Can we tweet our way to biodiversity conservation?

As both work and social lives have moved almost entirely online, I’ve found myself more aware than ever of the constant influx of information streaming on the Internet. Much of this information comes from Twitter. I’m a bit late to the Twitter game, as I’ve only recently begun to actively use this platform, but in the past couple of months it’s become a useful way to access news, politics, and discussions about racism and social justice (check out the hashtags #BlackAFinSTEM and #BlackBirders!)

Since Twitter was created in 2006, the iconic blue bird has accompanied political declarations by major world leaders, clear explanations of tough-to-understand scientific papers for the general public, and tidbits of celebrity gossip. Twitter facilitates quick and easy communication within and between a variety of fields, including environmental science and political advocacy.

Even environmentalists value screen time

There is a lot of information on social media, and not all of the information attracts the same amount of attention. Tweeters must compete for the public’s attention by sharing socially contagious messages. Just like a contagious disease, socially contagious messaging is more likely to be spread widely through reads, likes, and retweets.


Social media has become a primary medium for engaging and activating public opinion. Those looking to influence social media users must compete for their attention by producing the most socially contagious content.

eNGOs use Twitter to educate, advocate, and call citizens to action on environmental issues. Historically, eNGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Ocean Conservancy, and the Nature Conservancy have served as a bridge between policymakers and citizen activists. They’ve successfully advocated for a variety of environmental policies, like the end of commercial whaling and the Montreal Protocol to ban substances that deplete the ozone layer.

eNGOs have spearheaded highly successful social media campaigns. The World Wildlife Fund spearheaded the use of the #EndangeredEmoji to spread awareness of biodiversity loss and increase fundraising. More recently, eNGOs have raised awareness and support for the Great American Outdoors Act through the hashtag #Fund LWCF.

However, popularity doesn’t necessarily correlate with effective policy and action. Not everyone uses social media, so popularity on a specific platform doesn’t mean an issue is widely understood or supported by the entire general population. A high number of retweets doesn’t necessarily correlate with changed behavior and political action.

Tweet-ology

Ecologist and environmental advocate Daniel Barrios-O’Neill conducted an in-depth study of tweets from nine major eNGOs to determine how well their social media advocacy correlated with the most pressing obstacles to biodiversity conservation as well as the organizations’ own mission statements.  He also aimed to determine whether positive or negative emotional language was correlated with socially contagious tweets.

Dr. Barrios-O’Neill found that for the most part, tweets corresponded well with eNGOs’ mission statements. However, tweets did not provide a proportional representation to threats facing biodiversity. The three issues with the most tweets were climate change, plastic pollution, and overexploitation. While climate change and overexploitation are major threats to biodiversity, they are not the only major threats. Despite the large contribution of urbanization, agriculture, and invasive species to the biodiversity crisis, these issues were rarely mentioned on Twitter.

Negative emotional language made tweets more socially contagious, suggesting that people are more likely to be drawn to, and to share, tweets about issues that appear morally clear and evoke an emotional response.

It’s easy to grab the attention of a distracted social-media user with a picture of a bird trapped in a plastic net, or a sea turtle’s stomach filled with a plastic bag. Humans are wired to feel empathy with suffering, and we most clearly recognize suffering in other people and in vertebrate animals. These images are startling and push us to immediately identify an issue as right or wrong, while encouraging simple, individual actions in response. We can quickly do our part by retweeting an image and switching to reusable water bottles, shopping bags, or straws.

However, although plastic pollution does pose environmental threats, the amount of social media space devoted to this issue is much greater than its actual, measurable negative impacts.

A potentially socially-contagious photo of a turtle eating plastic. Source: LYNETTELYNN_D, flickr.com

Much biodiversity loss is attributable to issues like invasive species, large-scale agriculture, and urbanization, which are constantly in flux. They are complex to understand and complex to solve. Agriculture and urbanization are more likely than plastic pollution to provide benefits to humans in the form of economic growth or food security. Combatting invasive species is difficult and sometimes involves extermination programs that can be viewed as morally ambiguous by the public.

Twitter is meant to provide shiny bits of easily shareable information, but the biodiversity crisis involves complex issues that can’t be solved by individual, one-sized-fits all approaches. Social media is powerful in its ability to quickly spread and popularize information and issues. However, in order to effectively turn this popularity into change, we may need to learn to leverage social media into engagement on a deeper level.

Percentage of urbanization per country around the globe. This threat is less tangible and more complex than others shared on social media. Source: Wikipedia

How to dig deeper

Social media is useful for keeping up-to-date with what’s happening broadly in the environmental sector. For those of us who study, advocate, or simply appreciate the environment, it’s a great starting point from which to figure out where to dig deeper.

The messages and links shared on Twitter are often inspired by scientific studies published in academic journals. These papers can be difficult to read, but going straight to the source will give you a clearer picture of all the complexities surrounding an issue. This article has some great advice on how to read and understand science writing, while you can find reading comprehension strategies that scientists themselves use here.

You can still use Twitter as a resource to understand these studies, just use it strategically and wisely! Look for tweets directly from authors of the papers you read, and for those from their colleagues to understand the scientific communities’ reactions.

The best science writing distills information from scientists into a format that is more easily digestible by the general public, without watering down the complexities. Sciseeker finds and aggregates the best science writing found on the Internet. And, of course, envirobites always has your back for some reliable narratives on cutting-edge environmental science!

Whatever you choose to read, remember that knowing about isolated environmental issues isn’t enough, we must learn about the underlying systematic causes, then act on them. We can do this by spending time outside getting to know our local ecosystems, voting and participating in local politics, and making small lifestyle changes whenever possible. Regardless of how socially contagious a picture or carefully-worded tweet may be, the deepest and most impactful progress comes from the less-glamorous commitment to life-long self-education and a long-term commitment to daily action.

Primary Article: Barrios-O’Neill, D. Focus and social contagion of environmental organization advocacy on Twitter. Conservation Biology (2020). doi: 10.1111/cobi.13564.

Featured Image: What’s happening on Twitter? source: Wikipedia

Reviewed by: Kristen Brown and Laura Schifman

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Sarah Shainker

Sarah Shainker

Sarah is a first year Phd student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham with interests in evolutionary ecology, conservation genetics, citizen science, and macroalgae. Before beginning grad school, she worked as an outdoor educator in the north Georgia mountains and as a coastal resource management volunteer for Peace Corps Philippines. Twitter: @SarahShainker

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