By Rachel Laden
Jill Hopke, assistant professor of journalism in the College of Communication, has dedicated her career to discovering the intersections of people, the environment and media. Her recent studies examine transnational anti-fracking activism on social media. She has also researched discussion of climate change solutions on Twitter during recent climate talks.
Read on to learn more about how Hopke's research has transformed the way she approaches climate change in her own work and classroom.
Tell me about your most recent research.
I recently started a project with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin - Madison examining social media, specifically Twitter, in relation to the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock protest. The issue has been in the news again as President Trump issued a memorandum giving approval for the project to move forward in January. Work has since resumed on the pipeline. We are tracking how that protest emerged in the public sphere over the summer and into the fall. Most people are not aware that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's opposition to the pipeline began prior to the spark of its wide-spread attention in August 2016. I'm exploring when, and why, the issue went from being relatively localized to being recognized nationally and internationally and what role social media played. We are comparing the movement against the pipeline to opposition of a proposed shale gas development in 2013 by the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, Canada. There are distinct parallels between the cases, particularly the role of visual imagery.
How can we best approach discussions about the environment?
We are at a very interesting time politically for climate change and energy development issues. Both topics are very politicized, and it's important to have channels for meaningful dialogue. From research, I've learned there is segmentation in social media discourse that makes it harder for meaningful dialogue to occur. My research on Twitter discourse about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, revealed segmented "hashtag publics" of activists and industry supporters, with an absence of dialogue between the two. When we talk about climate change communication, we need to understand the issue is not simply a matter of providing people with more factual information, but base our communication interventions in social science research. There is a spectrum of opinion about climate change that ranges from alarmed to dismissive. Beliefs may be based on an individual's background, their social networks, political stance or ideology. In discussion of climate and energy issues, we must tailor our messages to reach individuals based on where they fall on the spectrum of dismissive to alarmed.
Can activists and opponents share meaningful dialogue on climate change and energy issues?
We can always seek to listen to people whose views differ from our own, and try to understand how they gained that viewpoint. Respectfulness in our conversations about these issues is key. Both inside and outside my classroom, I aim to have conversations based on facts, the science of climate change and communication. We must also focus on how to reach different groups without passing judgement on those with opposing beliefs and opinions.
Imagery also can kindle meaningful dialogue between activists and opponents. Visuals cause various reactions among individuals. When we communicate climate and energy issues, we need to be conscious of the spectrum of beliefs in developing our messaging.
What do you hope students take away from your classroom discussions?
My research focuses on social media, climate activism and global energy systems. I bring a lot of direct examples from my research into class discussions. Recently, in my class on environmental politics and rhetoric, we talked about climate skepticism, as it pertains to current events. I try to push students beyond feeling a sense of despair about the current state of climate policy or the potential of where things might go at the national and international levels. I want my students to think about where our society is in terms of these issues and the challenges, but also steps we can take to reach the public and policymakers. Our role as a university is to provide students with a range of options and perspectives to consider. I hope my students take away a sense of agency from my teaching and the feeling they have the tools to take action.