This article was inspired by a conversation I had recently with friends on the merits and downfalls of social media. Personally, I find social media to be a motivator and an educational tool. This is probably because my use of it is skewed towards people who post photos and stories of natural experiences they’ve had. There’s nothing like seeing a photo of your friend at the Great Barrier Reef to get you working towards the next item on your wildlife Bucket List. While I see many of the negative impacts of social media, I do believe it is a powerful and often under-utilised tool in the conservation toolbox.
Gone are the days when conservation science and the general public were treated as two separate components. One would wonder how this could ever have been thought to be rational. Successful conservation hinges on many things, one of which has certainly got to be public acceptance and involvement. We see it far too often when public consultation isn’t carried out properly and a combination of factors, such as fear and lack of awareness, results in conservation project difficulties or failures. Social media helps provide a bridge between the conservation scientists and the millions of people worldwide, who by doing small actions can make big differences.
People want to feel a part of something. It is much easier to support something if you feel like you are a part of it. Social media allows people to be a part of conservation. By logging on to Facebook or Twitter they can instantly join the conservation debate. People can talk about their experiences and learn from one another. Yes, there is an obvious drawback. What happens when a misinformed person is online pushing their opinions? Well that’s always going to be the case. But if you are active on social media at the very least you can try to get the correct information across. If you’re not there, you certainly can’t.
Social media provides the opportunity for rapid awareness of issues. The latest example of this I have observed is the “No To More Slash And Burn” petition. This campaign was created by a number of Irish N.G.O.s- Irish Wildlife Trust, BirdWatch Ireland, An Taisce and Hedge Laying Association of Ireland. The petition can be found here, although at time of writing this petition had collected 14,474 signatures out of 15,000. Addressed to Heather Humphreys TD (Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht) the groups ask her “to reconsider your proposal to change the Wildlife Act to allow for the burning of vegetation in March and the cutting of hedgerows in August and establish proper hedgerow and upland management regimes that works for farming, road safety and wildlife.” In a short time this petition had reached almost 15,000 signatures. Personally, apart from a small number of emails I received on my work account- the only place I saw this petition advertised was on social media. And still I was well aware of what was happening and how the petition was progressing. All thanks to the social media of the groups.
Social media also provides the opportunity for community knowledge sharing. One group where I have noticed fantastic results is the Monarch Teacher Network in America. The Monarch Teacher Network (MTN) “is a growing network of (pre k to 12th grade) teachers who have received training to use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment.” With over 1,800 members the Facebook group is a great place to share resources and ideas about the topic. Not only that but many people use the group to ask questions and look for advice on everything from where to purchase milkweed seed (the plant monarchs require) to when the next workshop is. It has built up into a friendly, informative online community that people can simply access through their Facebook. More information on the Monarch Teacher Network can be found here.
A recent piece in the Irish Times highlighted some of the citizen science projects in Ireland. Citizen science can make a difference and one way to attract people to this, and to promote the results, is through social media. Again we’re back to the ideas of information sharing and involvement. Social media can recruit new citizen scientists, provide regular feedback on how the project is going and allow a dialogue between the citizen scientists themselves.
Yes, there are drawbacks to social media. It provides a platform for the climate change deniers of the world for one. But it’s here now and instead of ignoring it we should be fighting back against ill-informed people who publicise their poorly informed environmental opinions and actions, and make our voices heard too.
Am I the sales rep. for a social media company? No. I just strongly believe that social media is an all-important tool that is here to stay. Twice in the last few weeks I have offered to help organisations set up their social media because I am so shocked that they aren’t using this resource. Far too often I see conservation organisations that are not on, or are limited in their use of, social media. Yes, social media can take a while if you are trying to build up thousands of followers. However, it is also something that can be done on the move; in the lift in work, on a coffee break, on the bus home… If I am looking into an organisation, I will take a look at their social media to see a different side of them. It’s a way to get your cause out there and interact with people. You can also use social media to show some personality. Never mind the fact that all you seem to need to do these days to get a retweet or two is post a photo of something fluffy. And we have lots of fluffies in conservation.