Becoming Collectively Aware of Climate Change

An interview with new media researcher Sabine Niederer about online debates on climate change

Screenshot, Twitter 2014 Screenshot, Twitter 2014

While climate change seems to be intangible, nowhere and everywhere at the same time, it is entangled with everything and everyone. Against this backdrop, the Berliner Gazette’s 20th anniversary initiative MORE WORLD stimulates a critical dialogue. The goal is to better understand and grasp the causes of climate change through entanglements of ecosystems with communal, state and global structures – and ultimately to explore possibilities to tackle climate change from within such interconnections. In the following interview, the Amsterdam-based new media researcher Sabine Niederer reflects on how online debates are mirroring the world view of those, who are, for the first time in history, collectively becoming aware of actually being affected by climate change.

Krystian Woznicki: Former US President Barack Obama tweeted in 2014: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” It was re-tweeted by more than 4,000 people and liked by more than 3,000. I wonder whether and how this statement is reflected in your studies of climate change debate online, which you pursue through search engines, social media and Wikipedia.

Sabine Niederer: Colleagues and I started studying the climate change debate online in 2007. Over the years, we have seen how certain specific events cause heightened activity in the online climate debate. These can be events such as extreme weather, but also conferences such as the UN Conference of the Parties (COP), political events such as Trump announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and talks and social media posts by influential figures (political or otherwise). The urgency that also speaks from Obama’s tweet certainly resonates in climate change since Trump became president of the USA, which, as we have seen in our research, has sparked a tremendous surge in activity around the topic of climate change. Similarly, the youth climate movement, with influential spokespeople such as Greta Thunberg, speaks of climate action as something that needs to happen now. Such messages definitely resonate online.

KW: The generation Obama refers to is also one that can be said to be the first to experience the effects of online debates. And perhaps the first to have access to a systematic analysis of them. Thus, there seems to be a particular self-reflexivity at play with regard to climate change awareness. How has self-reflexivity shaped networked content analysis in general?

SN: Networked Content Analysis as an approach builds on content analysis, which is a highly reflexive research practice with a strong tradition across disciplines. It looks at cultural artefacts and media objects to assess the zeitgeist by looking at the representation of issues, viewpoints, people, places and objects. It is sometimes regarded as mostly quantitative, as it traditionally also includes media monitoring practices. Content Analysis in the tradition of Klaus Krippendorf, which I have built my approach on, is highly inclusive of media types and equally reflexive. It has a strong tradition in the monitoring of the climate change debate across media and in particular in the news, so the study of the debate is not that new in fact. Moreover, Networked Content Analysis, as inspired by Philosopher Bruno Latour, ‘follows the actors’. This means we do not use our position as researchers to ‘translate’ the actual language used to discuss climate change into pre-made, a priori categories, but rather that we choose to capture and reflect the richness and specificity of the debate and the groups that form around it.

KW: If self-reflexivity shaped your networked content analysis of climate change, then how are the benefits of this reflected in your findings with regard to what it means to work from within a communication space that for the first time in history enables something like collective awareness to arise about a global problem? And a communication space that at the same time also seems to define the limits for the emergence of any kind of collective awareness? With limits I refer, last but not least, to the critique of the online communication space as deficient, ill-constructed, manipulated, etc. – a critique that shapes an increasing number of discussions.

SN: The limitations of the large social media platforms are evident, and as a researcher it is problematic that after the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, the platform has closed down research access even further, rather than opening it up to public and scholarly scrutiny. When working with social media data, we include the workings of the platform in the analysis. This is what I refer to as the “technicity” of content, by which I mean the technical specificities of how a platform serves, ranks, formats and sometimes even co-authors content. Comparative analyses that take place across platforms are particularly suitable to showing how different platforms do this, which also results in different cultures of use and even visual vernaculars. A new media researcher of the climate change debate studies both the topic and the platform in tandem.

KW: Speaking of self-reflexivity from a different angle: the Internet is considered a major “climate killer”. How is this circumstance reflected in the online debates on climate change?

SN: This is a topic that I wrote about a few years ago with photographer and filmmaker Raymond Taudin Chabot in a paper that explored responses to “the cloud” from the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The cloud is a misleading metaphor that sounds ephemeral, transparent, lightweight, and endless, when in fact the cloud requires a colossal infrastructure with a tremendous footprint. We have found many critical responses to the cloud in the realm of the arts, and it is worth looking at the work by Ingrid Burrington, Metahaven, Trevor Paglen, Timo Arnall, and many others who address this in very diverse ways.

When thinking about the online debate, it is important to note that there is not one debate taking place on one internet. In fact, for each issue we encounter platform specificity in the ways the issues are represented.

