Can Social Media Save The Planet?

Written by Morten Jonassen Read now | Comments

The role of social media and its unique power potential is increasingly influencing the foundations of today’s society. Social media brings boundless potential but at the same time impose great challenges. The recent course of events in the Middle East was to a large extent facilitated by specific affordances of social media. The so-called “Twitter-revolution” exemplifies one case where social media had direct impact. Whether political, personal or commercial interests at heart, no one escapes the consequences, positive or negative, of the new media communication platforms.

In this academic article I investigate parts of the immense power potential, which characterise social media platforms and online media strategies in todays society. The presented analysis is based on media strategies and initiatives carried out by the Greenpeace organization.

ITU Research collaborators: Kasper Wielandt & Janus Askø


Greenpeace is a global independent organization trying to protect and conserve the environment. The organization promotes peace by acting to change attitudes and behaviour. Since its foundation in 1971, the organization has made it a goal to expose environmental criminals, challenge governments and unethical corporations. (Greenpeace International; 2012)

But how does Greenpeace relate to online communities one might ask? After all this organization is mainly famous for its commando- style protests, such as activists chaining themselves to nuclear waste cargo or dumping huge cement blocks in the oceans thereby destroying the gear of trawling fishermen. These are quite direct actions and physical campaigns, which time and again has sparked legal actions upon the activists. Can such an organization, which supposedly rely on physical manifestations actually benefit from social media?

Making the case:
The downfall of the Kit-Kat

In order to exemplify the immense power potential of social media campaigning and Greenpeace’s ability to leverage this power, let us take a short look at the Greenpeace vs. Nestlé campaign.
In 2010, Greenpeace launched a campaign with the aim of getting the Swiss food company Nestlé to stop buying unsustainable palm oil thereby preventing detriment of rainforest and the threatening of orangutans. At the heart of this campaign was a fake Kit-Kat video commercial focusing on the palm oil and deforestation. The video quickly went viral and was chased around by Nestlé in a internet- censorship attempt. Anti-Nestlé discussions from Greenpeace social media pages quickly moved onto the Facebook page of Nestlé, which was quickly overrun with angry protesters demanding them to stop their unethical practices in the rainforest. Nestlé handled the situation badly with angry counter comments and by deleting the negative comments. Ten weeks after the campaign had begun, Nestlé finally crumbled and announced they would stop using the unsustainable palm oil (Tiphereth, G; 2010). This was a huge victory for Greenpeace, and most certainly a huge failure for Nestlé. Even today – two years later – one will still find angry commenters plaguing the Facebook page of Nestlé.


The Nestlé campaign is just one out of many examples where the organization has successfully taken advantage of new media. In fact a multitude of other campaigns exists and a variety of different media platforms plays a role in these campaigns. It will however not be feasible to consider all of the organization’s campaigns and media usages. In order to delaminate the project I have therefore chosen to focus the attention on the use of Facebook in the ongoing campaign; Save The Arctic, which goal is to prevent oil drilling and industrial fishing in the artic region ( I have chosen this campaign because it is present, which makes it easier to collect data. Furthermore, the organization itself regards Facebook as being the most influential social media platform in their online campaigning (Hedelain, M; 2012).

Research question

What characterizes the campaign “Save the Arctic” and which affordances do Facebook offer when trying to mobilize support for the campaign?


The approach of this paper is based on complimenting methods in the form of theoretical approaches, as well as analysis of quantitative and qualitative research data. The mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods in this paper can be referred to as primitive triangulation (Jick, T; 1979). Although the methods are based on isolated boundaries of the actual investigation, together they will serve as good foundations for the analysis.

Expert interview

In order to gain an elaborate insight of the campaigning goals on digital media, the group conducted an expert interview with a digital marketing representative from Greenpeace. The purpose was to establish the objectives of the campaign as well as the organization’s own awareness of the specific affordances of online media. With this knowledge it is possible to evaluate if the intentions of the campaign match the actual outcomes.

Status updates and viral video

At the core of the online campaign lies the Facebook status updates posted on the wall of the organization. These updates are shared to all the Facebook users who are following Greenpeace and hold a great potential for user engagement. An analysis of the communication strategy will be based on status updates posted in the period between August 31st and November 2nd 2012.


