Opinion: Does Social Media “Like” Conservation?

Environmental issues that resonate on an immediate, emotional level seem to play better on sites like Facebook than do longer-term, but no less serious problems.

By Lahiru S. Wijedasa, Sheema Abdul Aziz, Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, and Gopalasamy R. Clements | April 8, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, FACEBOOK.COMSocial media is a powerful tool that can galvanize public support for conservation action. In a letter published in Science last October, researchers used an example of animal abuse in the context of the illegal wildlife trade to highlight the power of social media in bringing public attention to conservation issues (L. T. P. Ngiem et al., Science, 338:192-93, 2012). Based on our experience with Facebook, however, we caution that people are more likely to respond to issues that affect them on an immediate emotional level, which appears to be limited to certain aspects of conservation.

In 2011, we established a Facebook page  to increase awareness of Malaysia’s wildlife and conservation issues, with 107 posts related to deforestation, poaching, human-wildlife conflicts, and species over a one-year period (August 2011–August 2012). According to Facebook Insights, which provides metrics on content consumption, our page content reached a mean of 157 (S.D. ± 219) “unique people,” a measure of the incursion of our posts into new Facebook feeds though reposting, daily.

On August 13, 2012, we “shared” a local tour operator’s photograph of snorkelers harassing an endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas)—our first post depicting animal abuse. The post went viral, and by the following day reached 63,631 unique people (see graph), a staggering 405-fold increase in our daily total reach. The issue drew the attention of the media which featured our page. There was a public outcry, the Malaysian Fisheries Department investigated the incident, and the tour operator issued a public apology.

We wanted to test whether public concern for biodiversity conservation would increase after this sudden influx of attention. One week later, we posted a photo of tiger claws being sold in our local market. This story only attracted 1,075 unique people (see graph).

Daily total reach for our research group Facebook page over a time period (Jan.1—Nov. 30, 2012)FIGURE COURTESY OF WIJEDASA ET AL.




Our observations on engaging the public through conservation messaging on Facebook suggests that social media platforms are most useful when they engage the public on a personal, emotional level. This is easier for conservation issues that cause moral outrage (e.g. animal abuse) compared to intangible long-term conservation issues (e.g. deforestation, illegal wildlife trade).

For such long-term, less immediately emotional conservation issues, social media may have a greater impact as a complementary tool in specific awareness campaigns. For example, photos of the popular Chinese ex-basketball player Yao Ming’s visit to Africa to create awareness about rhino and elephant poaching have been widely distributed on Facebook, bringing attention to the poaching crisis among netizens that otherwise might not have been reached by the usual conservation campaigns. Ultimately, we should strive towards circulating material on social media that enhances public recognition of conservation as a moral imperative.

Lahiru S. Wijedasa is a Senior Arborist at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Rimba, a non-profit research group of biologists conducting research on threatened species and ecosystems to help decision-makers reduce (or even halt) threats to ecosystems and species in Malaysia. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is a PhD candidate at James Cook University and a Research Associate at University Malaya. Sheema Abdul Aziz and Clements are co-founders of Rimba. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz is an Associate Professor at the School of Geography of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

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Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

April 10, 2013

I've been putting a lot of time into studying ways the media frames issues, and I'm making a lot of progress in uderstanding what reporters and op-ed writers and niche editorialists pick up on, what they play up, what they play down, what they simply mention.

Whether the public news media are "controlled" by a manipulative hand, or controlled, as it were, by an invisible hand, scientists who would hope to see the public informed of the objective scientific evidence behind certain problems of mankind would do well to seek an understanding of what "sells" media.

if it is true that reporters merely need to frame things in a way that "sells" news, then scientists wanting that news to reflect the highest and best impirical evidence of how things actually work in the real world, would do well to help make the real (empirically verifiable) facts interesting. This is, after all, what lobbyists, hired by special big money interest do best, frame the issues in such a way as to promote public thinking that leads to toward furtherance of the agendas of those special big money interests.

To the extent that scientists speak in language that would impress PhDs, and fly over the heads of the heads of marginally scientifically literate members of the public (as well as many politicians whose expertise lies outside scientifically rigorous research and thinking) is counter-productive.

If those of us who would wish to win a round now and then, in winning over the public to supporting solutions based on rigorous scientific evidence -- as opposed to framings based on falsifications, misinformation and sound bites -- then more scientists need to learn to think like journalists. By that I mean to argue that scientists who think like scientist must ALSO learn to think and correspond in ways that are appealing and compelling at less esoteric levels -- albeit in ways that gain support for solutions that accord with rigorous empirical findings.

More scientists need to become adept at wearing two hats: one the hat of a person capable of rigid adherence to accuracy and exhaustion of detail, and of rigorous thinking upon the meaning of that detail; and, the other hat being that of a person who grasps informal techniques of persuasion of less scientifically oriented members of society.

To assume that the disparate role represented by each of those hats is tantamount to admitting defeat before one even tries.

If the big money special interests -- driven by a profit motive -- are expert at creating appealing lies and deceitful distortions, in taking their profit motive case to the public -- can be expert at whipping up support for things that serve their agenda, the SCIENTISTS can compete in winning over marginally scientifically literate members of the public to thing in ways that serve to deal with empirical validity.

I've never wanted to see scientists get embroiled in backroom political gaming, if there is any better way. But, by golly, if that were the ONLY way, then I would support it.

Ultimately the question becomes this one: Who best knows and understands the creativity, the people skills, the street smarts that win over support from a majority of members of the public: big money and its highly paid lobbyists; or, scientists with their devotion to dealing with realities behind problems and solutions.

Sitting in an ivory tower, bitching to one's fellow genius peers, and harumphing about how ignorant must be the public that falls for the political and profit-driven interests... is a sure recipe for losing the battle for public support.

For improvement in public thinking in accordance with "good science, is to come about, at least SOME scientists are going to have to learn to play expertly the public persuasion game.

That doesn't mean trying to combat lies and distortions with lies and distortions. It means finding ways to present the scientifically valid spin on things that will whip up some enthusiastic agreement and motivation with respect to sound laws and policies.

Sure that's a tall order.

But isn't everything about science an enormous challenge?

Avatar of: Jeff3960


Posts: 1

April 13, 2013

I think that one of the scientist problem is that : Sciences are involved in trying to show and demonstrate what is true  ,Sciences are less involved in persuading people to fight for these truths .

It is not only science but LIFE ( in which science is involved ) which is a constant challenge . 

Avatar of: ZuL


Posts: 1

April 9, 2015

Nice work on looking at impact from social media. I am not a fond of social media, but I think both pictures posses different type of stimulus that can evoke emotions. If we try to look at both pictures from dimension perspectives of emotion, the first picture is more arousing. Without doubt social media is a magnificent tools in distributing message or campaign. But I think the 'right' material is more essential to achieve certain objectives.

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