Social media, whether we like it or not, has become a pervasive part of our lives. With people globally on average spending two and a half hours every day on social media, it’s no surprise that companies, charities and organisations have started using social platforms as a way of promoting their agenda – or increasing their customer base.
With the wealth of data harvested each day from social networking users, companies are able to target campaigns at specific audiences as never before. They are increasingly able to tailor their promotional material to grab the attention of a set demographic of people. Like any advert, the aim of their content is to persuade you to act in a way you might not otherwise have done – whether it’s your choice of shampoo, which way to vote or whether to vote at all.
Some of the most successful social media campaigns have been environmental ones: and although we know that raising awareness of climate change, plastic pollution and deforestation are crucial to get public support for environmental efforts, it raises an ethical question. Is it acceptable to run manipulative social media campaigns for a good cause? And crucially – is it possible to run a non-manipulative green campaign that is successful?
Understanding just how powerful social media can be as a tool is key to answering this question. Recent years have given us no shortage of controversial examples; a recent study has examined in depth the way that social media (over)spending influenced the 2016 Brexit referendum. In the lead up to the vote, the VoteLeave campaign gathered data from Facebook on all the people who had ‘liked’ Eurosceptic pages in the year running up to the referendum. This gave them a data set on the type of people – location, age, interests – who were interacting with Eurosceptic pages.
They extrapolated this demographic to give them details of the type of people who shared the same demographic, but had not shown any interest in the VoteLeave campaign. According to its campaign director, they then targeted these people, ‘a group of about 9 million people defined as: between 35-55, outside London and Scotland, excluding UKIP supporters and associated characteristics, and some other criteria’, with posts that used shocking statistics and asked questions designed to influence them to vote leave.
While no-one likes to think that they’re influenced by adverts, it is scary how effective this kind of campaigning can be. The study mentioned above estimated that around 800,000 people were likely to have been influenced by VoteLeave’s social media campaign, just in the last few days when VoteLeave was illegally overspending. While this has come to prominence in a political context, the same kind of data analysis and audience targeting goes into pretty much any paid-for social media campaign – rest assured that Greenpeace and WWF are using demographic data to target people who are similar to their current supporters in order to maximise the effectiveness of their campaigns.
Manipulation plays a role most forms of advertising. It’s no longer sufficient – if it ever was – to simply list the features of your product. Instead, advertising often trades on implied benefits: with the product you’ll be cooler, more successful, or more likely to find love. Some charities take a different tack, using shocking images and footage to generate a feeling of guilt in their audience in order to make them ask themselves ‘what can I do to fix this?’. Environmental campaigns are, on the whole, little different: since Blue Planet 2 aired we have been flooded with images of plastic waste chocking oceans and animals alike. It’s difficult to think of a green social media campaign that hasn’t involved, or alluded to, pictures of devastation.
So, is there an argument for non-manipulative green campaigns? An interesting comparison can be made between two WRAP campaigns on plastic pollution: one using the shock tactics favoured by environmental campaigns, and one using less direct imagery. #PlasticPlanet used images of the natural world distorted by plastic, while #PlasticorPlanet put two images side by side and asked the audience to decide which was which. #PlasticorPlanet provokes thought: the fact that we cannot tell which is the point of the advert.
How well did the different campaigns perform? The first option, where the shocking images were used, generated 26.6 million impressions: the second less than half of that, at 12 million. There is a clear difference here in the momentum of the campaign – perhaps because #PlasticorPlanet doesn’t elicit the guilt that the first images produce.
A ray of light
However, there are indications that, in the right circumstances, non-manipulative social media campaigns can be effective: the #EarthtoParis campaign, which took place in the run up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, simply asked people to use the hashtag to show their support for the signing of the agreement. The hashtag hit nearly 1 billion impressions, and was the top trend on Twitter across both days of the summit, reaching people and organisations that would otherwise have remained out of the loop. This shows that goodwill campaigning can be successful, but it requires established networks and the support of international figureheads – something that isn’t easy for the environmental sector to achieve.
If a campaign like #EarthtoParis can generate such a huge amount of interest, then there does seem to be an argument that non-manipulative campaigning techniques can succeed in bringing people together under the environmental umbrella. With the millions of followers that organisations such as WWF and Greenpeace have amassed, the impressions made by the posts that their followers see surely have a wide reach, without resorting to more underhand techniques.
The real question here is what matters to us more: that we change the behaviour of the public by targeting them manipulatively, or that we rely on the environmental community to spread the word organically, and encourage change over time though their daily actions and choices. Should ethical practice be sacrificed in pursuit of urgently needed change?
Change of mind
Part of the answer, inevitably, will be about what works. How many people cut their use of single-use plastic as a result of WRAP’s #PlasticPlanet campaign? If we had better data on the impact of different types of campaign, we would have an argument for choosing one approach over another. But even if they’re effective, campaigns that work on the level of emotion rather than reason may be a double-edged sword: they may change some people’s minds, but at the expense of any claim to the moral high ground.
As someone who spends their working day online spreading positive messages about environmental outcomes, I believe that there is much to be said for informative, encouraging social media campaigns. We’ve seen campaigns like #CleanRiversCleanerSeas take off – but I suspect that greater reach would be possible if I were to employ the more manipulative techniques that I see in use every day.
Given the urgency of the environmental problems we face, I am truly conflicted by this topic. I strongly believe that we must stick to our ethical values, preserve our credibility, and seek to persuade rather than inveigle people into appreciating the need for change. But I can’t help feeling this means proceeding with one hand tied behind our backs compared with the approach adopted by opponents. With time in short supply, can we afford to take the slower path to change?