KW: Search engines, social media and Wikipedia are often seen as spaces where new forms of collective knowledge can emerge – and collective ignorance at the same time. How do these two phenomena look and how do they relate to each other through the lens of networked content analysis?

SN: In my research I don’t work with such a dichotomy, as in reality online debates are much more pluriform than that and I do not study the debate to decide who is ignorant and who is knowledgeable. What is of interest to our work is which terms, images, metaphors and which sources of information resonate in different parts of the debate and in different platforms. Platform vernaculars include not only a different visual language per platform, but also a different body of references. Which spaces refer mostly to government, and which are more ideological? And which are, for instance, more lifestyle-oriented? The beautiful thing about Wikipedia is of course that every article grants access to its version history. For researchers, this enables a view on collaborative knowledge in the making, or more straightforwardly, on the evolution of a topic. Projects such as Contropedia were developed with the aim to give a view on the contested parts of controversial articles, for instance those related to climate change.

KW: So what can one learn about climate change and the debate around it from reading Contropedia?

SN: We can learn to identify particular points of contestation as well as the rhythm of such contestation and the drivers of such activity. Debates can be very dynamic for a while and then at other times fall silent, for instance because there is an apparent consensus or – worse – an indifference towards an issue. This changes over time, and Wikipedia provides a view behind the scenes of these dynamics.

KW: What can we learn about the discourse of “climate change denial” through the lens of networked content analysis?

SN: We have studied climate change denial and skepticism at different points in time – through the annual Heartland Conferences and their keynote speakers, by looking at the position of skepticism in the age of climate adaptation, and by encountering climate denial when studying disinformation online. What Networked Content Analysis affords is a broader look at the topics of skepticism of these actors in the debate. We started looking into skepticism because we were wondering: are the influential spokespeople of climate skepticism only skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, or do they have other issues they are skeptical of? And in some instances, we could indeed find that certain prominent climate skeptics indeed held skeptical views on other issues, such as the dangers of second-hand smoke, Creutzfeldt-Jacob’s disease, and other issues unrelated to climate.

KW: That’s an interesting point. What is your conclusion?

SN: Needless to say, climate skeptics have been critiqued in the past because of ties to the oil and tobacco industries, and historian of science Naomi Oreskes and others have written extensively about that. My conclusion was that at the time when skeptics were starting to organize themselves through annual climate skepticism conferences, their important climate experts could in fact be considered skepticism experts, with climate change among their issues.

KW: Is climate change skepticism here the symptom of a larger web of topics whose common denominator is skepticism?

SN: As far as the “web of topics” is concerned, from the perspective of a researcher interested in social issues, it is indeed quite common to look at neighboring issues and ask how, why, when, and also by whom these issues are connected. A close proximity of issues can be topical (such as sustainable farming being often discussed in relation to climate change or green energy), causally driven, for instance when climate changed-induced food scarcity may lead to migration, or perhaps campaign-driven, in which a message may couple an issue such as climate change with that of gender equality. In the case of skepticism, climate change and second-hand smoke were indeed connected by way of a certain skeptic, writing skeptically on both topics.

KW: As Patrick Galey remarks, as much as 20 percent of all tweets containing the phrases “global warming” or “climate change” were generated by bots. Bots are considered a major source of misinformation – besides individual users who tend to knowingly or unknowingly misinterpret scientific data to suit their standpoint. I wonder what role bots play in the context of your work and networked content analysis in general.

SN: Bots are an interesting type of actor in the climate change debate. You characterize them as sources of misinformation, which may be true for their role on certain platforms. However, if you look at Wikipedia, bots play a crucial role in streamlining, editing and linking information on climate change. Without bots, Wikipedia would probably be an illegible mess. Each research project that makes use of online materials calls for a situated approach in which we decide how to deal with bots and other non-human actors we may encounter, and explain why we chose a particular approach.

KW: Speaking of search engines, social media and Wikipedia as potential spaces of new forms of collective knowledge: one of the most important assumptions in this context is that these are also always spaces of new forms of cooperation. People get together in those spaces, share information, create something together, etc. The question of cooperation also looms large in the context of climate change. The goal of the MORE WORLD project, for instance, is to better understand and grasp the causes of climate change through entanglements of ecosystems with communal, state and global structures, and ultimately to explore possibilities to tackle climate change from within such interconnections – as enablers of cross-border cooperation among all of us who are affected by climate change. Studying the climate change debate online, have you encountered such potentialities for cross-border cooperation?

