Can Social Media Help Saving the Environment?

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Online petitions, forums for debating issues and the usage of social media for recruiting peo-ple for protests are some examples how political organisations, non-governmental organisa-tions or social movements are using new digital technology to engage citizens and influence political processes (Rohlinger, Bunnage & Klein, 2012). Traditionally, civil society activism has been framed on the idea and ideal of ‘collective action’, lead and coordinated by these professional organizations by pressuring politics or companies to make structural change (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012).

However, in the last decades there was a shift especially among younger generations on so-cial and political orientations towards an era of personalization (Bennett, 2012). The struc-tural fragmentation and individualization in most societies result in engagement with politics as an expression of personal hopes, lifestyles, and grievances. (Bennett and Seger-berg, 2012, p. 743). The self-organizing networks are called ‘connective action’, where peo-ple act around their ‘personalized politics’ (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012).

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The emerge of social media and personalized communication technologies give ordinary cit-izens the opportunity to express themselves easily and cost-effectively on the Internet and thus reach a considerable amount of other people. Sustainable development is a particularly trendy topic. On Instagram, for example, there are various hashtags about sustainable topics. This gives an idea about the number of individuals, who post online about sustainable devel-opment related issues and their personal view on solutions. The keyword ‘sustainable’ has ca. 3,3 million hashtags, ‘sustainable fashion’ has ca. 2 million hashtags, and ‘sustainable living’ has ca.1 million hashtags (date: 09.08.2018). Also, related topics show a great number of interest. Again, on Instagram, the leading hashtag is ‘vegan’ with ca. 64 million tagged posts, ‘minimalism’ with ca. 11,5 million hashtags or ‘zero waste’ with 1,3 million hashtags (date: 09.08.2018)

However, these individuals seem not to belong to a political party, nor are they employees of an NGO or traditional environmental activists. They rather share their lifestyle and tips for a ‘better and more sustainable life and world’. They do that either as a hobby or, those with high numbers of followers, can also earn money through cooperation with companies or their own products and services (Helmke, Scherberich & Uebel, 2016). Moreover, the individuals who produce this content rarely seem to have any political intention, in the classical way, like being a member of a party, protest publicly or stay on track with the political arena (Xenos, Vromen, Loader, 2014).

Bennett (2012) tries to answer in his framework, if these personalized forms of connective action have the power to achieve the same results as traditionally collective action. He claims that personalized politics can shape the political agenda, but that there are too many problems and too little power for structural change. But, he also emphasises, that in compari-son the results of traditional collective action or social movements neither brought and bring the needed fundamental change.

Yet, not much research has been conducted so far on the above described group of people, the social media content creators, who individually post about sustainable development, with a focus on individual behaviour change and personal lifestyle. This thesis will especially have a look on German social media content creators.

Problem statement

The attitude of people towards issues concerning sustainable development differ. How peo-ple think and act about the topic depends also on their information seeking patterns and me-dia use (Metag, Fchslin, & Schfer, 2017). Bacchi (2009) developed an analysis approach, to look beyond this issue, which is called ‘how is the problem represented to be’. It affirms that every content that is published implicates a certain problem representation, which needs to be acted upon.

The term sustainability has become an internationally central model in business, politics and science. A common understanding is, that it’s the search for a just model for civil society and economy that lives up to the responsibility towards all people living today and in the future (Brundtland, 1989). Therefore, values such as justice and responsibility for the future provide a fundamental orientation (Grunwald & Kopfmller, 2012).

As already mentioned, the complicated issue is that concretisations of action do not simply result from a logical derivation but are formed through interpretations and priorities. For this reason, models for sustainable development are generally the subject of controversial discus-sion in science, but also in public and in politics (Grunwald & Kopfller, 2012). Bennett (2012) contents, for example, that personalized politics tends to focus on consumer politics. Which means, they are not demanding the needed rules of slowing consumption down. In-stead only changing it into being a bit eco-friendlier and fairer for workers. Bennett (2012) sees the reason in this that the life of voluntary simplicity is not easily made attractive to cit-izens. Possibly also the social media content creators, who seek to reach a lot of people and want to please their needs, could therefore spread a rather destructive message for sustaina-ble development instead.

Accordingly, it is important to identify how the social media content creators conceptualize sustainable development and what their the underlying problematization is. To identify this the already mentioned analysis approach of Bacchi (2009) will be used to discuss parts of the collected data, when it is suitable. An overview on the current concepts and discussions around sustainable development will be provided in the thesis.

One related assumption is, that a considerable amount of content creators in social media spread information about sustainable development without having proper knowledge or edu-cation. They tend to advertise for products and companies that are actually harmful for sus-tainable development and see green marketing only as a business strategy (Hartmann, 2009). There needs to be awareness of the intentions, beliefs and perceived power of content crea-tors. Especially because they often start talking about these topics with the intention of hav-ing a positive impact.

Moreover, the younger generation seems to care and be willing to act on politically and soci-etal important topics but are missing the awareness that individual behaviour and personal lifestyle alone have no power for change, when they aren’t used collectively to seek for structural change (Hartmann, 2009). Furthermore, structural policy changes are very slowly implemented, even when addressed, so there needs to be a cooperation of the public, private and civil sector (Bennett, 20012). Identifying the perceived role and power of the social me-dia content in this interplay will give a better understanding about the limits and opportuni-ties of their efforts.

