Opportunity Structure: New Research Paper Analyses the Role of Social Media in Climate Change Discourse

The release of a first Working Group Report on the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [The Physical Science Basis, Working Group I report] earlier this week was widely circulated in mainstream media and on social media platforms. But the messages of the climate debate and the form of their dissemination differ in these media and it is not necessarily international organisations that dominate this discourse. Alena Drieschova, until recently a fellow at the Centre, examines what she calls the 'opportunity structure' of social media in her new research paper 'The Social Media Revolution and Shifts in the Climate Change Discourse'.

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. (3)

With regard to the current climate debate, Drieschova compares the opposing groups of climate sceptics and the social movement of climate activists. Figures show that the climate activist movement uses these media much more successfully. 

Drieschova presents a qualitative study in deliberate contrast to those predominantly quantitative studies she references in a review of the research literature. She is interested in marginalised groups and individual actors in search of images, stories and arguments. In terms of 'netnography', she examines profiles on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. In contrast, she identifies climate sceptics predominantly on the basis of their blog activities, according to Drieschova the most effective medium of this group.

Drieschova sees the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as an outstanding example of an actor who influences the climate discourse through personal engagement and resonance in social media. In general, climate activists succeed in communicating climate change as a matter of intergenerational and global justice. There is another finding that may come as a surprise:

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. (from the abstract)

Drieschova thus also addresses an aspect that can play a special role on social media platforms: Images and stories of an exemplary life can convey a message that seems to add something to the discourse of climate science.

Quite in this sense, Frank Gadinger has appreciated the paper in his foreword:

Drieschova’s analysis provides not only important insights into climate change discourses within social media, but also sheds light on strategies of (de-)legitimization by different groups around issues of climate and scientific discourse and is, therefore, an important contribution to the Centre’s research stream on legitimation and delegitimation in global cooperation.



The Author

Alena Drieschova is a senior lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University. She was a postdoc research fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. 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 Organization, International Theory, and International Studies Quarterly. 

Contact: DrieschovaA@cardiff.ac.uk