The Social Media Revolution and Shifts in the Climate Change Discourse

Alena Drieschova

Global Cooperation Research Papers 29, Duisburg 2021

Keywords: Climate change, social media, Fridays for Future, climate strike, Greta Thunberg, climate skepticism, social movements, populism, discourse, aesthetics, images

DOI: 10.14282/2198-0411-GCRP-29


The paper analyses the role of social media in shifting the climate change discourse in the North Atlantic region. Changes in the media environment have removed traditional gatekeepers of information dissemination and empowered new kinds of actors to reach large audiences. Yet, the techniques and the particular messaging through which these audiences can be reached has had to change as well. Messages spread widely on social media if they get shared, liked, retweeted frequently. They need to provoke a reaction in their audience, that leads the audience to actively respond to the messages, be it only with a mouse click. Within the climate change field two new kinds of actors have the potential to seize upon this new opportunity structure: climate sceptics and pro-climate activist social movements. Through a qualitative social media analysis, this paper compares the specific messaging strategies these two communities have deployed. It finds that the climate strike movement, notably led by Greta Thunberg, could effectively seize the opportunities social media provide to reach large audiences. By contrast, climate sceptics have been significantly less successful. Counter-intuitively, the paper finds that digitization can not only empower tech-savvy individuals, but also specific, comparatively low tech, and hitherto marginalized individuals. Notably young women, if they can draw on their vulnerability, aesthetics, and emotional messaging, can acquire high attention scores when advocating for political change. 


The Author

Dr Alena Drieschova was a Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research from July 2020 to June 2020. Alena is a senior lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on international orders, and how they are shaped by material culture, technology, and practices. She is currently working on her book manuscript, which provides a macro-historical analysis of international order stability and change based on changes in material culture. She was a visiting scholar at the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Oregon State University. Her work has been published among others in Climatic Change, Global Environmental Change, International Theory, and International Studies Quarterly.

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