Are social media platforms good places to discuss global challenges?

By Daniel Lundgaard

3 min read ◦

According to a recent analysis by Datareportal, the number of active social media users grew globally by 13.2% from January 2020 to January 2021, which means that as of January 2021, there are 4.2 billion active social media users. With the increasing use of social media, it only makes sense that important discussions are moving to these platforms. This is especially seen during political elections, but social media are also becoming some of the most important platforms to discuss issues such as gender equality, racism, and climate change. However, while we have seen the potentials of social media for raising awareness about these issues, it is still unclear whether social media are suitable platforms for such discussions.

Throughout my research, I investigated the climate change debate on Twitter, and I want to highlight two important patterns that I found, each illustrating some of the potentials and challenges with the use of social media to discuss global challenges. 

The potentials

On the one hand, I found that the debates on social media platforms are characterized by equality and inclusiveness. It is common knowledge that everyone has a voice on social media, and anyone can contribute to a debate, but simply having the opportunity to contribute does not mean that everyone will have an impact.

Interestingly, what I found was that not only can anyone contribute – everyone can have an impact on the debate and affect how issues are discussed.

This both includes users with less than 100 followers and minority voices such as climate change skepticism. Seeing that even smaller users and minority voices can have an impact is particularly interesting on social media, where it has been argued that it is only the “popular” accounts, influencers, or central actors that shape the debate. Naturally, this does not mean that everyone will influence the debate, but it means that anyone can, which I see as an important part of creating a good place for discussing global challenges.  

The challenges

On the other hand, I found that the use of Twitter to discuss climate change rarely included ongoing dialogue.

There is very little exchange of opinions between two participants – instead, participants share their thoughts by engaging in broader conversations, e.g., by using specific hashtags or by mentioning central figures. In other words, what I found was that participants engage with an imagined audience, not directly with others.

Sometimes a discussion unfolds in the replies to a tweet or in the comments to a Facebook post, but the vast majority of contributions to debates about global issues are more about voicing an opinion, e.g., through retweeting, not back-and-forth dialogue between participants. This means that while most participants actively contribute to the debate, there is rarely any direct response to these contributions, which is a critical challenge, as I see some form of back-and-forth exchange of opinions as an integral part of good discussions. 

So, are social media platforms good places for debates about global challenges?

Well, yes and no – and naturally dependent on how you define a “good” debate. The inclusiveness and equality are great, and this is unparalleled compared to offline arenas that are limited by time and space, thus highlighting the potential for social media to empower citizens, both in their role as ordinary citizens and as consumers or activists that challenge corporate behavior. On the other hand, the distinct lack of ongoing, reciprocal exchange of information or dialogue is a critical challenge, highlighting issues with using social media to debate global challenges. This poses an interesting puzzle.

The lack of dialogue suggests that we need to be careful about using social media platforms to discuss global challenges.

Still, the use of social media to discuss global challenges is rapidly growing. Hence, we cannot disregard the importance of social media, but perhaps we can re-think their role in global discussions. 

I suggest that we move away from the expectation that social media platforms, by themselves, cultivate high-quality debates and instead see them as platforms that mainly inform and develop participants’ views. Hence, rather than providing platforms for dialogue, social media contributes to global debates by providing platforms where participants can become informed and better prepared for subsequent discussions – discussions that often unfold outside social media platforms. In other words, while social media, by themselves, are imperfect places for debates about global challenges, their role in informing participants, including both citizens, corporations, and politicians, illustrates that social media are a critical part of a more extensive media system, and we should not disregard their importance in debates about global challenges. 

A word of caution

However, if we accept that social media mainly serves to inform participants, we also have to consider that some potentials can become challenges. Specifically, the equality found in the debate can become a serious issue.

Without the ongoing dialogue, we miss opportunities to contest and challenge disruptive voices such as climate change skepticism.

Hence, while climate change skepticism, in an ideal and high-quality debate, could be beneficial by inspiring others to improve their arguments and refine opinions, the lack of dialogue on social media means that such voices are not contested and are not inspiring others to improve their arguments.

This is even more important with the increasing polarization we see on social media and highlights that if social media mainly serves to inform participants’ views, there is a greater responsibility on us as participants. Specifically, we still need to seek out these opposing opinions. Even though it might be futile to engage with those opinions, seeking out these opposing views may still inspire us to improve our arguments and, in some cases, even inspire us to refine our own opinions and ideas. 

