Debate: How Can Social Media Save The Planet?

2010•06•14 Brendan F.D. Barrett Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Social media is transforming traditional media and influencing how we share news and information. Recent data shows that 300 million people spend more than 5 hours each day on social networks. About 200,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube everyday.

On today’s Debate 2.0, we ask the question: “How can social media save the planet?”

“Do you think platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube really help us to address pressing global problems like climate change, peak oil, food security and biodiversity loss – the themes we cover here on Our World 2.0?”

The media’s role in climate change will also be the centre of attention at next week’s Global Media Forum in Bonn, German, where over 1,000 people will converge. This year’s topic is: “The Heat is On – Climate Change and the Media” and Our World 2.0 will make a presentation to a workshop on 23 June entitled Ideas For A Cooler World” — Covering climate protection and possible solutions.

Some of the questions we will seek to answer include:

“Why does current media coverage focus merely on the negative impacts of climate change rather than on ways to deal with it?”

“What role should the media play in the future?”

“To what degree can the media ultimately influence public opinion and motivate more people to get involved in responding to climate change?”

Jump in and contribute your views here so that we may synthesize and discuss them next week with fellow forum participants. We are excited to be part of this effort to identify and implement new ways to communicate important ideas. Please join us!

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Debate 2.0: How Can Social Media Save The Planet? by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Brendan F.D. Barrett

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a senior lecturer in Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT University. His professional career includes work in the private sector, academia and with international organizations. He uses the web and information technologies as a means to communicate, teach and undertake research on issues of environment and human security. Prior to joining RMIT he worked in the United Nations for close to 20 years with UNEP and the UN University (UNU). He is a visiting researcher at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo, Japan, and a visiting associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

Join the Discussion

  • You left out a key question: “Why does the mainstream media report only propaganda about global warming and do little or no reporting about major climate scientists who refute the IPCC’s bad science?”

    Looking at the social media, you see many people who will no longer be fooled by the Al Gore propaganda.

    • Mammoths Are My Pals

      Dude, it’s not just the mainstream media that doesn’t report denier BS, it’s all intelligent media. Leaving nothing but denier blogs and right-wing funded “think-tank” sites to cover the sad POV of the head-in-the-sand crowd (and their secretly profiting masters).

  • Megumi Nishikura

    Yes, I believe social media can lend a helping hand to “save the planet.” However social media itself is not necessary a tool for change. You still have to vote, you still have to donate, you still have to recycle, you still have to go to the streets and raise your voice but social media can be a tool to keep you informed and help inform others.
    For example through the viral nature of facebook, I learn about campaigns to save the planet when other friends become a fan of a page or join a group. Naturally, I want to be apart of it and then awareness continues to spread.
    So social media is a good start but action is still required.

    • marknotaras

      I agree that a combination between social media and true on the ground social change can help us to overcome these problems. But to the question of how we can do it, I think people are still learning the tricks of the trade, and then another new application comes out and the knowledge required is greater. It might even take decades before these mediums are mastered to the point where enough of the masses or political leaders can truly be influenced by a social media agenda. There are still a lot of people being influenced through old media or by old media organisations through the internet.

      Democratisation of information can also have its downsides. Firstly, there are endless sources of information which allows groups like climate change deniers to penetrate the debate to a level exponentially greater than their scientific credibility (consider that 99% of climatologists do believe there is human made global warming).

      Secondly, there is fragmentation of potential social movements because there are so many environmental or social justice organisations/causes. There are good examples of coalitions forming but often dozens of organisations are fighting for the same cause through separate petitions, lobbying, websites and programs, which is limiting their ability to affect policies. I would not advocate a return to narrow controlled ‘4th branch of the government’ media but maybe the masses could be more more easily influenced when dominant newspapers or television stations took (if infrequently) progressive stances. What can we learn from that I wonder?

