Climate change is an important and complex issue, and social media play a key role in climate engagement. Much of the existing research on social media and climate change focuses on campaigns or summits, analysis of specific issue discussions, or questions of polarisation and misinformation online. While many are concerned about problems such as polarisation, echo chambers, and misinformation, a recent study published in Nordicom Review adds to a more nuanced picture.
In the article “Polarisation and echo chambers? Making sense of the climate issue with social media in everyday life” (2023), Hallvard Moe, Synnøve Lindtner, and Brita Ytre-Arne from the University of Bergen have conducted explorative qualitative in-depth interviews and analysed what social media meant for how people made sense of and engaged with climate issues as part of daily life. Sara Stenqvist, communications officer at Nordicom, talked to professor Hallvard Moe about their research in this intricate topic.
Sara Stenqvist (SS): Tell us about the article, why is this an interesting topic? Why this, why now?
Hallvard Moe (HM): Why do we study climate change on social media? Brita Ytre-Arne and I have long studied something called “public connection”, which is a term we use to understand how people connect to the public or to society, through which channels, in which issues, and in which ways they get involved.
A few years ago, we had a large project around that theme, and one of the things we found was that something particularly difficult for people to deal with were big, diffuse, overarching, and ongoing issues rather than sudden crises or political events. The article stems from a general interest in public connection, and so we think that climate change is a particularly important thing, but also a particularly difficult thing because it’s so intangible. So… that’s one side of it. And the other side is – as we media researchers know – that social media have some properties that make them very interesting to study. It’s widespread and serves many functions in people’s lives and worlds: It’s used to spread and share information between large groups, and there are big challenges with disinformation, reputation, polarisation, etcetera. So that’s what we’re trying to bring together: How does the use of social media actually operate in people’s everyday lives when they relate to such a big topic like climate change?
SS: You study climate activists, or people who are engaged in the climate issue. How do you think the results would have been affected if you broadened the study to involve less-engaged people?
HM: Well, the answer is that of course it would have been even more interesting! But this was a place to start… we knew a bit about how people generally use social media to connect with the public, but thought it would be interesting to know more about this in relation to climate change. At first, we didn’t know how we would deal with it, but then some Facebook groups in Norway got a lot of attention and we decided to use them and the attention around them as a kind of nail to hang the project on and to recruit informants. This guaranteed that we would find people who could provide perspectives and information that we could use as a starting point in the project.
SS: You also write about anti-climate change groups on social media, people being climate change deniers, etcetera. Are there differences and similarities between the groups?
HM: Yes, in the beginning of the article, we write about groups such as “rebellion against climate hysteria”, but what we found interesting when we analysed the data was that things were not as black and white as one might think. We found people who were active in both groups, seemingly standing for two completely opposite positions, and it seemed like people had different motives for participating in the groups. There was more ambivalence regarding the climate issue than we initially thought.
SS: Was there anything about the results that surprised you?
HM: Something that surprised us was that it wasn’t so much of the polarisation, echo chambers, and trench warfare that you perhaps could have imagined when you think of the social media debate climate. Here, we could see a much higher level of confusion, uncertainty, and ambivalence – at least for some of the informants. What we see as interesting about this study is that we use qualitative interview data to dig a little deeper and go behind these more comprehensive results found in previous research, which are usually based on questionnaire surveys or studies of professional communicators’ use of social media. Previous research describes some main features of how social media is used in connection with climate communication, but we are trying to see how it is for the users who do not have a professional role or who are not influencers – or something like that. We wanted to know how ordinary people use social media in everyday life to understand and engage with climate change.
Attuning beliefs emotionally
SS: Was it challenging to study a complex issue such as climate change?
HM: Yes, researching the climate as a subject is a challenge because it is such a crucial political issue and such a ubiquitous topic. This makes it hard to find an entrance as a researcher where you can both illuminate the theme in both an analytical and methodologically interesting way. There is something about the issue that makes it particularly charged, and we had to work a lot to understand it as media use researchers. I perceive “climate communication” as a special field within media and communication research, but the field is difficult to map, and it’s hard to overview which questions and debates are highlighted. Part of the process of writing this article has been getting to know the field.
SS: You write about how social media is used to filter information and assess the credibility of different sources. Could you expand on this?
HM: Some of our informants describe social media as a tool to rig or secure a flow of information from credible sources. They use the characteristics of social media in such a way that they avoid having to check sources themselves.
SS: Certain groups and networks become like opinion leaders that can be trusted?
HM: In this material, we have seen that some of the informants do not think that the mainstream media covers the climate issue in an accurate way. They describe them as “thirsty for facts” and say that they “want to get to the heart of the issues”, and then this type of filtering information can be important. But when you use social media to filter content and information, there is an obvious risk that you create your own image of reality using facts you have chosen yourself and discuss with people who agree with you. But at the same time, our informants reflected on whether they were in a “social media bubble” of like-minded people. So yes, there can be polarisation and there can be a heavily filtered information flow, but at the same time, this doesn’t have to mean that we exist in different echo chambers or that people become polarised.
SS: In the article, you discuss five functions or processes when people use social media to make sense of climate change (filtering information, navigate group positions, reacting to misinformation, mobilising co-activists, and attuning beliefs emotionally). Do you think these functions are valid for people who are not climate activists?
HM: Well, some of the processes on social media are linked to a strong commitment, for instance, mobilising people through social media or using it to discuss politics, types that we know aren’t very widespread in the general population. Not many people discuss politics in our society. But it is clear, if you use social media to mobilise for actions or actively drive activism, as some of our informants talk about, then you must have an active commitment. So, these processes cannot be applied to the population in general.
SS: The final process, attuning beliefs emotionally – is it about building identity?
HM: I guess you could see it that way, and in this process, we could see that images and photographs played a central role. But something else that we found interesting was the relationship between “climate change” as an overall and diffuse “umbrella-topic” and concrete media reports, for example, on natural disasters or specific events. Climate change and its concrete effects is one thing and the other is climate versus nature – two concepts that partially overlap but also contradict each other. I think it’s an interesting contradiction and an interesting relationship to try to dig further into. One informant handled this dilemma by pitting the climate against nature and choosing sides for the environment: the animal world against wind power. So, in future studies, we want to understand how people relate to and behave when facing the problem of climate confusion in everyday life, outside social media and outside the activist circles.
SS: I have myself experienced a lot of confusion in activist groups on social media, for instance, how activists can become more and more radicalised and drift away from mainstream society.
HM: It’s interesting to see how people who have important roles in various controversial issues can still perceive themselves as marginalised. Regarding that, it’s interesting to assess to what degree it’s good that we have separate publics and to what degree this can become a problem. We are working on another research project, led by Kersti Thorbjørnsrud and Tine Figenschou, where we studied Norwegians with a very critical position towards immigration policy in Norway. Tine and Kjersti used the term “alarmed citizens” to describe how these people related to the public and described a feeling that this thing happening was urgent and very wrong, and they saw themselves as truth-tellers trying to warn others. They often felt that they were not listened to and that made them incredibly frustrated, feeling stigmatised and excluded from society. This is a concept and a type of position that will be very interesting to take a closer look at in relation to other types of issues, for example, vaccine resistance or climate denial. And this is something very exciting that Tine and Kjersti are working on.
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Polarisation and echo chambers? Making sense of the climate issue with social media in everyday life
Photos: Li-An Lim and Sarah Dorweiler at Unsplash