About the Author

Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research investigates how communication on social media (e.g. the use of emotions, certain forms of framing or linguistic features) shapes the ways we discuss and think about organizational and societal responsibilities.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

The rise of social media bots – how do they work, and how can you spot them?

By Daniel Lundgaard

Bots and their impact on online conversations is rapidly becoming an important problem on social media. If we look at the conversation around the current Coronavirus pandemic, somewhere between 45% to 60% of the accounts on Twitter that promoted disinformation were identified as bots, in the anti-vaccine debate researchers have found that bots are used to “weaponize” online health communication and create discord, and in the climate change debate research suggests that about a quarter of all tweets are produced by bots.

These bots are used in a wide range of misinformation “strategies”. Based on findings from my own research and a review of current research on the topic, I have summarized what I perceive as the three main “strategies” where we know that bots have been used:

Amplifying certain opinions. The simplest strategy where bots have been used is in efforts to amplify a specific opinion, often by continuously re-tweeting the same tweet or link, or by only endorsing the shared posts of people with similar interests.

Flooding the discourse. Malicious actors often seek to increase confusion and challenge the current status quo e.g. the scientific consensus that climate change is man-made. In this strategy, bots are used to spread large volumes of information and start multiple conversations (often covering both sides of the debate), which makes it easier to question the current consensus. A similar tactic is as often seen in disinformation campaigns where large amounts of “fake news”-outlets create a new media ecosystem, and because of the increased volume of information, the voice of the validated outlets is “drowned”, which empowers the fake news outlets.

Linking issues to current tensions. Efforts to link debates to current tensions seek to polarize opinions and cause divide as seen within the vaccine debate where a debate was associated with current racial/ethnic divisions. Here bots are mainly used to either explicitly make the connection in their own tweets, or by commenting on content shared by others, suggesting the presence of a link to certain socioeconomic tensions.

With these strategies in mind identifying the users that in reality are bots seems like a crucial task. However, detecting and adequately handling these bots has proven to be a challenge for the major social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Nonetheless, after reviewing current tools made available for bot detection, current research on the topic and my own findings from an analysis of roughly 5 million tweets about climate change, I have identified a few tips that might help you to spot these bots – and potentially their impact on the conversation. For this list, I have left out bot-detection approaches that are based on reviewing patterns not normally visible to most users e.g. network features detection if the same group of users follow and re-tweet/like another group of users with similar language and message.

The user profile

Reviewing the user profile appears as one of the best ways for “normal” users to detect a bot. The most simple indicators could be a missing profile picture, however sophisticated bots might use stolen photos and here a quick “reverse image search” (right-clicking on the profile image and “search google for image”) might reveal something about the source of the image e.g. that it is taken from someone else. A generic (or poorly worded) profile description might also be an indicator, and in my own research I have found that reviewing the content of user profile descriptions is even better than reviewing the content of the tweets shared on a specific topic for predicting opinions.

Different or “stiff” language

The conversation on Twitter is often informal and people often use abbreviations or structure their sentences differently, which can be difficult to copy. As a result, bots might appear mechanical or rigid in its language – often returning to the same topic, share the same link over and over again, or returning to a topic that should have outlived the rather short life-cycle of some topics on Twitter.

Lack of humor

Granted, everyone misunderstands a joke sometimes and people can have trouble with understanding sarcasm. Because of this, understanding humor, especially sarcasm, also remains one of the major challenges for bots to both understand but also respond accordingly. This is particularly relevant on Twitter, where conversations may refer to shared understandings, inside jokes or memes used in a certain way within a community, which even sophisticated bots may have trouble understanding and adapting to.

Temporal behavior

Reviewing past activity, in particular with focus on patterns in temporal behavior might also be useful e.g. by spotting that a user seems to tweet at the same hour every day if it shares multiple tweets pr. Minute, or if the user immediately retweets or comments on other posts, which can be an indicator of an automated and pre-defined response.

It is important to acknowledge that not all bots are seeking to manipulate political conversations on social media. However, while some bots definitely are created for noble purposes, bots are increasingly becoming an important tool for various (potentially malicious) actors and their efforts to shape conversations on social media – especially Twitter. As a result, we, as a society needs to become better at detecting bots and limiting their power to shape the online debate, and I hope that by reading this blog I might have broadened your understanding of bots – and hopefully you have picked up a few tricks to spot potential bots appearing in your Twitter feed.