  • I found Revkin’s two NYT articles of interest …

    *“We must go and see for ourselves.”* –
    Cousteau had no science degree, but his passion and visual story-telling skills worked like a siren’s call, pulling me into the undersea world. Indirect experience of nature is great, but there’s nothing like getting wet. Indeed, that reality was reflected in the motto of the RV Calypso, the converted minesweeper that was the base of operations for his merry team in their red knit caps: “Il faut aller voir.” “We must go and see for ourselves.” …Explaining the broad appeal of his work, Mr. Cousteau once said: ”We are not documentary. We are adventure films.”

    *Can Google’s Oceans Protect the Real Ones?*
    …One big question: Will digital familiarity with a forest or coral reef breed caring and change people’s priorities and practices (what they buy, what they preserve in their own environment)? I asked a few researchers who study what kinds of experiences do and don’t change people and they’re cautiously optimistic about the prospect of Google Earth’s new features causing a “sea change.” Nancy Wells, an environmental psychologist at Cornell, put it this way in an email:

    There is a dearth of data examining the extent to which media and technology might be a catalyst to connect people with nature. In today’s high-tech climate though, technology should be considered as a potential mechanism to foster curiosity and enhance engagement with the natural world, rather than an adversary with which nature must compete. I would guess that ultimately, people still need to get wet, but the new Google technology could be a hook to pull people to the ‘real thing.’

    Have you ever tugged on a digital thread that led you to a “real” experience, and did that experience change the way you live or interact with the world outside our manufactured landscapes?
    Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale, is a bit more skeptical: Dr. Kellert wrote this when I asked him whether Google Earth’s enhancements might improve the human relationship with the world:

    Like most aspects of the modern telecommunications age, it is a complicated situation. My sense of the data is that there is a strong correlation between environmental awareness, even environmental activism in the most limited sense, and the advent of video/ television/ film depictions of nature and conservation. The down side is that it appears this exposure to nature and conservation via film bears very little correlation with a more complex and deep understanding of the natural world and its protection, or actions relation to personal lifestyle and responsibility. Moreover, a great deal of the increased awareness is abstract and remote – e.g., for tropical forests, charismatic wildlife in distant place, issues like climate change, but correspondingly little awareness, appreciation, or action related to the local and regional environment in one’s place or state of residence.

    The sad reality is that while more abstract, vicarious/representational awareness of nature and its conservation via the video and computer have grown enormously, concurrently, there has been a profound decline in more commonplace, everyday experience and contact with nature and the often deeper and more realistic and lasting appreciation and action that comes from this personal involvement….

    Sometimes the crowded loudspeaker of SM overwhelms me, forcing me to go to the countryside and de-electromagnetize.

    So there is still a lack of real “local” awareness or action, and perhaps it has to do with the “globalised” feeling of environmental media? How can environmentalists tailor media stories for local audiences but still press the “activate” button of global audiences. I feel entertainment is “lean back” fairy floss, but education implies “eat your vegetables”. For me, social media is leanback edutainment.

    Is the rise of the Geoweb going to change this realtime interaction? Is AR (Augmented Reality) is an “outdoor activity” that can combine experience with networked information ? Is the answer in the technology at all? Can social media feed 9 billion people or change our systemic consumer habits?

    Although I am motivated by other “adventurous” factors, can social media motivate us enough to get up and go outside to commune with nature?

  • Indeed: it’s a start but they will not suffice alone.

    Let’s take a look at social media and how brands are striving to make the shift from broadcast media to this new fabric of connectedness. David Cushman, a social media afficionado who covers the phenomenon since its early days helps brands adapt to this new world. One of his decks ( shows the network effects of social media and suggests that brands have to deliver a certain effort to stay connected and participate on equal foot with their community. Doesn’t the famous clip predict the “ads will find you?”

    I believe this is important as well for causes. What applies to brands experimenting with the social media fabric tapping into twitter, listening and sometimes re-acting should apply to causes. The social media tools are just tools. Causes need to establish mechanisms leveraging social media to spot the opportunities in the community to meet its goals. Unfortunately these mechanisms are like batteries in toys – not included.

