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What does social media engagement around the Amazon rainforest fires tell us about public narratives? – Takeaways from our analysis

During the months of August and September 2019, the Amazon rainforest fires captured global attention. Celebrities, politicians and other public figures spoke up and shared their voices and concerns on social media. At the same time, the fires were also reported by a number of scientists and researchers to have a strong link with deforestation driven by the global trade of beef and soy. As the forest loss has significant impacts on soil moisture, the dry land is amplifying the severity of the fires every year. In short, the Amazon rainforest fires are not just a single event that happened in the past. They continue to exist as an issue that needs to be addressed globally and locally.

Under NewGo!’s Out of the Flames, we’ve conducted a series of social media analyses to explore how people responded, discussed, and engaged around the Amazon rainforest fires in 2019. While it was a little while ago when this event captured the media’s attention, we thought our analysis might help you get additional insights, in particular, how social media platforms have become sites to share concerns, convey feelings and raise awareness about other related issues.

As a shortcut to our full report and webpage, we’ve summarised three key issues identified in our analysis below.

1. Emerging forest governance issues through hashtags

Hashtags (e.g. #AmazonRainforest) can act as indicators of the issues and concerns of different publics and social media users. They help us understand how people connected different issues online with the Amazon rainforest fires. When we looked at the relations between the hashtags of the Amazon rainforest fires, it was possible to observe different voices, concerns and positioning around a wide variety of forest governance issues, involving international and national political, business and other public figures.

For example, political issues that were widely covered by the international media have emerged (e.g. a ‘war of words’ between Bolsonaro and Macron) as well as Brazilian political issues, criticising the Bolsonaro government. The latter was identified by our consultations with journalists who spotted Portuguese language hashtags like #panelaço, a form of protest against Bolsonaro. Interestingly, a few pro-Bolsonaro hashtags like #vivabolsonaro have also appeared in our analysis, indicating a minority of those promoting the narratives of the Brazilian government.

Apart from political issues, other topics associated with forest governance have been identified, such as deforestation drivers (#cattleranching, #beef, #soybeans and #palmoil) and meat consumption (#gowithoutbeef, #govegan, and #stopeatingmeat). These results show that the Twitter publics have made the direct links between the Amazon rainforest fires and consumer responsibilities, knowing that these commodities drive deforestation, and the fires are directly linked to deforestation as part of land clearing.

→ Check the detailed key outcomes linked to our hashtag analysis, check Issue Story 1: Emerging forest governance issues through hashtags.

2. Exploring the role of science online beneath the surface

Our analyses also identified different ways ‘science’ is brought up on social media. In many instances, scientific voices were almost absent, marginal, present at the periphery or only after the “peak” in our Twitter analysis. For example, when looking at the top tweets for the number of retweets, scientific voices emerged at the top but only when the number of tweets started to decrease in the peak period. When looking at the top hashtags, there were only a few science-related hashtags such as #sciencematters, #sentinel2, #nasa, #unitebehindthescience.

However, while most scientists found themselves at the periphery of Twitter conversation, there was an exception of one academic who was also one of the most active users gaining high visibility. This account was also the most “influential” user in this set, receiving the highest number of mentions, more than any other top accounts. Although this is just one example, it shows that it is possible to gain visibility for a specialist account by being active on Twitter.

When the Amazon rainforest fires became an international issue in the media, we often came across the misleading claim, “20% of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon”. We wanted to see how these claims were addressed in the media articles on Twitter and looked at 23 freely accessible, English-language media articles circulated with the claim. In our sample, debunking stories tended to refer to scientific sources more than the articles treating the misleading claim as (potentially) correct. What was interesting to see in our sample is that some sources received much more visibility compared to other scientific sources across several stories. A further study is needed to look into the patterns of media sourcing so that we can see if there is a recycling of scientific sources in news reporting.

→ Check the detailed key outcomes linked to our hashtag analysis, check Issue Story 2: Exploring the role of science online beneath the surface.

3. Tracing online recycling of images and misleading claims

Finally, we also observed various types of online recycling practices in a different set of analyses. For example, various generic images have been collected showing fires and animals. The most visible images were animal photos, some portraying endemic species to the Amazon and others coming from completely unrelated places, including koalas from Australia and monkeys in India.

In addition, recycled images shared by public figures appeared several times in our analysis. For instance, an old image of burning forests tweeted by Macron and other users has appeared multiple times on Facebook and Instagram. There were other forest-related images from locations other than the Amazon, including one from Thailand.

We also observed that the media played a role in prolonging the life cycle of recycled media and misleading claims. For example, CNN published at least eight stories promoting the misleading claim, “20% of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon”. Another example is Arab News, which treated the misleading claim of the Amazon producing 20% oxygen as a confirmed fact and used a picture of monkeys taken in India back in 2017.

One important takeaway from looking at online recycling practices is that the re-purposing of such images is not in itself inherently problematic, as it can often be assumed that an image is being presented as a literal representation of events. Image reuse is part of professional image editorial and digital culture and social media user practices in a day-to-day context.

→ Check the detailed key outcomes linked to our hashtag analysis, check Issue Story 3: Tracing online recycling practices.

As shown in these key findings from our exploratory analysis, digital objects like images, hashtags and URLs can act as an indicator of the issues and concerns of different publics and social media users. These types of analytical approaches can help us explore different forms of engagement, participation and experience around any type of forest-related issues and events, from bioeconomy to sustainable forest management. As our physical and digital worlds blend more than ever before, new research approaches like this would be needed to explore public perceptions of forests in the digital age.

To read a full summary, visit our dedicated website of Out of the Flames.

For much more background about the project, you can grab a free copy of our full report.

Read the policy brief.

Out of the Flames is part of NewGo!, a start-up project of EFI’s Governance Programme funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL).


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