Does the campaign have any affect the onlookers and do they react upon exposure? Does the effect match up to the purposed objectives of the organization? In order to answer these questions we need data about the campaigning in a larger scale. Here the group choose to use quantitative data collection in the form of a convenience sample. This was done by means of a questionnaire shared across Facebook. This makes good sense since the users here represents the exact same target audience as the one the Greenpeace online campaign (in that they are also users of Facebook).

Analysis & Discussion

With the above outline of the methods in place we are ready to continue with the analysis of the collected data. The entire collection of data will not be presented here, but only the parts, which are most relevant in connection to the research area.

Interview – objectives of the campaign

I will start this section by taking a look at the qualitative research data regarding the campaign objectives of the organization. The interview with Greenpeace digital marketing manager Michael Hedelain (MH) was based on an interview guide, which we divided into distinct themes regarding the different aspects of the organization’s use of online media. The most important points from the interview are summarized below.

MH revealed that the organization is trying to distinguish themselves from the public image of being a closed group of elitist activists. Rather, they want engagement with the masses and to run campaigns together with the masses. Social media is their instrument to reach the largest possible amount of people. Social media cannot stand alone though since the organization will always rely highly on their physical manifestations. However, when people “like”, “share” or sign up for the online campaigns it is regarded as a stamp of approval. This way the physical activist feel they have full support of everybody who signed up online.

Greenpeace’s communication on Facebook is mostly of an informal character and need to be interesting but also “sexy” in order to make it engaging. According to MH, a key aspect of their online campaigns is the collection of digital signatures. This means providing your name and your contact details. Once signed up, the organization will be able to contact petitioners regarding new initiatives and fundraising. Greenpeace’s own studies show that people are more likely to support the organization if they are updated on campaigns and initiatives. Finally, the intention of the Save the Arctic online campaign was the collection of 1 million signatures, which the organization has succeeded by far. Currently, 2.2 million people have signed the petition. Therefore Greenpeace considers the campaign as being highly successful (Hedelain, M; 2012).

The interview reveals a couple of key points. Firstly, the organization is quite focused of specifically tailoring the communicative tone and style for engagement, based on the specifics of the medium. This fact becomes evident in the analysis of the status updates. Secondly, the organization is quite aware of the specific goals and possibilities of their online strategies. There is the “official” goal of getting people to sign up to save the Arctic, but also, there is the goal of using the gathered petition information as a mean of fundraising possibilities. Here we can turn to Goffman’s dramaturgical model where he describes impression management using the front- and backstage definitions (Goffman; 1959). Even though Goffman is focused on personal face-to-face communication and presentation, it provides valuable insights about presentation and management impression, which are equally relevant in the case of Greenpeace. The backstage in this case can be regarded as their fundraising efforts, which is essential in keeping the organization itself afloat. At the front stage, we have the presentation of the campaign and the benefit of signing up i.e. saving the Arctic. In this manner the organization is deliberately putting up a front, which does not match the backstage motives since its not mentioned anywhere that they want you to donate your money. The petitioner is simply told that by signing with the click of a button he will help save the Artic. This is to some extend similar to what Morozov refers to as “slacktivism”. Morozov (2009) defines “slacktivism” as an online effort, such as signing online petitions, which makes the person who signs up feel very useful and important but in reality the effort has no real social impact.

When the marginal cost of joining yet another Facebook group are low, we click “yes” without even blinking, but the truth is that it may distract us from helping the same cause in more productive ways. Paradoxically, it often means that the very act of joining a Facebook group is often the end – rather than the beginning – of our engagement with a cause, which undermines much of digital activism.

Morozov, 2009

It seems this is exactly what is going on in the Greenpeace camping. However, in contradiction to Morozovs view of “slactivism”, the organization actually benefits from this behaviour in regards to their actual goal of simply retrieving the contact details for further engagements or donations. Here we see how the organisation has recognized the fact that online initiatives cannot stand alone.

