photographers. The main focus revolved around a study conducted by Climate Outreach, which looked at what images were particularly powerful and useful for conveying the issue of climate change. As part of the presentations, our work on climate visuals was presented. More information can be found on https://climateoutreach.org/climate-visuals-masterclass-london/
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Contributing Author, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Assesment Report 6, Working Group 1, Chapter 1.
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Grantham Centre PhD Scholarships
Amount £73,669 (GBP)
Organisation University of Sheffield 
Department Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 10/2022
 
Description Collaboration with Spotlight Data 
Organisation Spotlight Data
PI Contribution Providing sociological input and ensuring that website and data mining/analysis conforms to principles of good practice from critical data studies literature
Collaborator Contribution Ongoing development of website visualising images of climate change posted on social media platforms. Development of structured social media data set, and data mining tools.
Impact Data mining tools and structured dataset. Website development is ongoing.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Discovery Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Discovery Day was an innovative, engaging and effective alternative to an Advisory Board meeting. It brought together climate scientists, communication professionals and academic researchers to share their expertise and help co-produce a research agenda that promises methodological rigour, theoretical advacement and practical impact. The Discovery Day was successful in achieving input and support for uptake and dissemination from a range of organisations, including the Met Office, the Government Office for Science and Climate Outreach.

Agenda: https://www.dropbox.com/s/isz2174jrv9ikvn/MakingClimateSocial-DiscoveryDay-Agenda.pdf?dl=0
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://medium.com/@mathewtrivett/visualising-climate-debate-across-the-social-web-3e2e2b3a2e10?sour...
 
Description Expert seminar at Met Office, Exeter: "Climate change on social media: what do we know, what do we see, what do we do?" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 60 Met Office employees attended the talk (30 mins talk, 30 mins Q&A), which combined an overview of project findings (specifically around the use of images and reviewing the literature) with some practical guidance and trade-offs for climate change communicators to consider when engaging online. The talk provoked a lively and engaging Q&A session with a diverse mix of MO employees, from very social media-engaged scientists to those who were not active online but curious to find out more. During the talk, large prints of experimental visual outputs were shared, which showed composite images of highly-engaged with images on different social media platforms, demonstrating the different 'visual vernaculars' of climate change that are used on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr (published in Pearce et al., 2018). An experimantal tweet-thread to publicise the content of the talk proved very successful, gaining 10,818 impresssions and 200 more substantive engagements (stats from Twitter Analytics). @ESRC were tagged in the lead tweet - see https://twitter.com/WarrenPearce/status/1019943783365070848

Good contacts were made, and plans were made for further discussion with climate scientists present regarding a potential project on data visualisations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Making Climate Social blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Project-specific blog, and supporting Twitter account, established to build awareness of Making Climate Social with publics already engaged with climate change. A series of posts have ben compiled in advance to be released over a number of weeks to maintain engagement. Content is initially being driven by the inputs and outputs related to the project Discovery Day.

The blog led to Making Climate Social being publicised through Carbon Brief's subscriber email. Carbon Brief is Europe's leading specialist website for climate change news and analysis.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL http://www.medium.com/making-climate-social
 
Description Mobile University - Climate Change on Social Media: Who Talks About What in the Era of Trump Politics? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation as part of Sheffield University's Mobile University - a public engagement exercise in which researchers present their work on a converted double-decker bus which parks up in different parts of the city.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/mobileuni/sundayprogramme
 
Description Presentation (United Nations COP23) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bonn (COP23) on climate change communication on social media. Approximately 30 practitioners, scientists and NGO representatives attended and asked questions afterwards. Presentation included ongoing empirical work on 'big data' sets of climate change-related tweets, as well as work undertaken during the conference on social media communication and the role of social media in conference space.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1uqd3hPsEUuB-o2aN7_JYMy67lT5o0oi8A3dcEo2BbkM/edit
 
Description Project leader: Digital Methods Institute Summer School, University of Amseterdam 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Led a week-long research project and data sprint analysing Twitter and YouTube usage related to the COP21 talks in Paris. Significant outcome in establishing new international collaboration (Lafitte, Univ of Lausane) and establishing basis for two international conference presentations (4S, BSA) and subsequent first journal article related to the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://wiki.digitalmethods.net/Dmi/ShapingthetopicalspaceofCOP21onYouTubeandTwitter
 
Description Project leader: Digital Methods Institute Summer School, University of Amseterdam 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Led two week-long research projects and data sprints analysing social media usage related to climate change. Significant outcome in establishing two new international collaborations: one with colleagues from Portugal, US, Brazil, Ireland and Germany which has led to a journal article under review at Information, Communication and Society. The second has led to an invitation to submit a review article to WIREs Climate Change. Again this is an international collaboration, with colleagues from Netherlands. Work completed on climate change images also featured in communication practitioner workshop run by Climate Outreach in London, 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://wiki.digitalmethods.net/Dmi/MakingClimateVisible