Throwing Soup or Climate Rally – Which Twitter Wins?

At the same time that climate protest has become synonymous with food, art, glue and public streets, a group known for its civil disobedience has announced a surprising change of strategy. Even if you don’t want to. For the past months and weeks, the Extinction Rebellion has been preparing for a massive climate protest called “The Big One” outside Parliament in London.

What gets more attention on Twitter - food over art or Greta Thunberg's speech?  The results may be surprising.  (DW)
What gets more attention on Twitter – food over art or Greta Thunberg’s speech? The results may be surprising. (DW)

Meanwhile, other groups such as Germany’s LateJet Generation or the UK’s Just Stop Oil are following in XR’s original footsteps, and see louder, more disruptive acts like pouring tomato soup over Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ as the way forward.

“When Phoebe and I threw that soup, it got more people talking about the climate crisis than the 3 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan,” said Anna Holland, 21, an activist with the UK-based group Just Stop Oil. told DW. “And this is concrete evidence that disruptive action is incredibly effective.”

But does it have more or less impact than traditional forms of performance? To find out, DW analyzed 4.6 million tweets published by 30 major English-language news organizations between August 20, 2018 — after Greta Thunberg launched her climate school strikes — and February 20, 2023.

The media cycle is important

DW identified 2,483 news tweets that mentioned protests about climate and the environment, and compared their engagement levels – likes, replies, quotes and retweets – to other tweets published by the same news organization in the same week.

The analysis clearly shows the media cycle of climate coverage. Official forums, summits, and global events such as the United Nations Climate Conference or the World Economic Forum increase the volume of tweets about climate protest.

For example, the week of the September 2019 United Nations Climate Summit saw the highest volume of news tweets about climate activism. There were 167 in all, with many chanting Thunberg’s “How dare you!” Referring to The speech, in which he emotionally addressed world leaders for a “fairy tale of endless economic growth.”

About half of the tweets related to the event were the most popular ones published by their respective news organizations that week.

Similar patterns emerged around events such as the World Economic Forum and UN climate conferences, which are typically times when climate activism easily captures media attention.

“Time appears to be more important than we think,” said James Ozden of the Social Change Lab, a London-based organization that studies social movements to find ways to accelerate positive social change.

People are interested in climate protest stories

Although climate protests account for only a small portion of all tweets published by news organizations, they generate a disproportionate level of engagement. They often rank among the best performing tweets of the week.

32% of tweets about climate activism were among the top 10% performers on their respective channels.

Disruptive protests don’t necessarily generate much attention

There are two types of climate protests: disruptive and non-disruptive.

The former, which includes actions such as vandalizing works of art, attacking public buildings and blocking traffic, accounted for 33% of the total number of climate protest tweets. Non-disruptive actions, by comparison, include activist participation in official events, public speeches and legal rallies. Tweets about these events accounted for 67% of the total.

Comparing average engagement rates for each category, tweets about non-disruptive protests are twice as likely to be among the top-performing tweets of any channel in any given week. This shows that disruptive climate protests are no more effective at initiating discussion in the Twittersphere than non-disruptive ones.

“Non-disruptive protests work when the media cycle is already a bit focused on climate change. Disruptive protests like the soup (thrown) work when the media cycle is about something else, and they put it on climate change,” Ozden said.

Negativity around protests on Twitter: Business as usual

Many of the activists involved in the disruptive demonstrations criticized themselves on social media for hurting their image. They don’t see it that way though.

“What matters to me is that the government stops new oil and gas licenses in the UK. The only thing I care about is where I can raise children and not feel guilty about bringing them into a future full of death. Famine and war,” Anna Holland of Just Stop Oil explained. did

To understand how people react to tweets about climate protests, DW selected those with the highest levels of engagement in the categories of disruptive protests, non-disruptive protests, as well as a random sample of tweets on various topics for comparison purposes. All replies to these tweets were then categorized as either “negative” or “positive”.

The results show that more people respond negatively to climate protest tweets, which is true for other topics as well.

Additionally, disruptive tweets receive slightly more negative responses, but the margin is small. Overall, responses to climate protest tweets are not as negative as responses about some other topics.

Do radical flanks help or hinder?

Although disruptive protests don’t gain much traction in the Twittersphere, less traditional groups can influence overall climate activism through what scientists call the radical flank theory.

“The theory says that if there is a very extreme protest movement, it can have a positive or negative effect on more moderate groups within that same movement,” said Brent Simpson, a social psychologist at the University of South Carolina.

His latest research, published by Oxford University Press, suggests that when a group of activists uses extreme tactics, it makes moderates more attractive. As a result, public support for the middle class increases.

James Ozden’s Social Change Lab conducted similar research in the UK and found that after Just Stop Oil’s four-day motorway protest in London, support and recognition of the moderate environmental group Friends of the Earth increased.

Some academics point to the risk of increased government repression of all activists as a result of the actions of radical parties. “I think we’ve seen this in the UK with new legislation that brings long prison sentences and fines to non-violent crime activists on bail,” Ozden said.

However, Just Stop Oil activist Indigo Rumbello sees the need for both approaches to raise awareness of the need for climate action and a place for continuity. “Disruptive and non-disruptive protests are not mutually exclusive,” she said. “They really have a synergy and they lift each other up.”

That theory is put to the test. While climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil or Germany’s LateJet Generation are disrupting, Extinction Rebellion hopes its Big One protest in London will live up to its name and attract 100,000 people to take part in a more peaceful protest.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker and Gianna Grün

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