The status updates

At the core of the Facebook campaign lie the actual status updates, posted by the organization. Throughout a two-month period, 15 status updates about Save the Arctic have been posted. In total these have been “liked” by 68.672 people and shared 19.983 times. What characterizes these updates? First of all, with the exception of a single update with an embedded video, they all contain both text and imagery. In fact Greenpeace have always relied heavily on photography in order to document environmental destruction, and as such, the use of images is an essential part of their communication strategy (Doyle; 2007).

With the ability of sharing updates with imagery on Facebook, in reference with the rooted tradition of using photography in their communication, the organization highly benefits from this specific affordance of Facebook. Different types of short writings ranging from reflections, questions or situational updates always accompany the posted images. The goal of collecting the digital signatures is quite evident since basically all the updates prompt the reader to sign up for the campaign. Therefore, we can regard the status updates not only as informational but also as means of persuasion. In order to analyse the persuasion attempts of the status updates we can turn to the three means of persuasion by Aristotle. Persuasion relies on the character of the speaker (credibility/ethos), the emotional state of the listener (pathos) and the argumentation (logos) (Aristotle; 322 BC). The principles of Aristotle specifically addressed how to speak in public, but also ring true when it comes to communication on Facebook. In this case Greenpeace is regarded as the speaker and the followers as the audience. It will not be possible to analyse all the updates. However, since the character of the updates share a quite similar pattern, I will delimit the analysis to the update illustrated in Figure 1.

Greenpeace save the artic status update on facebook.
Figure 1: Greenpeace status update on Facebook

Like the majority of the status updates, this update is mainly focused on both the logos and the pathos appeals. The text reads:

Have you ever seen a polar bear up close?

Greenpeace supporter, Stuart Yates, has and he is sharing his photos to give the rest of the world a glimpse of what makes the Arctic such a valuable place, worthy of protection.

See more of his beautiful photos here: And join the growing movement to help save the Arctic:

Greenpeace, 2013

If we start with the image, we see the mother polar bear with its two cubs. This holds strong connotations to the traditional family life – like the mother nurturing her babies. This prompts deeply emotional reflections upon the viewer’s own life and aims at creating a sense of empathy. Furthermore, the scene shows limited amounts of scattered ice in the sea, as a reminder of the declining icecaps. These are examples of pathos in the image. The text is relying mainly upon the logos appeal. The imposing question makes the reader reflect logically upon the situation in the Arctic. If indeed the ice were to melt, the polar bears would become extinct and the reader would for certain never ever see the beautiful polar bears. In this way the status update implicitly express the significance of the campaign and of signing the petition. All of this is achieved with just a short piece of writing and a single image. The presentation of the campaign using compelling imagery and limited amounts of text makes the potential for reaching the masses much larger, since people will be more willing to “like” or share such status updates. This is one of the key affordances of Facebook compared with e.g. Twitter, which does not display images in the actual Tweets or Pinterest, which does not directly display text alongside posted images.

The survey

As the final step of the data analysis, I will process some of the quantitative data from the Facebook survey 1 . A total of 88 respondents completed the questionnaire – a relatively low number in the larger perspective of the 1 billion Facebook users. Nevertheless, the data is valuable since it gives us a reasonable indication of certain tendencies within the group and therefore it paints the big picture. The most interesting data comes from the question regarding people’s activity of sharing, “liking” or following an embedded link on a previous status-update about Save the Arctic. The data reveals that not only did the majority of respondents (80%) read the post; they also liked the post and followed the link to the campaign site. A bit less, approximately 50% of the respondents actually shared the link across their network. It should be noted that 28% of the people who actually saw the post were already followers of the Greenpeace Facebook page, but 22% of the non-followers also saw the update.

