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Social Media and Saving the Environment: Clicktivism or Real Change?

01/28/2016 11:43 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2016
  • Shannon Dosemagen Co-founder and Director of Community Engagement, Education and Outreach of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science
OJO_Images via Getty Images

The environmental sector has embraced social media rapidly and wholeheartedly. It is using the medium to support environmental campaigns and to connect people locally and cross-nationally on major environmental issues such as climate change. It also provides ordinary people with the ability to track the quality of the air and water around them and then share this data with others. In this post I discuss five essential ways social media has been used to support the environment: 1) with the "crowd"; 2) by enabling the rise of independent activists; 3) by creating campaign pressure points; 4) with the development of sensing hardware and personal wearables; and 5) with the use of geotags and hashtags.

Introduction

Our environment is a shared resource, one that has increasingly been threatened by the rapid expansion of extractive activities to keep up with demands driven by consumerism and shaped by industry. Generally speaking, technology has given us the ability to change some of our behaviours and conduct "greener" business, but we're still not keeping up with the pace of the environmental changes happening because of our overuse of resources. Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all. It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community. In this post, I discuss some of the ways that social media has reshaped our communication, new trends emerging and the potential for stakeholder engagement to shift because of social media's incorporation as a tool to augment collective voices.

Five important areas where social media is affecting the environment include:

1. The ability for organizations to use the"crowd," highly connected through social media, to support and spread environmental messages in a rapid, dynamic format. One of the tensions present in receiving this type of support (known as "clicktivism") is that it is difficult to ascertain the long-term involvement and depth of engagement of people who are readily clicking on links to support messages. This is a trend seen in every area of activism, and is not just particular to the environmental sector.

2. Social media has propelled the rise of the independent activist. For instance, during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Coast residents used Facebook and Twitter as platforms to share their personal stories and provide independent or alternative new sources and media that was captured by their communities. Since people now look to their social media streams as primary sources of news and information, this type of independent vocalization can be both positive (encouraging alternative streams of information) and problematic when information isn't verified or trustworthy.

4. Social media can be used as a pressure pointto prompt and encourage support during specific campaigns. For instance, Greenpeace targeted Shell Oil operations in the Arctic Circle, but used media such as this YouTube video to indirectly influence Shell partners, including Lego. Applying highly visible, public pressure to call for specific environmental changes has increasingly become a tactic of the environmental movement.

4. Hardware sensors and personal wearables have started enabling individuals to track information about themselves and their surroundings in real time. They've given people the ability to track their own personal health through wearables and apps that act as digital fills-ins for the odour and symptom logs of old. Sensors are becoming more widely applicable, as people can now set up networks that independently monitor environmental concerns such as air and water quality. The ability of citizens, journalists, government and even corporations to use sensors, wearables and apps to monitor the environment is a promising but still emerging field and one in which verification, calibration and access to tools has yet to fully determine the effect it will have on environmental regulation and enforcement.

5. Similar to sensing hardware and app development, geolocation and hashtagson social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have created a way for people to share stories about their local environments, connecting them to larger environmental topics. An example of this was people geotagging images in the 2015 California drought that were in close geographic proximity, and linking them back to the larger context of long-term effects of the drought using hashtags such as "#californiadrought," "#drought" or "#droughtshaming." The Divest/Invest movement started by students that used the simple "#divest" and "#climate" tags to link local campaigns, wins and issues to the wider movement of society divesting itself of dependence on fossil fuels, investing in renewables and calling attention to the effects of climate change across the world is another successful instance of a small group using hashtags to link local movements to larger environmental questions.

Conclusion

Social media and sensors that connect with online networks have the potential to change the way that the environmental sector and all stakeholders involved -- public, corporate and government -- interact, share information and make decisions. Social media furthers the reach of the public, allowing members to influence shifts in the environmental sector on every issue from moving away from fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy or changing the dynamic of current conversations on climate change. Another important trend is that social media has the potential to influence the circular economy, a concept that goes beyond biomimicry to identify ways that both our physical and material assets and our economic ones can match the earth's cycles of use, reuse and rejuvenation.

In a way similar to the Divest/Invest movement, creating a circular economy would require the full participation of all stakeholders, from consumers to manufacturers. This is the type of participation campaigns that rely on social media are encouraging in order to assist the translation of movements from local economies to a larger scale.

Three Challenges

1. Environmental sensing networks will grow in the coming years, but the proliferation of new platforms that don't speak to one another is troublesome. A challenge users must face in coming years will be making a cooperative effort to build strong communication channels to create the most accessible data landscape possible.

2. The ease with which people can rapidly support environmental campaigns by clicking on links or buttons can be powerful for information sharing, but also has the potential to lead to a diffused environmental movement in which most supporters only participate through acts of "clicktivism" that don't necessarily translate to environmental transformation.

3. When collecting information from people, especially about personal environmental health, it is important to make sure that the media platforms gathering the data have built-in feedback loops so that people receive something in return for contributing data.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum sharing insights gained from surveying 5,000 digital media users from Brazil, China, Germany, South Africa and the U.S on the impact of digital media on society. The series is developed in conjunction with the Forum's Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society project and the Forum's Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online white paper. The series is running during the Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). Read all the posts in the series here.

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