April 9, 2014, by Warren Pearce
Climate change on Twitter 2013: who tweeted what about the IPCC?
Climate change is a fiercely debated public issue, with much of that debate taking place in various online fora. In a new paper for PLOS ONE with Kim Holmberg, Iina Hellsten and Brigitte Nerlich – Climate change on Twitter: topics, communities and conversations about the 2013 IPCC Working Group 1 report - I explore the shape of the debate on Twitter, arguably one of the most interesting sites for the discussion of issues of public interest. We look at tweets containing “IPCC” around the time of that organisation’s report on the physical science basis of climate change being published last September. Using an innovative method combining analysis of keywords (hashtags) and conversational connections between Twitter users, the paper presents some interesting findings. In a future post, I will examine a methodological issue which emerged during the research, and highlighted the surprisingly uneven application of ethical standards in online research.
In this post I focus on the substantive results of the paper, highlighting four key findings and placing them in the wider context of climate politics.
1. Science loses control of climate change
After scientists’ lengthy, painstaking process of compiling a single report on the state of the science, the moment of publication marks the moment that control is lost. The report is interpreted and re-interpreted in a variety of public fora, including Twitter. Of course, this is an entirely normal state of affairs, but the report’s publication marks a key tension point between scientific and public discussion, with the public free to attach very different meanings to the report than that intended by the IPCC. One example of this is #fracking, used 249 times despite fracking not featuring anywhere in the report.
We present a large range of hashtags which people used when tweeting about the IPCC. While hashtags related to science (#science #climatescience #RSclimate) were used over 1000 times, there was also notable usage of non-science hashtags. Over 3000 uses were related to Australian and American politics, while there were over 1500 broadly concerned with the social impacts and/or policy aspects of climate change such as #geoengineering #fracking or #ocean (fans of the human race will be disappointed to note that #humans was used only 110 times). A campaign by Avaaz to increase media coverage of the report was also notable in its success in attracting supporters, although it’s hard to determine whether it achieved its aim.
2. Australia is a hotbed for climate change debate
The report was published just after the Australian general election, so political debate was at a height. In particular, climate change played a more significant role in the campaign than we have seen in recent US and UK elections, with the party leaders being asked a question in a televised leaders debate. However, it was the scale of the Australian usage that was surprising, with Autralian-related hashtags being used 2,230 times, in comparison to only 1,324 for US-related hashtags. When one considers the relative populations of the two countries (Australia, 23m; US, 317m), this suggests a large discrepancy between the scale of public interest in the two countries.
3. Birds of a feather flock together…
Tweeters largely discussed the report with people who broadly shared their views (supportive and unsupportive groups). We coded the most frequent IPCC tweeters in terms of whether they were supportive or unsupportive of the IPCC, or neutral. While this is a rather blunt typology of views, it was sufficient in order to gain some insight into the degree of interaction in what is typically regarded as a polarised debate (in addition, the brevity of tweets rather precludes the nuanced meanings required to establish a more detailed typology).
We found that the most significant conversational connections were between Twitter users within their own groups. That is, supportive tweeters were more likely to talk to other supportive tweeters, and so on. Unsurprising, perhaps. But it’s worth noting that this behaviour was prevalent on both ‘sides’ of the debate. So while a significant strand of the social science literature about climate change has declared similar behaviour to be evidence of climate sceptics operating within an ‘echo chamber’, our paper shows that the picture is little different within those supportive of the IPCC. Echo chamber is, in fact, a rather pejorative term for a familiar trait: ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
4. …but in the UK, signs of a more open debate?
While the quantitative data suggests that Twitter users preferred to converse with people on their own side, qualitative analysis provides some additional detail. In particular, a network map of the top IPCC tweeters highlights a densely connected group of supportive, unsupportive and neutral Twitter users in the bottom right of the map. Most of these users are from the UK, suggesting that greater cross-group interaction occurred in the UK. This is an intriguing possibility, and chimes with some of my own observations in familiarising myself with the online debate over the last year or so. From these observations I would tentatively suggest that, while often robust, these conversations are regarded as worthwhile by those taking part in them, and do not merely represent a higher level of mudslinging than present elsewhere. However, an in-depth qualitative analysis of the tweets was beyond the scope of this paper. However, we do plan some more research to try and discover whether the UK debate notably differs from other countries.
To conclude, analysing the real-time emergence of public meanings and conversational connections around the IPCC report helped illuminate a number of issues, both surprising and familiar, about the wider climate change debate. You can read the full paper here at PLOS ONE. Look forward to hearing any comments or observations you might have.