    O another front we have “Enterprise 2.0” – people interested in leveraging social media within the enterprise to boost knowledge worker’s performance. As one of these guys, Oscar Berg, said brilliantly in one of his recent posts – it’s about culture –
    This point stresses again the fact that the term “social media” usually refers to tools only and few people still see it as something more important which requires a deeper reflection on culture.

    Social media is really a collection of services which has to be applied whenever applicable. Just like a hammer to a nail and a screwdriver for a screw. The more complicated issues of culture shift and handling with the russian doll structure of management of environmental issues lies still ahead of us. Social media tools can help us tie local efforts to regional and national efforts but only with the support of a method. A method which takes into account the various scales and the stage of the communities which differs wildly in some parts of the world.

    My concern is that brands are currently well funded to pursue their commercial objectives and might learn faster how to play the social media tools to reach their goals. Ok, there’s CSR and we might line up some of our shared futures… perhaps. If initiatives striving to make our planet a better place (from large public e.g. “Agenda 21” to small local/tiny e.g. “Transition Culture” or “Micro Macro Monde”) don’t learn these techniques at least at the same pace, we might face another manipulation wave like the one resulting from Edward Bernays work ( with Psychology and mass democracy.

    Finally, I want to point to which has some chapters written by top thoughleaders in the space of social media and organization network analysis which might be interesting in this context.

  • AlanZulch

    My sense is that like every tool, the value of social media isn’t black or white, and SM can either contribute to or detract from efforts to ‘save the planet’ depending on how it’s used, just as the television can be a tool for education or narcotization.

    We all recognize that Twitter, for example, can be profoundly important at times, and yet too often stultifying. And everyone is hurrying to build conduits to Facebook, but then there is a risk of digital monoculture as one site ends up with the majority of eyes, a distasteful if not dangerous reversal of digital democracy.

    For me, SM is in many ways just another set of technology platforms or channels which contain all of the promise and peril of any other media. The real issue is how skillfully is it being used. One thing for sure is that in a sea of information, credibility is key and more and more people will rely upon those precious few information portals who are following careful internal guidelines that ensure integrity and build trust. People may spend the bulk of their time on fluff, but when they want real quality information they (hopefully) will know where to go to find it.

    As for your general media questions, my sense is that media wants attention and easily uses negativity to obtain it, but since the fire alarm has been pulled so many times, we’re increasingly inured to it. And that’s a bummer because now is the time when people really DO need to personally respond to, say, climate change.

    If one wonders how the media should approach advocating social change around the climate, it will be instructive to study the successes and failures of the Gulf spill media coverage. Like a smaller but faster version of climate change, the spill is a remote event, slow-motion, but building in intensity, with implications for wildlife, economics, our lifestyles, etc.

    • There is some interesting research being done in the ecopsychology , and researchers in this field believe collectively we are currently traumatised about environmental destruction. Societal habits are increasing in distance from nature, and in turn individuals become self-centred, alienated and insensitive. They suggest solutions may include practices that encourage self and global identity to be be entwined with nature.

      And what about the “pace” of modern life. In particular, the pace and quantity of received SM, news, emails, blogs, telephone alarms, and general daily communication stimulation. Its like a Congo jungle of stimulation! How can we possibly “slow down” SM and make the information exchange mutually beneficial, personally richer, thoughtful and more thorough. Often, innovators and progressive change-makers (in the real world) are found connected to these kind of quality feeds, ne?

      My third question is are there any trees, coral atolls, dominant winds patterns, ocean currents or blue fin tuna out there talking on twitter or through SM feeds? That – I’d love to read more of.

