GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 186-1
Presentation Time: 8:00 AM


KIRK, Karin B., Freelance Science Writer, Bozeman, MT 59715 and COOK, John, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Level 7, Gehrmann Laboratories (60), Research Rd, St Lucia, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia,

Social media allows a somewhat unfiltered view of the beliefs, priorities, and thought processes of the public. As such, it represents a wide-reaching litmus test for public opinion on scientific issues. An analysis of the climate change discourse on social media reveals how this topic is discussed and perceived by a broad cross-section of users.

To learn about the climate change conversation on social media, over 600 Facebook comments from 6 articles about climate science were analyzed. Every post was read and scored for the content, tone, and rationale. The popularity of posts was tabulated via ‘likes.’ Although the comments were posted on Facebook, the originating articles were from various sources, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, NOAA, and NASA.

Analysis of the discourse revealed some intriguing results. For example, the majority of the comments focused on the scientific aspects of climate change, but this was overwhelmingly true for those that were dismissive of climate science. Other aspects of climate change, such as policy or ethical considerations, were sometimes discussed by supporters of climate science, but were rarely discussed by the dismissive group. The most frequent argument used to refute anthropogenic climate change was that climate change is normal and occurs in natural cycles. Analysis of the tone of the posts showed that uncivil behavior was freely demonstrated by people on both sides of the issue. Supporters of climate science tended to engage on a more personal level, by either supporting their allies or attacking their adversaries. By contrast, dismissive commenters were less interactive with other posters.

Understanding the discourse around climate change can help educators predict the types of misconceptions and disinformation their students are likely to encounter. Furthermore, learning about the flow of topics and user behaviors can help government and environmental agencies manage their interactions on social media. Lastly, as scientists and educators, being attentive to this conversation allows us to be more effective in our efforts to share scientific information with disparate audiences.