Environment, Social Engagement and Social Media
Article by Katarzyna Szpargala
Abstract: Recently, there has been a growth in debates about environmental challenges and protection. Globally, not only environmental organizations but individuals are using the internet to promote eco-friendly solutions, to spread information and re-shape debates about environmental challenges, and to take actions to prevent environmental degradation. Thus, this article briefly examines the role of the internet in environmental protection.
Keywords: Social Media, Environment, Online Activism, Social Movement
The internet, since its very beginning, has been a subject of numerous debates about its possible impact on society. Some voices claimed that the internet would be revolutionary, a space where promises of democratization, equality, liberation and unity can be realized. Barlow (1996), for instance, claimed that the realm of virtuality was a space of ‘mind’ not ‘matter,’ thus social hierarchies and identities should be rejected in cyberspace. It was also speculated that the internet would enhance democracy and provide visibility to marginalized groups and viewpoints; in other words, the internet was seen as a tool for liberalization (Newey, 1999). However, cyber skeptics argued that the internet might leads to alienation, exclusion and bigger surveillance over citizens (Yar, 2014). The development of Web 2.0 and arrival of social media only increased those debates. Whatever one agree with cyber optimists or skeptics, the internet has a significant impact on political and socio-cultural environment, partially because of the omnipresence of the internet and its features that enable ordinary users to be not only consumers of online content but also a part of production and distribution (KhosraviNik, 2017; Kopytowska, 2020). Technological affordances of the internet such as reduction of spatio-temporal distance, constant connectivity and co-presence bring people together, enable them to approach and respond to others and allow them to get involve in political or socio-cultural activities regardless of spatial and temporal boundaries. Online participation might mobilize individuals by decreasing participation costs and requesting smaller contributions from participants (Cammaerts, 2015). It also allows people to act and advocate for various issues globally, although Morozov (2009) suggested that global actions are usually less efficient than local ones.
Naturally, the online involvement alone is not effective. It must be accompanied by offline actions and involvement. Hence, some scholars argued that the internet rather harms social movements and the political involvement of people. Gladwell (2010), for example, argued that online activism does not challenges the status quo, as does the high-risk activism, due to the fragile relationship between members of socio-political movements, weak emotional involvement, and lack of hierarchical organization. Social media might increase awareness and simplify participation, however, the awareness must turn into actions. Additionally, online sphere is also a place where false information, conspiracy theories, and manipulation are on daily occurrence. Thus, the internet users should adopt skills to meaningfully navigate through the online sphere such as basic technical skills needed to operate the internet, content-related skills, referring to information skills, finding and evaluating online sources of information, and strategic skills, used to reach particular goals through the internet (Siapera, 2018; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2009).
In recent years, environmental issues started to make more headlines. Global warming, food waste, biodiversity loss, deforestation, air pollution, fast fashion and textile waste are only a few examples of the ecological problems that we are currently facing. Environmental degradation has a serious impact on ecosystems and also leads to increasing environmental conflicts and environmental migration. As the internet became a public sphere where socio-political debates take place, it is only natural that environmental issues are also regularly discussed online, and environmental organizations and activists often turn to cyberspace to promote ecological solutions and environmental changes.
This article does not aim to answer the question if the internet users are truly engagement in online activism, but briefly analyzes how the internet, particularly social media, are used by environmental organizations, activists and ordinary people to increase and promote environmental changes and engagement.
Environmental Engagement and Social Media
Similar to numerous socio-cultural and political actions and movements, activism and social movements have moved to the online sphere. Online sphere is still often treated as a separate realm, not embodied in social and cultural norms and traditions, which creates a distinction between ‘offline/real’ and ‘online/virtual’ spheres. However some scholars argued that the internet is a stable part of contemporary society and because of that it should be treated as a significant part of social and political debates. Fuchs (2018) also claimed that “social media is a kind of mirror of what is happening in society. Studying social media content is therefore a good way of studying society” (p. 385). Thus, not only social media, but the online sphere in general, should be studied as the extension of our daily life and society. Because of that several scholars argued against the distinction and asymmetry between ‘online/virtual’ and ‘offline/real’ realms (Newey, 1999; Yar, 2014; ) or as Nathan Jurgenson (2012) calls it digital dualism.
Additionally, due to the technological affordances of the internet such as constant connectivity, transgression of spatio-temporal boundaries, instantaneousness, and hypertextual architecture, the internet provides a far-reaching public audience and community support. There is also no need to rely on traditional media and/or political organizations and their attention, which contributes to political decentralization (Aji, 2019; Downing, 2018).
Currently, there are 4.88 billion social media users ‘identities’ (it is important to remember that not all social media accounts represent unique individuals), and the number of the users is growing every month (Data Reportal, 2023). Social media are still mostly used for entertainment purposes or to keep in touch with family and friends, but a vast number of users are searching social media for news stories, sharing and discussing opinions with others, or seeing what’s being talked about (Data Reportal, 2023). Thus, it is not surprising that politicians, businesses, universities, NGOs, including environmental organizations, or other communities use social media to increase the visibility of their movement, policy, goals, or events, and to gain supporters. Online activism also increases in popularity, and online environmental activism seems particularly significant for the youth population. As Susanto & Thamrin (2021) noted, broad use of digital media is prevalent in recent environmental activities and protests.