From this data we can see that the identified pathos appeal in the status updates seems to be working quite well. Not only do people read the status updates, but also find them interesting as indicated by their subsequent active engagement. This is important. On the short run, the goal of engaging the viewer to go deeper and climb the ladder of engagement is fulfilled but more importantly, getting the message out and about is achieved when the viewer shares the update in his network. We can use Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” to elaborate further upon this. Granovetter (1978) identifies personal relations into strong ties and weak ties i.e. people in close and distant networks respectively. The weak ties facilitate the flow of information between clusters of close networks or strong ties. This way information can be distributed across vast networks like the spread of bacteria. According to Bakshy (2012), the probability of a person sharing a link increases tenfold when the link stems from a weak tie. In fact weak ties are responsible for the majority of all information spreading on the network. The weak ties maintain the network since everyone is connected and news can spread very quickly. In the case of Facebook this is interesting since the majority of connections in the network consists of weak ties (Easley, D & Kleinberg, J; 60-63).

Persuading the masses

Based on the analysis of the interview and the status updates I believe its clear that the online strategy can all be boiled down to mass persuasion. Simply put, the organization is trying to change attitudes of people and make them engage actively in way or another. This strategy is made possible due to an array of specific affordances, which are all present on Facebook. Some of these have already been identified above. Here I will try to create a final overview using what Fogg refers to as “Mass Interpersonal Persuasion (MIT)” – changing attitudes and behaviour on a mass scale.
According to Fogg (2008), Facebook was the first platform to combine six specific components in one place, which are all needed in order to achieve MIT. These components are; persuasive experience, automated structure, social distribution, rapid cycle, huge social graph, and measured impact. I believe these components are more or less self-explanatory, so let us see how each are realized in the campaign.

Persuasive experience: this is the campaign itself, engaging the viewer to follow the embedded links and sign up. As mentioned this is realised by means of the logos and pathos appeal of the status updates.

Automated structure: Fist off all, the campaign is constantly accessible and does not rely on informants chasing people down the street. Secondly, the automated structure makes the social distribution easy – people are able to share instantly with the click of a button.

Social distribution and huge social graph: Connections gets updated when others “like” or share post about the campaign. Due to the nature of the timeline, the exact content of the posts is visible to all who shares it. The potential of reaching the masses is realized due to the immense amount of Facebook users and due to the “weak ties” in the network.

Rapid cycle: The campaign is spreading fast across the network, which builds momentum. The time from people getting involved into evolving their connections is short.

Rapid cycle time builds momentum and enthusiasm. Not only does the level of involvement grow quickly with a rapid cycle, but the rate of involvement also goes up. Momentum sweeps many people into a movement who may otherwise not get involved.

Fogg, 2008, p.7

This was especially witnessed by quickly exceeding the initial goal of collecting 1 million petition-signatures on the campaign site. Furthermore this facilitates the persuasion experience since followers receives the news and updates, often while the action is unfolding.

Measured impact: Statistical data is quite visible on Facebook. Here its possible to see how many likes, shares or comments have been made on the posts. In this way people get feedback on their efforts, which also builds momentum.

This feedback likely increases the motivation for people sharing the experience. On the receiving side, visibility creates more pressure for the person who is invited. They may want to avoid an awkward situation like this: ‘Hey, I invited you to support the Burmese monks. You never joined the group. Don’t you care about what’s going on?’

Fogg; 2008, p. 8

Since the majority of the status updates regarding the campaign has an emotional appeal the organization may highly benefit from an element of pressure. Furthermore an element of social proof or herd behaviour may exist. Finally, the statistical data allows the organisation to evaluate the effectiveness of their campaign.


Using the Facebook platform as a strategic campaigning tool, the Greenpeace organisation is attempting to save the Arctic region. Their efforts in doing so are characterized by exploiting the social distribution affordance along with the mass persuasion potential, which is made possible by Facebook. Relying mainly on emotional pathos elements in the form of imagery and short text, the organization manages to persuade the masses into signing up for the campaign. The engagement does however not simply end with the user signing up. Within the signatures lie an important potential of engaging users further – which is essentially the goal of the campaign. This way the initiatives does not simply become acts of meaningless slacktivism. This is especially important since the organization relies entirely on the funding from the private individuals. Wether or not the organization actually manages to retrieve their funding after the signatures still remains to be answered. The online efforts will not replace the physical manifestations but merely facilitates the overall cause by serving as a mass-supporting platform. Therefore Facebook itself will not save the Artic but it certainly facilitates this goal.


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