By Eleanor Flowers • MSc Digital Anthropology
Image by @melissakittyj
#climatechange has over 1,300,000 posts on Instagram. What can a material culture analysis of Instagram teach social scientists and policy makers about public narratives of climate change? On October 8th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC made headlines around the world. The majority of press coverage centred around doomed efforts towards climate change mitigation and on an overarching sense of catastrophe. We all agree it is looking pretty grim. Scientists are making a much better job of working with established journalists to communicate scientific studies than they used to. The fact remains, however, that climate change coverage from leading press establishments tells us only what trained journalists think about the whole thing. Instagram, on the other hand, tells another side of the story. Posts about climate change on Instagram suggest that people feel a range of emotions about climate catastrophe, from grief to fear and moral outrage. Instagram might be a useful log for scientists and communication specialists to research the public grief and moralisation surrounding climate change. Grief is an important word here: a scan of #climatechange on Instagram suggests that grief is the emotion which characterises the closing window of opportunity for climate change mitigation. Morality, on the other hand, is showing itself as a good mechanism for understanding social attitudes towards climate adaptation.
Images of grief
People who use Instagram in the UK and USA are likely to be young, educated and as such are a group of people who are alarmed about climate change. One way or another, Instagrammers are highly engaged with the topic. A 2013 study by Nicholas Smith and Helen Joffe titled How the public engages with global warming: A social representations approach showed that British people tend to use visual, rather than textual, content to depict climate change. Many people who use Instagram have grown up amongst press images of polar bears starving on melting ice caps. It is likely that we have remembered these images better than the accompanying textual warnings from journalists. Instagram’s capacity for visual media resonates with its members in an emotional manner and helps us to grapple with the often-abstract notion of climate change. In other words, Instagram is a country where people talk in pictures and it helps us to deal with environmental loss.
The top posts for #climatechange are of course comprised of scenes depicting floods and sad polar bears. However, people tend also to post beautiful pictures of abundant coral reefs, bright natural landscapes and healthy lion prides with the climate change hashtag. Are these just opportunistically pretty posts that look good on feeds in order to harvest likes and followers, or are they markers of grief? When we grieve our loved ones at funerals do we put up gruesome pictures of them in their final moments, or do we spend hours rifling through their most photographic moments? It seems that environmental loss is most easily stomached by way of a collective celebration of dying beauty. Many social science articles concerned with public attitudes to climate change begin with bafflement at mankind’s seeming incapacity for positive behavioural change in the face of such urgency. Framed as a moment of grief though, this feels a little odd. Grief takes times to process and people’s mourning should be acknowledged and encouraged. Perhaps social media is a good place for our shared grief.
Morality and the Instagram Marketplace
If people use Instagram to grieve our own helplessness, perhaps we are also using it to take action. Psychologists of public attitudes to climate change have previously wondered why moral obligation alone was not enough to move people to change their behaviour. Do we need, instead, to take a morality-in-the-marketplace approach? William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Science for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis. If Nordhaus figured out a way to work with the current marketplace to tax carbon and reduce emissions perhaps anthropological research can do something similar. Let me explain: Instagram is a marketplace. It is a place for people to sell or trade all manner of things, from personal data to flogging a new book or design label. It is an immersive digital experience characterised by trade. When we express ourselves through Instagram, it is within the frame of the marketplace. Perhaps social pressure works so well on Instagram because ideas on the gram are engineered to go viral; to be spreadable and swappable. When this is coupled with moral compulsion, it might just move people to take action.
What is interesting about the #climatechange posts on Instagram is that many of them take the form of social instructions, such as saving water or giving up meat. Often these insta-thoughts on climate change are bound up in other social institutions such as politics or religion. The climate change hashtag, for example, is often used for posts that promote veganism, ditching plastic straws or buying from sustainable fashion brands. These bitesize moral compellers garner hundreds of likes and comments, suggesting that people are able to engage better with climate change when it is visually linked to more tangible ideas such as the marketplace and politics.
UCL’s Why We Post project, a series of ethnographic studies of the use of social media across the world, showed that social media tends to reinforce existing cultural norms. In Southeast Italy, for instance, Razvan Nicolescu’s anthropological research suggested that social media emphasises “the human capacity to conform to social expectations”. Here we have another good ingredient towards a recipe for mobilising useful moral attitudes towards climate action. Think of Instagram as the mixing bowl and of the marketplace as the foundational recipe or order of things. Then throw in the emotional currency of images as well as a pinch of social, moral reinforcement and you might actually start to encourage more people to grieve and then to address climate change. Just maybe, the key is to work with familiar marketplaces to understand both how people respond to climate change and how scientists and governments can speak the same language as the public. Social media will be an important part of the climate conversation.
Joffe, Helen & Smith, Nicholas (2013). How the public engages with global warming: A social representations approach. Public Understanding of Science 0(0), 1–17
Markowitz, Ezra M. & Shariff, Azim F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change 2, 243–247
Nicolescu, Ranzan (2016). Social Media in Southeast Italy. UCL Press: London
Watts, Jonathan (2018). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. the Guardian. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report>