Billions of people use social media every day, making them the perfect platform for climate researchers to share their findings and generate public interest in environmental protection. However, misinformation threatens to undermine the hard work of climate scientists and progressive organisations. This article assesses the strengths of social media in furthering climate research and suggests ways to build resilience against misinformation online.
Social media is integral to winning the fight against climate change. Whether we like it or not, social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok greatly influence the way we think and the actions we take.
The negative impact of social media is well-documented. 74% of web users say they have come across false or misleading information online. Concerningly, the ad revenue generated by misinformation exceeds $2.6 billion. Misinformation and half-truths are rife online and the loudest voices are often amplified over voices of reason and peer-reviewed research.
However, social media can also be a tool for good. With the right checks and balances, researchers and climate advocacy groups can help folks around the world access research and become part of a wider conversation about global warming. Social media can also highlight the hard work of environmental activists, like Greta Thunberg, who use their platforms to help fund climate research and push politicians into action.
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4 Ways Social Media Can Further Climate Research
1. Creating Communities
Tackling climate change will require fundamental changes to our way of life. We need to adopt more harmonious, ecologically sound lifestyles that minimise carbon production and environmental degradation. However, convincing people to adopt more climate-conscious behaviours can be tricky – particularly if they do not feel social pressure to change.
Social media can further the impact of climate change research by hosting climate-conscious digital communities. This is particularly important for folks who live in areas where the biggest environmental problems are largely ignored or misunderstood. Would-be climate activists can connect with researchers and organisations to fund their climate-change projects and raise awareness in their area.
Researchers can connect online, too. Some of the biggest social media sites like Twitter and TikTok are built to help experts connect with the public and share their research in an open forum. Similarly, professional social sites like LinkedIn can help prospective researchers find funding for their work and build their network. This kind of networking is vital today, as a coordinated global response is necessary to spread trustworthy information to the public.
2. Public Information
Climate change can be difficult to understand. Many people may fail to grasp the widespread effects of climate change and make the connection between their actions and the environmental impact they may have.
A recent study titled “Social Engagement with Climate Change” and published in Climate Policy shows that social media is the perfect platform to share climate research with the public. Researchers found that pages run by state agencies, NGOs, and international organisations can use their platform to raise awareness and convince the public that we have a “shared responsibility to address climate change”. In particular, the report suggests sharing posts that:
- Show real people who work in climate research;
- Tell a story;
- Include local connections (e.g. featuring public spaces that have been made “green”);
- Show how climate change already impacts vulnerable communities today.
These kinds of posts generate engagement online by fostering an emotional connection between climate change and our actions. A 2023 survey completed by the World Bank titled “Human Capital and Climate Change” found that education is key to voter preferences and policy changes. Folks will be more likely to vote for policymakers when they authentically care about rising sea temperatures, local green spaces, and the wider impact of global warming.
Sharing public information about climate research can also help alleviate climate anxiety. Millions of people experience “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Yet, when used correctly, social media can help us better understand issues related to climate change and environmental degradation.
Climate-conscious users who share useful content online will experience the mental health benefits of social media, too. When used correctly, social media helps people find new friends, create communities, express their ideas, and share “good news” stories and other climate-related accomplishments.
Good news stories about topics like Team Seas are particularly powerful online and can foster greater public support for climate change policies. Alleviating climate anxiety with “good news” stories can defeat the doom scroll and show the world that positive change is possible. This will generate greater public interest in climate-related research and may even change voter preferences in upcoming elections around the globe.
3. Disaster Response
Rising global temperatures cause more severe climate-related disasters. Today, the wildfire season lasts longer, owing to drier summers and land mismanagement. Similarly, NASA-led research suggests that hurricanes are more severe and extreme storms are more common due to rapidly warming oceans that fuel tempest-like cyclones.
Responding to disasters requires a coordinated, clear response. Governmental agencies can use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to share messaging designed to save lives and minimise the impact of disasters.
Social platforms can also be used to share information about current events and improve public awareness about disasters like major oil spills. Raised awareness pushes politicians to hold businesses accountable for their actions and can help prevent potential ecological disasters in the future. This is particularly important today, when misinformation threatens to derail climate research and undermine the hard work of climate scientists.
4. Tackling Misinformation
Peer-reviewed, scientifically credible research isn’t easily digestible for most people. However, climate scientists and reputable influencers can help tackle misinformation by guiding their followers through the climate “debate” with integrity and care.
This sentiment is echoed in a recently published issue brief of BSR, titled “Building a High-Quality Climate Science Information Environment: The Role of Social Media”. Researchers found that most major social media platforms “work with independent fact-checking organisations,” and flag potentially misleading posts.
On the flip side, the study found that many social sites are unable to detect climate misinformation and fail to account for “more subtle forms of climate misinformation.” Their research also shows that simply removing misinformation is largely ineffective.
Instead, more must be done to create “high-quality information,” that can compete in the “online attention economy”. This means that climate scientists who want to work in public-facing roles must be given social media training to improve the quality of their content and bolster engagement with their posts.
Social media can be a tool for good in the fight against climate change. Researchers can connect with other scientists online and climate-conscious organisations can spread high-quality information to the masses. Social sites like TikTok and Reddit are great for community building, too, and can help spread “good news” stories that generate widespread interest and firm up public interest in climate research.
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