      • AlanZulch

        Cittw, I must admit that I laughed (with pleasure) after reading your thoughts here, because they so cogently nail my own feelings. Cultivating expanded identities is, from my perspective, both the task and the solution facing us. If media can help foster a broader understanding of self (and self-interest) so that people really embody the Golden Rule and recognize that what I do to others and the environment I do to myself, then we’re on the right track. And if media serves to reinforce our alienation from ourselves, one another, and nature, then it is part of the problem. And that brings me to the pace of modern life you describe. The speed of SM plays into our trend for wanting it all now, ever faster and increasingly distanced from the pacing of the natural world. Its breathless urgency takes us straight from our hearts and plants us firmly in our rational minds, and that becomes our worldview. This is a problem.

  • I’m certainly no expert on SM (especially since I’m like Citt in that it frequently provokes in me a creeping case of info overload).

    But for the moment, on the whole, I find it empowering, having personally felt its community-building positivity and encouragement. I think it is most powerful for those who are very focussed and want to devote themselves in-depth to something. Though yes, as Citt complains, much of it is edutainment at best, there is also a lot of activating going on, is there not?

    Of course, as JP fears, its power and reach leave it at risk of being co-opted. However, I don’t forsee, as Alan does, much danger of a digital monoculture as technology moves quicker & quicker and activists lead the way in coming up with new platforms (Facebook’s time in the sun will end, I predict!). Nor do I think that fragmentation is that big of a deal. We need to get things rolling, doesn’t matter if there’s some repetition, as long as we’re not pulling in opposite directions, movement of any sort is good!

    Meanwhile, when it comes to regular media, yes, its sensationalistic negative take on climate change is a problem that is caused partly by and contributing to (in modern society’s typical cycle), fear and inaction. But Alan has a good point about the “crying wolf” effect. Is it by design, I can’t help but wonder. The concentration of ownership by huge corporations that have whopping energy & industrial needs makes mainstream stuff useful only when read/watched super-critically.

    Perhaps, at the Global Media Forum, bright minds can pinpoint a role for social media in influencing the future direction of regular media’s coverage of pressing global problems.

  • If the stats mentioned in a recent Mashables article are true (, and people are spending so much time in front of social media, then it certainly has potential to help in raising awareness. Of course that would depend on what variety of media people are spending their time on.

    Either way, the more people are exposed to the concepts, issues & conversations, the better informed they are apt to become. Of course though, as mentioned in previous comments, awareness does not equal activism, but it is a necessary step to get there.

  • BrendanBarrett

    Thanks for all the excellent comments so far!! I hope that more people will chip in with their thoughts about the potential for social media to work as a tool to help save the planet (or to save us I mean).Another question we are addressing at the Global Media Forum is “Why does current media coverage focus merely on the negative impacts of climate change rather than on ways to deal with it?”I want to share the responses that we received via Facebook. “I guess its necessary because if we don’t fear something then we won’t do something to eliminate it…but equal importance should also be given to the ways to tackle the problem…basic stuff that an individual can perform should be highlighted…instead of arguing about ‘what’ must be done, Media should pay emphasis on ‘how’ it must be done…”“Good question, and one asked also in Peace Journalism about War Journalism. Media is shifting quickly to become solutions-oriented, and people-oriented. Thanks for all your great work! Best of luck at the GMF! ps. FEAR SELLS (in the old paradigm).” “The media loves politics (conflict, tension, noise) but not social policy (it’s too afraid people will turn the channel). Bottom line, the media exists to make money (attracting viewers and selling commercials), not to educate or enlighten people. (Glad your organization is helping to educate and enlighten people — keep up the good work!)”“Science has no bias, that was invented by humans. In addition, focusing on negative impacts of climate change specifically takes the subject off of science and solution oriented topics. Why? Most likely because the solutions to the problems we are facing do not coincide with the political objectives of those who have invested the time, effort, and capital to globally publicize this issue. Unfortunately society has molded many individuals into the unenlightened position of placing the importance of personal gain and prestige, over the wellbeing of other individuals and what is actually best for humankind and our survival on this planet.”We also received responses via Twitter that do not appear below:”what annoys me is why the discussion on Cl. Ch. is still in the hands of environmentalists and not economists and engineers.””broadcast media not geared for distributed initiatives. Social media not structured enough?””Maybe because stories focusing on negative impacts of climate change have more conflict & drama. Therefore, it will sell.”What do you think about this question? Should the media be more solutions focused when it comes to climate change?

