The rise of climate activism is very much tied to the surge of social media. Different platforms have become the forefront of climate advocacy because they reach a wide audience and connect us directly with policymakers that can make a real change.
Should we, then, consume environment-related content on social media in order to educate ourselves about topics such as biodiversity loss and climate change? Should we hit the “share” button when we see a heartbreaking video about how plastic waste is poisoning the ocean?
For many of us, the answer seems to be a strong positive. After all, climate change is still not reaching a wide audience online, and to not share this information with other people projects a strong sense of disengagement and even denial.
Or maybe not.
There are things that you should look out for when you are browsing. First, you are not necessarily being more “aware” of environmental issues because activists and organizations online are generally not good at presenting real major threats. Second, you will most likely feel excessively anxious and stressed. Taken together, there is a compelling argument for you not to consume environmental content on social media.
Major threats to biodiversity loss are underrepresented
In 2015, an unnerving video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose swept through the Internet. It sparked a long-lasting anti-straw movement in the environment community, with activists pushing to enforce laws that either replace plastic straws with paper ones or ban them altogether.
Environmental non-profit organizations (ENGO) took advantage of the intense media interest to promote content about plastic pollution. A recent analysis of ten leading ENGOs on Twitter finds that 16% of the tweets related to biodiversity loss mentioned plastic pollution, the third most common topic behind climate change and over-exploitation. The use of hashtags such as #BreakFreeFromPlastic also dominates their content.
However, disproportionally to the social media attention that plastic pollution gets, it is far from a major driver of biodiversity loss. Most major threats to biodiversity are underrepresented by social media coverage and remain largely ignored by the public. Threats such as agriculture, general pollution, urbanisation, and invasions occupy significantly less bandwidth and public attention.
In addition to the bias towards plastic pollution, social media also fail to capture the most effective and vital solutions to a given problem. Take plastic ocean-pollution as an example, the media coverage has focused on the banning of plastic straws, yet these efforts are not only ineffective, but could distract from far more useful efforts.
In fact, according to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, plastic straws make up less than 1% of plastic pollution. The risk is that banning straws may confer “moral license,” allowing companies and their customers to feel that they have done their part. Intense media coverage is only amplifying moral licensing.
Above all, it is a problem of resource allocation. Given a certain amount of human resources, we must be smart about where to put the efforts in. It is not that plastic pollution is unimportant, but the opportunity cost is high if we decide to focus on it. Consuming social media content alone not only makes you unaware of larger threats to the environment, but also risks a false sense of accomplishment.
Negative content is more likely to reach you
To spread messages across social media, the content must be socially contagious so that you are likely to share it. The message must appeal to your emotion and morality (hence negative), and it must be straightforward.
Activists, as well as organizations, are well aware of this. For example, this is why the social contagiousness of Twitter content relating to plastic pollution is “enhanced by negative language.” There is surely nothing positive to say about an animal entangled in plastic. In this sense, plastic pollution is almost predisposed to large publicity.
However, not all issues are equally advantaged by a moral-emotional quality, and certainly, no environmental issue is straightforward.
Other threats, on the other hand, are intrinsically difficult to gain public attention. For urbanization, it is hard to show how it is destroying biodiversity first-hand. For species invasions, the measures necessary to protect biodiversity, such as extermination programs, are morally questionable at best. So how can we raise awareness about these major threats if they can’t outcompete minor ones on social media?
What to do instead
When you are browsing on social media, there are four things you can do to alleviate your anxiety and be more knowledgeable about environmental issues.
Do not follow social media accounts that are constantly sending threatening messages about the environment. The fear and anxiety response that you are getting from these messages will evoke more fear even when you are learning about solutions to these problems, as shown by this study.
Follow and support local conservation efforts on social media. These local institutions are less well-known, but they are generally more engaged and vital. For example, a leading organization in Argentina is the Rewilding Foundation. You can learn about their efforts to reintroduce Jaguars on Instagram.
Follow leading NGOs that are focused on solutions, instead of pure advocacy. These organizations can provide more detailed and unbiased information about environmental problems and how you can help. Here are two places to start with: WWF and BirdLife International.
Pay special attention to solutions that target major threats and are politically viable. Radical solutions are emotion-driven and distract you from effective ones. Solutions such as a green stimulus have a transformative effect on global emissions; most importantly, they are more achievable and acceptable for politicians.
Barrios‐O’Neill, D. (2020), Focus and social contagion of environmental organization advocacy on Twitter. Conservation Biology. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/cobi.13564
Nabi, R. L., Gustafson, A., & Jensen, R. (2018). Framing Climate Change: Exploring the Role of Emotion in Generating Advocacy Behavior. Science Communication, 40(4), 442–468. doi:10.1177/1075547018776019