Dublin / London: When we sorted the most controversial articles on Wikipedia ten years ago, George W. Bush was at the top of the list, with global warming at number five. The article on global warming has now been renamed Climate Change, but this remains one of the most polarizing topics of our time and is widely discussed on social media.
This may be because climate change is often presented primarily as a political issue: something you can choose to support or not.
But maybe it’s also because of how social media works. Our recent research shows that polarization in social media is mathematically inevitable.
In addition, this polarization allows online discussions about climate change to be overlaid by culturally oriented arguments about things like diet.
This seems to further cement the idea that climate change is a matter of ideology, which makes it harder to convince people to support action to combat climate change.
The fact that it’s so easy to unfriend or unfollow people you disagree with on social media has accelerated the formation of online echo chambers so that even an algorithmic tool designed to break the bubbles has not can help more.
Don’t get us wrong: we’re huge fans of social media and we probably already tweeted this article by the time you read it.
Social media can be understood as a marketplace of ideas that offers an open forum for the exchange of facts and opinions and, above all, informs the public about their research for scientists.
But polarization can ruin it for everyone.
One example of this is UK bakery chain Greggs’ vegan sausage roll that caused a stir on social media for days when it was launched in the UK in January 2019 for Veganuary, a month-long UK charity campaign aimed at promoting veganism.
Veganuary-oriented social media discussions this year were dominated by arguments about the relative merits of the sausage roll.
To understand the extent of this disorder, we analyzed approximately half a million tweets posted between December 28, 2018 and January 28, 2019, containing the hashtags #vegan, #veganuary, and # veganuary2019, to determine the prevalence of extreme opinions to be determined under the tweets.
About 30 percent of the tweets we analyzed were decidedly pro-vegan, while 20 percent of the tweets used hashtags related to Veganuary to express their protest against veganism.
More importantly, many Twitter users who tweeted about Veganuary specifically said that without the Greggs story, they would not have interfered.
On the one hand, it could be seen as a blessing to pay extra attention to the campaign. On the other hand, the polarization of the online arguments concentrated disproportionately on the subject of vegan sausage rolls.
This shifted a fruitful and logical discussion of the pros and cons of veganism to unproductive struggles that revolved around the perceived threat to people’s identities, linked to what they eat or not eat, and what that means.
Many were quick to take sides, refusing to participate in a conversation, and instead attacking the other side’s personal qualities or intelligence.
That conflict resurfaced on social media a few months later when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-backed agency, published its special report on climate change and land in August 2019.
To measure the level of public engagement for the report, we collected all of the tweets sent in August 2019 that contained the phrase IPCC.
We then used software to analyze the content of around 6,000 English-language tweets in order to filter out the main topics of discussion.
We found that not only was a large portion of the tweets specifically about nutrition in response to the IPCC report, but those tweets also contained the most poisonous and polarized language in the sample.
This is all the more surprising when you consider that diet was only briefly mentioned in the original IPCC report, with no explicit recommendations on meat or milk consumption.
Evidence like this suggests that diet and cooking are now at the heart of a new culture war over climate.
That could be catastrophic for climate protection. Politicians and decision-makers have traditionally tended to avoid issues that are culturally controversial, and the polarization of public opinion has been shown to weaken the accountability of politicians when it comes to making important decisions.
Our work, recently published in Climatic Change, shows how tools like computational topic modeling and sentiment analysis can be used to monitor public discourse on topics like climate events, nutrition and climate policy. This could help policymakers plan more engaging communication strategies, in other words, help them read the room.
Both scientists and science communicators discussing reports like the IPCC need to understand and anticipate more popularly the likelihood of emotionally charged, potentially negative reactions to polarizing topics like climate change, as well as certain polarization areas like diet.
This way, they can convey important information in a way that readers can focus on the essentials.
At a time when so much is uncertain, we are certain of one thing: the importance of experts. We match academics with editors to ensure their advice is clear and accessible. Your donation finances this work. With a monthly donation you not only help us, but all Australians to stay up to date.
By Taha Yasseri Associate Professor, Geary Fellow, Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin and Mary Sanford, PhD Student in Social Data Science, University of Oxford (The Conversation)
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