  • I feel it should. It’s a scope question and an opportunity. Michel Puech in his recent essay promotes “Micro Actions” and bring down high-sphere debates to concrete actions. That scope is better suited for social media with concrete focused actions in our day-to-day lives, in our communities.
    Nevertheless, a thorough reflection is needed to focus these actions and ensure their sum yields tangible results and not chaos. The science behind this involves variety engineering (in the cybernetic sense) and the ability to organize ourselves at various scales (family, community, region) such that focused local actions are the result of our society acting as a viable system within its environment.

  • Another twitter comment worth sharing from @GaryPHayes @cittw @OurWorld20 if nothing else social media makes us see we’re all made of same stuff, fragile, egotistical, joyous, idiotic, optimistic, bonded

  • Benjamin Zhu

    First of all, to the first question “Do you think platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube really help us to address pressing global problems like climate change, peak oil, food security and biodiversity loss – the themes we cover here on Our World 2.0?” , well according to our practices at UNU, there is a problem concerning conflict and intersactions between traditional knowledge sharing method and innovative knowledge sharing method. Colleagues normally would question us about why do they have to use twitter, why do they have to learn, why do they have to use newly developed innovative softwares and platforms, using the time to learn new things and then complete the task take three times longer than their traditional method. Even when we introduced twitter, facebook, and other social media tools, there are still colleagues refusing or reluctant to try them out. We may have to ask ourselves where is the tipping point between traditional information sharing and contemporary information sharing and how can we persuade or introduce more effectively on the impact that social media tools will bring us to our colleagues, as well as how can we raise awareness? What are the benefits using the tools, are they going to save up a lot of their time, or are they going to mitigate risks during the project planning and implementation?
    Personally, as a social media practioner, I strongly believe that social media has or will have significant impact on our lives, especially on our daily lives towards knowledge sharing. But how to raise the attention, how to spread the word and how to let people understand is another goal. Thus, there should be an information flow from self-communication, inter-personal communication, group communication, organizational communication to mass communication, to eventually reach the goal of sharing knowledge and raising awareness.

    However, exactly as what you questioned in your blog, numerous news are negative towards the impact of climate change rather than reporting on how to deal with it, well peronally the media itself is a formal tool of communication, it is looking for breaking news that will meet the principle of prominence,proximity, time sensitivity, conflict, human interest, innovation etc. It is hard for them to initiate any resolution or method, also nor the experts, professors would high profilely express their idea to be the most authorized one. This is time for social media to step in. It is not so formal as the formal newspaper or news, but with the new features of social media, people will be brave enough to share their opinion, there will be ways and platforms to conduct discussion, people may also work collaboratively towards finding a solution.

    As to what role should media play, well, honestly almost all media follow their national politic direction or policy, including climate change policies. It is hard to say or to estimate how media should play in the context of this, but it is definitely clear that social media, as new media will play as methods of knowledge sharing. Like what UNU media studio produces, it is vital to address the problem and fact, then trying to find the solution towards to the problem. Documenting the information by producing documentaries is a good practice to attract audience rather than let them read the tedious scientific papers.

    But one thing we should be aware is that media does have significant impact on public views, and can easily direct people’s way of thinking. Many people, especially illiteracies or less educated people can be driven by the view of media easily, and there is a high chance leading negative consequences. “To what degree can the media ultimately influence public opinion and motivate more people to get involved in responding to climate change?” is a good question. We may ask ourselves that what shall we do or how shall we do to involve more people in responding climate change? Still, back to the topic that was dicussed above, it is the way of how to raise their attention and how to find a balance between traditional information sharing and contemporary information sharing to raise awareness and to integrate the usage of social media, in order to conduct more impact.

