Climate Wars in the New Social Media

October 7, 2010
This is a guest contribution by Professor Maxwell Boykoff, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This post is in response to my previous post about the cultural politics of climate change and corporate funding of climate denial.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post, It’s The Real Thing: The Power of Koch. I wonder about the value of new and social media that groups such as ‘Energy Citizens’ are taking to influence public opinion, versus traditional media approaches. Saffron O’Neill at the University of Melbourne and I have been exploring this, and have a chapter called ‘The role of new media in engaging the public with climate change’ in a book she’s co-edited with the title Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Communication and Behaviour Change.

In the last decade, there has been a significant expansion from consumption of traditional mass media – broadcast television, newspapers, radio – into consumption of new and social media, such as various uses of the internet and mobile phone communication. This has changed how people access and interact with information, who has access, and who produces content. At present, new/social media offer a platform for people to more democratically shape the public agenda.

But for US readers primarily, it is important to note that there are current challenges to such democratic equality or ‘net neutrality’. US legislation sponsored by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and TimeWarner proposes to create a tiered system of access speeds based on what a consumer pays and whether they use content and services from these companies or from competitors or third parties. The loss of ‘net neutrality’ could have a detrimental impact on the ability of new/social media users to access a variety of sources and perspectives on climate science and governance.

In January 2009, the Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) began monitoring the content of the weekly ‘news hole’ in the US, distinguishing between traditional coverage (television, newspapers, radio), and new/social media (Internet weblogs, Twitter). Through weekly content analysis, PEJ has shown how topics involving global warming have earned a much greater share of the news hole in new media: the topic has been one of the top five blog stories ten times since their monitoring began, but did not figure nearly as prominently during that time in traditional media.

So does increased visibility of the issue translate to improved communication, or just more noise? Do these spaces provide opportunities for new forms of deliberative community regarding questions of climate mitigation and adaptation? Or has the content of this increased coverage shifted to polemics and arguments over measured analysis? In this democratized space of content production, do new/social media provide more space for contrarian views to circulate? And through its interactivity, does increased consumption of news through new/social media further fragment a public discourse on climate mitigation and adaptation, through information silos where members of the public can stick to sources that help support their already held views? Many questions such as these remain open at present, especially as they relate to climate contrarians amplifying their views through mass media.

Journalist Matt Ridley has argued that blogging on climate change represents a positive development for public understanding. In an essay in The Spectator in February 2010, he wrote that when the ‘Climategate’ scandal unfolded, “It was amateur bloggers who scented the exaggerations, distortions and corruptions in the climate establishment; whereas newspaper reporters, even after the scandal broke, played poodle to their sources.” In addition, George Brumfiel has noted in Nature that blogs have become a more prominent source for stories, and a greater influence on public discourse. However, Cass Sunstein warned in his book Republic 2.0 of the likelihood of the ‘echo chamber’ effect where this interactivity actually cordons off users from one another by merely consuming news that mesh with their worldview and ideology.

The US-based group ‘Americans for Prosperity’ (AFP) seems to be mindfully taking up new and social media to produce their own content online and garner media attention for their sponsored events and initiatives. Through internet organizing – mass emails, web announcements, Tweets, Facebook communications, YouTube clips, blog posts – AFP has assembled a number of influential anti-climate legislation campaigns. Among them was the 2008 ‘Hot Air’ tour. In 2009, AFP also began a web-based campaign called ‘No Climate Tax’ where constituents can send emails to their elected officials to encourage them to send a ‘No Climate Tax Pledge’. In addition, AFP hosts ongoing web-based campaigns called ‘Stop the Power Grab’ to contest US Environmental Protection Agency actions to regulate CO2 emissions without the explicit support of US Congress. As new/social media emerge more prominently in the general public, the boundaries defining who are ‘authorized’ speakers and who are legitimate ‘claims-makers’ are changing, and constantly contested and challenged.

2 Responses to “Climate Wars in the New Social Media”

  1. and this video by the climate activist group 10:10 illustrates how social media can backfire and play right into the hands of climate deniers
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/a-pretty-edgy-climate-campaign/

  2. Max, it’s worth noting that AFP is funded by Koch family foundations and other right-wing folks with both an ideological and financial interest in killing regulation. In the case you’ve chosen, the new media does not empower democratic, but oligarchic, forces. -Spencer W.