About the author

Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research investigates how communication on social media (e.g. the use of emotions, certain forms of framing or linguistic features) shapes the ways we discuss and think about organizational and societal responsibilities.

Photo by ?? Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Are we trying to solve climate change, or are we merely playing the “blame game” on social media with the future of the Earth at stake?

By Daniel Lundgaard.

The climate change debate is something that is on the minds of most people these days. The most recent elections in Denmark have been dubbed “climate-elections”, and we have recently seen massive demonstrations throughout the city of Copenhagen, and all around the world. These demonstrations take place both offline and on social media, where the #FridaysForFuture-movement recently has had a central role in inspiring engagement, especially among the younger generation.

The central role of social media as a platform cultivating a pursuit for social change is not something new. Recently #Metoo became a viral phenomenon with millions of people contributing worldwide, and a few years back we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter-movement – as well as the Arab spring.

Civil society is associated with responsibilities for contributing to solving the problem rather than “playing the blame game”

However, while it is widely acknowledged that social media is used to discuss societal issues, there is so far little knowledge about how these discussions associate global issues such as climate change with the question of responsibility. Based on an analysis of around 3 million “climate change”-tweets – tweets mentioning either “climate change” in the text, use the #Climatechange-hashtag or share a link containing “climate change” in the headline, I dove in to the climate change debate on Twitter, and explored how the issue of responsibility was discussed. I was in particular curious about how the question of responsibility was framed, and how this question was associated with various actors. As I emerged from the data, three trends could be identified:

1. The issue of causing climate change is associated with the fossil fuel industry

Tweets referring to the issue of causing climate change are to a large extent explicitly referring to the fossil fuel industry, oil companies or similar, arguing that “the fossil fuel companies are responsible for causing climate change”. An argument emphasizing society’s responsibility also appeared, although not in the way that I would have assumed. The attempts to frame climate change as something caused by society was raised, but quickly dismissed, and instead used to emphasize the role of the fossil fuel industry, e.g. by linking to a report on how just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, while stating “please keep this in mind if you feel personally responsible for climate change”.

2. Responsibilities for remedial activities is associated with society as a whole

Despite corporations being “blamed” for causing climate change, a lack of trust in these actors’ ability to change their ways was expressed in the tweets. Interestingly, one of the primary ways of framing the issue of solving the problem was that while corporations can be blamed for causing the problem, and we (civil society) should not feel personally responsible for what has happened until now, it was emphasized that we need to stop pointing the finger at corporations. We need to stop blaming the fossil industry for what has transpired, and instead re-think our way of living, and consider the daily choices we make e.g. “Swap your car or plane ride for a bus or train” or “stop eating meat”. Thus, civil society is associated with responsibilities for contributing to solving the problem rather than “playing the blame game”.

3. The debate is highly politicized

Finally, while corporations are blamed for causing the problem, and consumer behavior is emphasized in terms of solving the problem, the politicization of the debate permeates these trends. In relation to both trends, I found multiple references to political actors, emphasizing their contribution to the problem. This was often identified in tweets referred to the issue of climate denialism, but also in relation to how politicians haven’t sufficiently regulated the oil industry or that politicians in some cases even protect the fossil fuel industry – often related to discussions about money. Interestingly, while the politicization permeates the debate, the tweets discussing the role of political actors also emphasized the responsibility of civil society. An example of this is the argument that civil society have voted for these individuals, and that we need to consider our actions, and consider who we vote for in the future.

What can we learn?

Reviewing the way that climate change is discussed on social media, there is a general agreement that politicians and – in particular the fossil fuel industry – is to blame for what has happened. However, as the debate unfolds, there is a highly valuable argument in that playing the “blame-game” doesn’t solve any problems, and instead we, as a global society, need to think about our ways of living, and consider how we can be part of the solution.

About the author

Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow embedded in the Governing Responsible Business research environment and part of CBS Sustainability at Copenhagen Business School. His research is mainly focused on how communication on social media shapes the ways we think about organizational responsibilities, and how responsibilities become associated with emerging issues, as millions of citizens, politicians, NGOs and corporations engage in highly fluid debates.

By the same author:


Photo by Con Karampelas on Unsplash