Additionally, most research is analysing the United States and the perception there (Metag, F??chslin, & Sch?¤fer, 2017). This thesis will give an insight on the point of view of the Ger-man scene.

Research question and objectives

This thesis therefore wants to answer the main research questions:

How do German Social media content creators engage in connective action and what is the impact on bringing sustainable development forward?

To guide the research process and help answering the main research questions the following sub-questions will be used:

Sub questions:

  • How do German social media content creators conceptualize sustainable develop-ment?
  • How do German social media content creators see the role of the state and the econ-omy in bringing sustainable development forward?
  • How do German social media content creators see and label themselves?
  • How do German social media content creators think about the possibilities and limits of their form of action?

Objectives:

  • Identify the perceived power of new forms of social activism and how people engage in it and see/label themselves
  • Provide qualitative empirical data for the framework of Bennett(2012) about connec-tive action, to show how German social media content creators perceive the impact of their form of action
  • Characterize how this influences political engagement of civil society as a whole and whether this new phase strengthens or weakens the power of the public

Literature Review

The assumption in this thesis is based on the idea that collective action slowly has become replaced by more individualized forms of activism, named personalized politics (Bennett, 2012). Social media reinforced the change in the political identity and the participation pat-terns of citizens. The main existing research has been focusing on NGOs, political groups or communities, the role of celebrities as influencers or ‘green marketing’ strategies for compa-nies, but not about individuals who post as laypeople or (semi-)professionals.

As already mentioned Bennett (2012) provides a theoretical basis that will used for this re-search with his framework on personalized politics. It helps to understand large scale collec-tive action via social media.

Social fragmentation and the decline of group loyalties have given rise to an era of person-alized politics in which individually expressive personal action frames displace collective action frames in many protest causes (Bennet, 2012, p. 20).

This new form of engagement is often coordinated through digital media technologies. He compares this ‘personalized politics’ with the group based ‘identity politics’ that was arising since the 1960s. The group based ‘identity politics’ were formed on the one hand on common identities, like for example immigrants, native people, women or minorities. On the other hand, there were cause issues like environmental conservation, antinuclear or specific rights. These movements still exists, but there are nowadays more heterogeneous mobilizations in which diverse causes such as economic justice (fair trade, inequality, and development), environmental protection, and war and peace are directed at moving targets from local to national and transnational and from government to business. (Bennett, 2012, p. 21)

The traditional collective action/ social movements had power for change because of push-ing their demands and therefore bring them into public discussion and the political field (Bennett & Lagos, 2017). The research field of consumer activism shows that there can be great success by a creative protest strategies and information delivery to journalist to raise public awareness and pressure companies to address social responsibility issues (Bennett & Lagos, 2017).

Beyond consumer activism, connective action in the case of Occupy Wall Street, los indig-nados in Spain or the Arab Spring proved that it’s possible to shape the political agenda (Bennett 2012). The role of journalist seems to be a crucial part, as they can report on issues and increase public discussion, because activists write about it online and can be used as source, instead of only relying on the statements of politicians and companies (Bennett 2012).

Bennet and Segerberg (2012) say, that connective action has replaced collective action be-cause of the growth of digital media. An it’s especially the way young people engage in poli-tics. At this point also, the discussion about what can be seen as a political act needs to be mentioned. Some researchers argue that online activity can no longer be dismissed as click-tivism or slacktivism (George & Leidner, 2018; Halupka 2015; Rotman et al, 2011). They explain this by the fact that many people are acting in this way, are doing it together and that sometimes the issues are being moved into the classical political arena. This can again be seen for example by movements like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street or the los in-dignados, which were using digital media beyond communication only (Bennet & Segerberg, 2012).

As mainly the younger generation uses digital media to express themselves, the research field about young people’s political engagement and how citizenship changed because of digital media, gives important insights. The question is not only how people get involved in politics through digital media, but also how political engagement itself needs to be rede-fined. (Harris, Wyn & Younes 2010; Rheingans and Hollands 201; Xenos, Vromen, & Load-er, 2014).

To reconsider political engagement and citizenship in a digital age, Vromen, Xenos and Co (2015) use for example the citizen norms concept. These norms are understood as attitudes and values related to how democracy works and how citizens relate to the political world. Manning (2013) found for instance, that the participants in his study were more committed to things that came up spontaneously rather than following a systematic approach that had to do with specific ideologies or principles. There is consistent evidence that the traditional form of citizenship, the ‘dutiful’ citizen, is rather rejected (Bang, 2005; Bennet, Wells & Free-lon,2010; Xenos, Vromen & Loader, 2014; Halupka 2014). The dutiful citizen stands out through voting, party membership and newspaper reading. What is lived by the younger generation is personalized politics, as Bennett (2012) describes it. It is more about self-actualization through digital networking or consumer activism. Harris and Wyn (2009) agree that young people tend to act in so-called ‘micro-territories’, which they encounter every day and where they can act more individually and personally. Moreover Bennett, Freelon& Wells (2010) claim that young people tend to work horizontally with their peers. Therefore, friends online and offline are more of an information source and support than hierarchical authorities.

In summary, it can be said that the political commitment of the young generation has changed from more collectivist to more individualized and from a long-term organizational commitment to spontaneous issue-based action.

The remaining gap in all of these studies is though, to look at German individuals, who post online about societal issues, like sustainable development. And moreover, how they see and label themselves and perceive the impact of their action.

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