Jill Hopke is an Assistant Professor of Journalism in the in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Her research focuses on environmental communication and social media. The focus of this interview is on her Twitter analysis during the 2013 Global Frackdown, “a transnational day of action calling for a ban on the drilling technology” For more information on Jill Hopke’s research, please visit http://www.jillhopke.com/research/publications/ (Hopke).
Q: You mentioned in your research that Twitter connected a lot of local groups. Do you think it also did a good job of reaching people who didn't know about the movement?
A: I think that it was more about bringing together core activists that were working on fracking in their local communities. For example, I've talked to some European activists in Sweden as part of a group called Heaven or Shell. Sweden was the first place within Europe where there was shale gas exploration. This group was successful in getting Shell Gas Company to ban the exploration project. One of the things the activists told me is that when they were starting out, there wasn't any information. They didn't know what shale gas was, why it was being explored in their region, or the drilling techniques behind it. Through social media, they were able to build connections and go from an isolated localized group of around 10 core activists to part of a transnational network. This network helped those in Sweden understand fracking and gain valuable information for their movement.
Q: The “#Fracking Top 200 Tweeters by Actor Type” graph shows that activists were tweeting the most during the Global Frackdown. Do you think that this group was also the most influential?
A: I'm doing some additional research where a colleague and I are looking at that kind of a question about amplification effect in terms of what kinds of tweets or what kinds of messages get amplified more or are likely to be amplified. One thing that was interesting from that graph is that the activist organizations and individuals who were sending the most tweets were also receiving the most. So this supports this idea that a lot of the conversation is driven by and directed toward other activists.
Q: Were industry actors not as active only during the Global Frackdown or is it a general trend that they're not active?
A: I can say for sure that it wasn't during the Global Frackdown. We collected our data during a specific period of time. It was a particular moment in which we captured the data because it was associated with this day of global action. One thing that was really striking about the results from the study is that we didn't find that there was much because participation by industry or by industry supporters. When researching hashtags, we included a couple which we believed would be industry hashtags: #natgas, #shale, #shalegas and a couple from the activists such as #GlobalFrackdown. The natgas and shale hashtags were pro-shale while #GlobalFrackdown was anti-shale. From this we found what was called "hashtag publics," which are distinct communities of discourse that were taking place simultaneously from each other. There wasn't much evidence that they were overlapping in constructive ways or talking to each other.
Q: What is the reason for these "hashtag publics"?
A: The framing is different from industry and activists. For example, when you look at oil company Halliburton’s website you can see they are using different rhetoric. The activists and industry supporters are using different language to talk about the issue. On a social media platform like Twitter, which is based on a hashtagging index function, these groups aren't interacting with each other. There just wasn't much exchange between anti-fracking activists and individuals or organizations that were supportive of fracking.
Q: What do you think will be the future trend in environmental activism?
A: We will continue to see the challenge of how to spread your message when there is such a high volume of content out there. This is what PR professional Mark Shaffer calls, "content shock." He speaks of how you need to leverage these platforms to make the most out of your content. I think that we will continue to see social media platforms as a resource and a mechanism for activists to make connections with each other.
Another trend comes from the global adoption of smartphones including in the rural south. We've gone from approximately one third of U.S. adults having smart phones to two thirds in the past five years. So we've just be seen an exponential increase in access to the technology. And with that comes capability to record video like we've seen with the Black Lives Matter movement. What a difference it makes to have audio and video evidence. Being able to have those tools in your back pocket, quite literally, is really is changing activism both in terms of environmental activism, but also activism more broadly. I think we'll continue to see those trends.