Explore how social media content is expanding the horizons for researchers in the field of sustainable science and its impact.
As over 50% of the global population is engaged in social media, social scientists are utilizing user-generated data to analyze public attitudes toward the environment and sustainability. Nevertheless, numerous obstacles jeopardize the success of this field, as per a recent report by an international research group. The main issue is the restricted access to data caused by stringent terms of service, platform closures, data tampering, censorship, and regulations.
In a recent report published in the journal One Earth, a research team comprising 17 members conducted the first comprehensive evaluation of environmental social media research and its impact on sustainability science.
Misinterpretation of ideas
According to Derek Van Berkel, one of the three lead authors of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, social media is becoming an increasingly influential source for ideas related to climate change and the environment. Platforms like Reddit and Facebook have become digital landscapes that shape and mold many of these concepts, shared by users within online communities and through social connections. By understanding how these ideas are formed, science communicators can develop more effective environmental messaging and address gaps where information may be absent or misrepresented.
The research report advocates for the replacement of the current negative feedback loop with a more positive “virtuous cycle.” According to Johannes Langemeyer, co-lead author of the study and a member of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, achieving this requires the collaboration of social media companies, researchers, and the general public.
Social Media is Powerful
Co-lead study author Andrea Ghermandi, who works at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Haifa in Israel, believes that social media data has the potential to revolutionize sustainability research practices, particularly in the social sciences, with an impact comparable to that of Earth observation in the environmental sciences. The study suggests that social media data analyses can support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that everyone can enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. To achieve these goals, the study authors argue that large-scale, cross-country efforts and detailed data are required to tailor sustainability initiatives.
The Bottom Line
The authors of the report assert that the current business models of social media platforms have created a negative feedback loop, where user data is treated as a commodity that can be bought or sold for profit. To gain more trust and cooperation, sustainability researchers must adopt high ethical standards, including inclusivity, transparency, privacy protection, and responsible use of data. The shared values and objectives of working towards a sustainable future may provide a common ground for collaboration that is necessary to fully leverage the benefits of social media data.