  • I’m probably just reiterating what everyone’s said here but here’s my 2c!Firstly as someone who never jumped on the facebook/twitter bandwagon I can’t help but think of social media as being a tool for exposure and a popularity barometer. This is not a value judgement however and when used in this context of addressing global concerns I think some social media can prove to be an effective medium of communication and a tool to share knowledge, ideas and solutions. As an alternative form of media, one that is supposedly free (in some places more than others) from private and state control, I think it can help in allowing us to think differently from, as well as question, the mainstream media. However, what I think is most important here is the question of ‘How’: how ideas or stories are communicated will (or will not) engender different kinds of responses or understandings, and these in and of themselves can spur thinking, which leads to ‘action’ (in the most open sense of the word). So, I guess the question here is about how social media can raise awareness; but can it convince? Can it sustain interest? How can social media increase people’s engagement with issues, such as climate change? Surely, this is linked to how information is presented and framed or constructed. To digress a little to the second question, if the media in question is the mainstream news then there are many factors pertaining to why media coverage is so ‘doomy gloomy’. This is linked to the ideologies behind the companies (and the state) which fund news. Also, if mainstream media focuses on solution-based news reporting this assumes that we’re all on the same page. Finally, and most importantly, I think the news is by its’ own nature there to report and not offer solutions – isn’t the role of the news to report information?This leads me back to what I was talking about before, I think a solution based reporting of climate change is suitable for media like Our World 2.0 because it can present ideas in multiple ways from video, image, writing to multimedia which will give readers a way in which to interact with the ideas much more freely than the one-way communication of traditional media. I am a strong believer in the power of the narrative and I think leveraging the power of video with interactivity can really foster a rich experience of knowledge and understanding which ultimately leads to criticality. Finally I’ll end this post with a quote from Jacques Ranciere, a French philosopher who is concerned with ideas surrounding equal intelligence: I think this is what social media does best, intelligence can be shared without limits:”From my point of view, the Internet is similar to what writing was at a certainmoment. It meant the circulation of words and knowledge which could beappropriated by anyone. It is not a question of giving knowledge to everybody, itis a question of having words circulate in a free and desirable way, and I think thatthis is what’s happening with the Internet. That is probably why some reactionarypeople are so angry with the Internet, saying it’s horrible that people log on to theweb and they can find everything they want, that it is against research andintelligence. I would say no, it is the way intelligence, equal intelligence, works.You wander randomly in a library the same way you surf randomly on theInternet. This is, from my point of view, what equality of intelligence means”

  • In my country social media begin to reduce the controling of noise. When our Goverment become more evil, social media can be place to rely on our trust. Start from noise then levarage to social business which reduce people to increase the traffic jam.That’s all cause of social media

    Oh ya I’m from Indonesia

  • ndale27

    Regarding the posed question, “Why does current media coverage focus merely on the negative impacts of climate change rather than on ways to deal with it?” – well, it is a cliche but all too true that in journalism, the phrase “bad news” is redundant. It is not at all just in regard to climate change that the media chooses eye-catching stories of dramatic catastrophe, over the day-to-day hard slogging of mitigation. I worked once on reconciling two sides of a very well publicized conflict. At last we had an agreement and the parties put together a press release and even a press conference replete with tasty refreshments. In a rather large Canadian city, one sole journalist came and then apologized that he could only stay a few minutes – there was some kind of a demonstration down the street. Had the negotiations fallen apart and the sides gone back to finger-pointing and worse, all the croissants and coffee would have been gobbled up and we’d have made the front page or evening news. Twas ever thus.

  • I think its clear that the world has got a problem,
    which is why I made this animation, to try and raise awareness of climate change;

  • Meera Mahase

    I agree with Megumi Nishikura social media can only be seen as a tool to inform and educate today’s society on what is taking place in our Planet. It is up to people and it is up to their actions that can make a change. However, social media can be used as a foundation for education that can influence our actions and the steps we take