Traditionally, the formal and large environmental organizations dominated the discussion and activities that protected the environment as they had better access to the policymakers and power to influence political changes. Those organizations focused their actions on petitioning, mobilizing activists, protesting, lobbying and raising awareness (Susanto & Thamrin, 2021). Currently the same actions can be achieved much faster due to the possibilities of the internet. Environmental organizations use their social media platforms to not only educate the public about the environmental issues, but also to promote their events and services, enlist volunteers and donors, and build relationships with their partners and stakeholders around the world. Almost all environmental organizations are using social media platforms to reach their audience and promote their goals and events. For instance, the large, well-known and international organizations like WWF has 3,5 millions followers on Facebook and Greenpeace International has 3 millions followers on Facebook. Other more local such as American organizations the Wildcat Sanctuary has 2,9 millions followers on Facebook and over 16 thousands subscribers on Youtube, and Polish animal rights organization Otwarte Klatki (eng. Open Cages) has over 313 thousands followers on Facebook and over 80 followers on Instagram. To increase their visibility and widen their connections, environmental organizations are usually present on numerous social media platforms, mostly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and recently TikTok.
As much as those organizations are still a core power to fight for environmental changes, protect environment and promote eco-friendly solutions, due to the technological affordances of the internet and digital media technologies numerous informal groups and individuals have been given an opportunity to voice their opinions, get engaged in socio-political debates, share their experiences and highlight various issues at any given moment without the connection to formal organizations or traditional media attention. This also positively affect the communication between environmental organizations and individuals as “the communication which occurs between the organization and its supporters is multi-directional, with the organization and its followers producing and sharing content to form a whole public opinion” (Hemmi & Crowther, 2013 as cited in Susanto & Thamrin, 2021, p. 149). Thus, the internet surely has the potential to broaden the reach of the environmental movement (by overcoming local and national boundaries) and to highlight and provide a new interpretation of environmental issues. Lately, there has been a growth of environmental websites, blogs, social media accounts, Youtube videos and so forth. Various groups and individuals from around the world use the internet and digital media to raise awareness about environmental challenges such climate change, water pollution or extinction of plant and animal species, document examples of those issues, build a sense of solidarity and community and challenge political decisions that negatively impact the ecosystem. Moreover, social media allow them to act both locally and globally.
Numerous actions to protect our environment are organized by environmental organizations, however, recently many take place more spontaneously, without any group organization. This is particularly visible in the recent phenomenon of so-called hashtag activism. Social media platforms, due to their global popularity and virtuality, became a popular platform to express support for certain actions and campaigns, regardless of one’s place of residence. Through hashtags, which thematically group topics, users can easily locate debates on particular topics. While many scholars oppose this kind of activism and question its real impact on socio-political changes, other researchers claim that hashtag activism provides an opportunity to share personal experiences and increases debates about possible changes and solutions. Whether or not one opposes or approves of this form of activism, it is obvious that it has increased debates about environmental protection and conservation in online and offline spheres, as it often attracts the attention of traditional media as well. Over the years, numerous hashtag activism actions have taken place all around the world. Starting from global such as #ClimateStrike and #FridaysForFuture to smaller located in a specific socio-cultural context such as #NODAPL in the USA or #GreenRecovery in Europe. Those actions might lead to community building with like-minded people and they do not rely on traditional media or leadership, which allows to access and share alternative sources of information and update information on an ongoing basis.
However, the visibility and diversity of voices, easier access to information, and decreasing participation costs do not automatically mean the proper involvement in the movement or actions. The internet allows us to access a huge number of information from all over the world, but this might also lead to so-called slacktivism or clicktivism. It might be argued that online involvement has no real power or social effect, but people can feel good about themselves because they publicly supported a certain movement without much or any sacrifice (Morozov, 2009; Yar, 2014). Additionally, due to the abundance of information, people’s attention span narrow and we lose interest in particular topics faster (Lorenz-Spreen, Mønsted, Hövel & Lehmann, 2019). Moreover, information online not always is factually accurate, more often than not, it is a potential mix of misinformation and rumors, thus, internet users’ must be constantly aware about that and should be able to critically analyze online sources of information.
Environmental issues continue to receive public attention and impact political debates. The debate about the protection and conservation of our ecosystem is omnipresent online. Even though, environmental organizations are still one of the main forces to fight against environmental degradation and influence policymakers, the technological affordances of the internet enable ordinary internet users to also participate in those changes without the need of formal membership as they are no longer only the consumers of the content but also producers and distributors. The online sphere allows both environmental organizations and individuals to find like-minded people and promote their goals and events much faster that through traditional methods. However, as much as the internet, and social media in particular, are helpful in increasing awareness about environmental challenges and to gain supporters, it must be acompanied by offline actions and involvement.
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