Social media is undoubtably a great tool for spreading environmental awareness to the masses, its massive outreach and accessible format makes it easy for almost anyone to educate themselves on important issues. However, this very feature may be the reason that landscapes such as Porthcurno get inundated with visitors, beyond their capacity. The easiness of scrolling and liking photos, especially beautiful photography of sunsets and clear beaches, makes people want to visit, without much consideration of the environmental impacts.
Impact of social media on the environment
The effectiveness of the internet to send messages and spread awareness should not be understated, for example the invention of Facebook groups and Instagram pages allows a bigger outreach than most in person methods, creating almost instant correspondence between large groups of people, surpassing the need for a physical meeting to share the same information. Especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has worked wonders to keep environmental movements pushing onwards and still have a presence. Groups like Extinction Rebellion and activists such as Greta Thunberg have been able to continue taking action against climate change with their online presence, as well as encouraging and educating others.
Using social media to educate on climate change
The format of platforms like Instagram and Facebook are instrumental in remotely educating people on climate issues. They are designed to be user friendly, with digestible and easy to read pieces of information that can be understood by most people. For example, the aesthetics of Instagram posts are generally eye catching and the ease of being able to share a post to your story or send it to a friend means that information spreads rapidly. Because of this, environmental issues can be inclusive of all types of people, and do not require a lot of technical expertise or climate science knowledge to understand.
However, this aesthetically pleasing, eye catching format, can have the opposite effect on the environment than is wanted. The accessibility of Instagram posts often means that people just look at the picture, especially of a pretty landscape, like the post and decide they want to visit the location, then continue scrolling without considering of environmental message that might accompany it. Furthermore, the bite sized chunks of information that Instagram and Facebook provides often do not effectively illustrate the bigger picture of environmental issues. Posts can be written by anyone and regularly do not include sources, which means there is also a credibility issue. If they do include sources, many people will not read further into the issue than the post as links provided are not clickable or easily accessible. This can mean that people have a very limited/ distorted view of climate change when they try to educate themselves via social media.
Researching is key to unearthing the reality behind a ‘climate change’ post
An example of this is the “share to plant a tree” posts, where if you like and share the post, the people behind it will allegedly plant a tree in response. This is problematic because there is often no evidence to suggest they are planting the trees, but furthermore it detracts away from the other important environmental information, as people believe they are doing enough to tackle climate change by simply interacting with the one post. In reality it takes a lot more effort than that.
This also highlights the importance of doing one’s own research, which social media posts usually do not openly encourage, as a simple search would point to the fact that, even though planting trees is a good and effective in reducing CO2 levels, at this point in time it is not the most effective way to reverse climate change.
Pretty pictures are great advertising but there is a downside………
Especially with beaches like Porthcurno, where the internet is full of pretty pictures, social media becomes an advertising ground for visiting the beach rather than spreading awareness around protection of the coastal landscape. In Cornwall, there is an increase in people posting what used to be only locally known beaches, which in the summer offered a haven for locals wanting a break from the increased visitor numbers. As these places are usually quite small, they cannot cope with the sheer visitor numbers and footfall that social media exposure brings. Increased footfall also means increased littering, and more car emissions, which, near the coast will leak into the marine environment and cause harm to our local species and ecosystem.
Tourists and visitors who are not local may not understand the etiquette surrounding coasts, which can be bad for certain species. For example, our much-loved grey seal population in Cornwall faces the threat of disturbance (especially during busier months). People try to approach and take photos or selfies with resting seals instead of keeping their distance, driving them back into the water when they are not ready which can cause injuries and sadly lead to fatalities.
Using social media to drive positive change
To conclude, when used to its full capacity, I believe that social media has a positive effect on climate change as it is invaluable for sharing information and driving change. However, more needs to be done to encourage people to do their own research, social media posts should be a steppingstone to encourage further conversation and research, providing links to bone fide and well researched sources which draw attention to the biggest issues in the climate and how individuals can have the most positive impact themselves. Without this, posts can be misleading or draw attention away from real issues, only telling half the story.
Maeve Cushla, Young Curator, PK Porthcurno