Breaking through digital echo chambers
‘Echo chambers’, ‘filter bubbles’, ‘information silos”… sound familiar?
The demise of mass media has created issues for environmental advocates seeking to raise the agenda of ‘inconvenient messages’. Our contemporary digital communication landscape has created opportunities for individuals but has also encouraged online communities that can act to reinforce and amplify views.
Environmental advocates, like all wishing to promote an issue with broader public benefits, are asking how to get the message ‘out there’.
How do we break through digital echo chambers and all the noise?
Media studies expert Dr. Mark Andrejevic described the swirling data around us as the ‘infoglut’. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 50 times the amount of information that was available in 2011.
With urgent actions needed to address issues such as climate change, we need effective contemporary communication strategies to increase awareness and motivate sustainable behaviours.
My recent research, conducted with Prof. Chris Riedy, indicates some useful digital strategies to broaden engagement around sustainability.
The action research, conducted through meat reduction campaigns involved my participation in key strategy decisions throughout the international Meat Free Week campaign – a campaign that investigates food sustainability issues surrounding meat production, such as intensive water use, high phosphorus use, and the loss of biodiversity.
Environmental messages receive traction in social media networks through being associated with complementary frames. The Meat Free Week campaigns pushed out multiple messages including those around sustainability, health, animal welfare and appealing food. An exploration of the social media trails through interviews with campaign participants revealed that environmental messages could reach and engage with individuals who initially connected to the campaign for other reasons.
The heightened agenda was achieved through individuals referring back to the campaign’s website which provided information on the multiple impacts of meat, or through high-profile individuals who incorporated multiple messages in their posts.
Celebrities and experts can make their mark in effective environmental social media advocacy. While the legitimacy of some celebrity involvement can be critiqued, the research indicates there are key roles for high-profile individuals who embody suitable frames and, importantly, are seen as authentic in their promotion of “inconvenient messages.”
As an ambassador for Meat Free Week, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver embodies many of the findings. Jamie Oliver, as persona, avatar or brand, means more to most than just ‘UK chef’. He is associated with causes such as health and food equity, and is perceived as being ‘trusted’ and 'do(ing) good ’.
Jamie Oliver was the individual with the greatest social media engagement over the two years of the Meat Free Week Twitter campaign. Interviews with those engaging with Jamie Oliver indicated that his involvement motivated them to promote the campaign to raise awareness of issues such as the environmental and animal welfare impacts of meat production.
Importantly, social media advocacy is assisted campaigners and communicators to connect and meld broader communities through reaching out to groups that have other priorities. Identifying influential and respected individuals who represent distinct messages can be greatly useful in our noisy world.
Our research therefore points to a number of key strategies to be used in the process of effective environmental media advocacy:
- The use of multiple complementary messages in a social media campaign
- The integration of environmental messages into campaign branding, primary social media platform and posts
- Enlisting high-profile and respected individuals or organizations who represent multiple frames as influencers
- Providing initial templates for social media posts that feature environmental and other major messages, and visuals to help facilitate dissemination
To read more about the research process and our findings, read the full version of the article, Celebrities, credibility, and complementary frames: raising the agenda of sustainable and other ‘inconvenient’ food issues in social media campaigning, in the Communication, Research and Practice Journal, here.