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Researchers explore how climate change is framed on social media

They show the best ways to reach people. But are NGOs following through?
December 1, 2020

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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a big role in bringing scientific information about climate change to the general public, organizing political actions, and coordinating international efforts. Plus, “The communication capabilities of NGOs may, in many cases, rival or exceed the abilities of their local or national governments” — and increasingly that communication takes place on social media, researchers write in a study recently published in the journal Science Communication.

Past studies have analyzed climate change coverage in the news media, but the new study is the first to dig into the content of Facebook posts from climate-related NGOs. The researchers analyzed 3,979 Facebook posts from 289 climate-focused nonprofits in 18 English-speaking countries around the world.

First, they looked at the overall framing of the social media posts. More than one-third were devoted to setting out the problem of climate change, while fewer – about one-quarter in each case – were about what needs to be done to solve climate change or called people to collective action. It’s unfortunate that even after 30 years of public climate discourse, so much attention still needs to be devoted to the basics of climate change, the researchers say.

Of the NGOs studied, 47 were from developing countries while 242 were from developed countries, and the researchers also investigated how social media messages differ in these two country groups. For example, NGOs working in developed countries were more likely to use call-to-action posts than were those in developing countries.

Next, the researchers took a more detailed look at the content of the posts and counted how many times different aspects of climate change – the impacts of climate change such as droughts, floods, and heat waves; actions that can be taken to fight it such as eating less meat, voting for climate candidates, and flying less; and efficacy of climate action, meaning creating a sense that climate change is a problem that can be addressed and that individuals can contribute to solving it – were mentioned in each. “Overall, the NGOs in the sample discussed climate actions most often,” the researchers write. “The second was climate impacts. Efficacy was least mentioned in their messages.”

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This is good news in that it suggests organizations are emphasizing positive steps people can take to solve climate change rather than just offering doom-and-gloom messages, which aren’t as effective in motivating the public. However, developed country NGOs were more likely to mention actions, suggesting that developing country NGOs could stand to improve their strategic communication practices.

Of the messages that mentioned climate impacts, the majority referred to impacts that are happening now. This suggests that NGOs are doing a good job of conveying the immediacy of climate change to their audience. However, the posts were split about equally between local, national, and global impacts. Beefing up the messages about local impacts – and opportunities for action – could increase the effectiveness of NGOs’ communications, since research shows that people are more likely to be engaged when they feel an issue affects them personally.

Another opportunity for improvement is to boost messages about efficacy. Past research has shown that a sense of efficacy increases people’s proclivity to take action at an individual level, as well as their support for government climate policies. “Increasing the use of efficacy in strategic messages may help foster actions and engagement with the campaigns these global climate NGOs are orchestrating,” the researchers write.

Source: Vu H.T. et al.Social media and environmental activism: Framing climate change on Facebook by global NGOs.” Science Communication 2020.

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