New Jersey State Policy Lab: Social Media and Individuals’ Environment-Friendly Actions

June 17, 2022

by Vishal Trehan

Climate change is one of the wicked problems of our times. It is well established that human activity is the primary cause for drastic changes in the climate over the last seventy years.[1] However, public opinion on climate change is multidimensional, dynamic, and differentiated – these dimensions include beliefs about anthropogenic climate change, perceptions of climate change risks, concern about its seriousness, and thoughts on what should be done to address it (Shwom et al., 2015). Although individual behavior change is seen as a key strategy, public engagement remains limited (Fernandez et al., 2016). Improving our understanding of what affects engagement and individuals’ everyday environment-friendly behavior could thus play an important role in improving the efficacy of climate-related policies.

Social media is increasingly seen as the primary platform for discourse on contemporary public policy issues. Arlt et al. (2011) showed that usage of online versions of traditional media led to more political behaviors related to climate change. However, they did not find a significant relationship between online media use and adoption of lifestyle changes. Nevertheless, social media is a broader term and not restricted to online versions of news media. Anderson (2017) argues that social media is an important arena for climate change communications. Existing research provides some evidence for a relationship between social media use and environment-friendly behaviors and activism (Anderson, 2017). Fernandez et al. (2016) suggest that pro-environmental campaigns conducted by governments via social media to change individual behavior do not leverage existing knowledge of behavior change and do a bad job of targeting and informing users.

Future research in this important area could break down “social media use” as a variable to understand the effect of social media engagement on individuals’ actions. Which specific activities of users and communication strategies of different stakeholders (such as local governments, NGOs, climate scientists) on social media platforms affect (or are already affecting) individual behavior? Why do scientists and scientific institutions not play a prominent role in online, or more specifically, social media debates (Schäfer, 2012)? Does this affect the social media discourse on climate change? Answering these questions and understanding individual behavior through traditional analyses is difficult considering the amount of data on social media usage. Fernandez et al. (2016) propose the use of techniques based on Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML) to identify different behavioral stages of users. Their analysis of participants’ behavior in the Earth Hour 2015 and COP21 social media movements indicates that most social media participants want to bring about change but do not know what to do about it.

Higher levels of social media engagement, when combined with well-designed climate communication strategies, could lead to more efforts from citizens to adopt practices that address environmental issues. Fernandez et al. (2016) suggest that campaigns on social media should focus concrete and innovative suggestions on individual actions to mitigate climate change. Additionally, efforts should be made to engage with users and provide direct feedback. Sofio (2020) suggests that the type and style of social media posts (for example, video or photo), and engagement by prominent public personalities can influence further adoption of pro-environmental behaviors. These findings have important implications from a policy communication perspective. Governments at all levels, and other stakeholders, should focus their efforts on studying user behavior on social media using automated techniques and designing better strategies for effective climate communications through social media to bring about widespread changes in citizen behavior.

[1] See IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers.

Anderson, A. A. (2017). Effects of social media use on climate change opinion, knowledge, and behavior. In Oxford research encyclopedia of climate science.

Arlt, D., Hoppe, I., & Wolling, J. (2011). Climate change and media usage: Effects on problem awareness and behavioural intentions. International Communication Gazette, 73(1-2), 45-63.

Berinsky, Adam. 1999. “The Two Faces of Public Opinion.” American Journal of Political Science 43(4):1209–1230.

Dietz, T., Gardner, G. T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P. C., & Vandenbergh, M. P. (2009). Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 106(44), 18452-18456.

Fernandez, M., Piccolo, L. S., Maynard, D., Wippoo, M., Meili, C., & Alani, H. (2016, May). Talking climate change via social media: communication, engagement and behaviour. In Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science (pp. 85-94).

Schäfer, M. S. (2012). Online communication on climate change and climate politics: a literature review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 3(6), 527-543.

Shwom, R. L., McCright, A. M., Brechin, S. R., Dunlap, R. E., Marquart-Pyatt, S. T., & Hamilton, L. C. (2015). Public opinion on climate change. Climate change and society: Sociological perspectives, 269.

Sofio, I. (2020). How Does Climate Change Content on Social Media Influence Individual Pro-environmental Behaviors? (Doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder).

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