SN: The climate change debate, also online, crosses borders among platforms, fields of expertise, professions, geographical regions, and has done so for decades. Of course, we have also found that certain voices like to flock together in ‘comfort zones’, but these spaces are not uncritical, as that term might suggest. In particular in the solution space of the debate, I see room for the development of a shared language which could enable even more crossover or cross-border collaborative work which is necessary.

KW: Do you see new forms of social organization emerging from within the online sphere? And are these new forms of social organization already becoming crucial in the face of climate change?

SN: These new forms of collaborative action have been thoroughly theorized in work on organized networks, collective and connective action. What I find inspiring is that when we look at the particular platforms and how they present ways forward for tackling climate change, we see how people take it upon themselves to share interesting resources, and also try to take personal responsibility by working on and promoting a sustainable lifestyle. While it is easy to be cynical about picture-perfect online platform presentations of climate change, I personally like the pluriformity of the climate debate and of climate action. The willingness to share expertise and exchange resources can only be welcomed.

KW: One of the mythologized traits of online media is their speed. They say, for instance, “tweets move faster than disaster”, e.g. when facing a hurricane that ravages a region from East to West. This notion has been used to promote online media as an “early warning system”. But does this make sense in the context of climate change, where slow, long-term processes with delayed effects define the character of the threat?

SN: Yes, in our research we often see that Twitter moves so fast that it is faster than the news, and of course at times also becomes news when tweets are featured in news articles or tv news. You ask about the speed of the issue, and I think the issue of climate change has now sped up tremendously. Even looking only at political goals and their deadlines, the youth climate movement is stressing how the time for action is now, and if we look at extreme weather events today, these are all discussed as timely and urgent now.

KW: Returning to what we have discussed regarding Obama’s tweet, the generation he refers to is also one that can be said to be the first to experience the effects of online debates on the formation of a collective consciousness. Is networked content analysis also some sort of crowd psychology analysis?

SN: Answering this, I would like to reflect on how we address the entanglement between climate change and its impact on online media and our everyday lives. The visual methodologies collective is a group of researchers, designers, and critical makers, strongly rooted in the humanities and the arts, and our work in part consists of studying issues such as climate change through its mediation. We do not study climate change itself, in fact we would not be able to, as we are not trained in climate science or related fields of study. What we can contribute is a mapping of its debate across platforms and also in particular locations. For participatory and location-based data projects I founded the Citizen Data Lab in 2014, in which we work with local communities and organizations, with whom we map an issue on site and together interpret and annotate the results and aid in formulating priorities and actions. Rather than looking at large-scale crowd psychology, we engage with the publics of climate change through such on-site workshops or by studying their engagement in the online debate, and by making visible the visual languages of climate change.

KW: Can studies of the climate change debate online be read as an “early warning system” of collective consciousness, indicating the degree of our agency or powerlessness vis-à-vis climate change?

SN: By researching the climate change debate you can identify constant concerns as well as emerging narratives and endangered viewpoints. Furthermore, you can see instances of group formation – to speak with Latour – by people’s and organizations’ shared use of images, terms or references to the same sources. An ‘early warning system’ would require a continuous monitoring system, and that is not our aim. Rather, in our work we study social media platforms as different windows onto an issue such as climate change, where each platform shows us a specific part of the debate, and does so in its own textual and visual language.

Join the MORE WORLD project!

The BG’s 20th anniversary project MORE WORLD invites you to explore together cooperative practices that tackle climate change. To this end, the BG will organize a big conference at the end of the year, offering a diverse program of workshops bringing together people from more than 25 countries. The call for registration invites you to join the workshops. Further information can be found on this website: more-world.berlinergazette.de

About Sabine Niederer

Sabine Niederer is professor of Visual Methodologies at the faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. She is also coordinator of the Digital Methods Initiative at the Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam. Sabine teaches issue mapping (on fashion as a social issue) at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. In 2014, she founded the Citizen Data Lab as an applied research lab specializing in participatory mapping of local issues. During the spring semester of 2011, Sabine was visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, PA. Sabine holds a PhD in the humanities from University of Amsterdam, Department of Media Studies, and an MA in art history from Utrecht University. Sabine has been curator of new media arts since 2001 for the media arts festival Impakt and other programs such as Cinematiek and hoogt4, and has taught (new) media theory at Utrecht University, Willem de Kooning Academy, University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. From 2004 to 2012, Sabine worked at the Institute of Network Cultures with director Geert Lovink, coordinating numerous publications (such as the INC Reader Series and Network Notebooks) and events such as Urban Screens, Video Vortex, Society of the Query, New Network Theory and A Decade of Web Design. See also: www.visualmethodologies.org and www.digitalmethods.org.

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