What Internet Memes Tell Us About People’s Views on Environmental Issues

by | Jan 4, 2023

Social Media

Environmental issues have never been so present in our everyday lives. Environmental issues dominate the public debate, involving NGOs, public authorities, companies, and fellow citizens. Research clearly highlights the mental health outcomes of going through natural disasters. Yet, little is known about the mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences caused by being aware of climate change. This research contributes to the emerging literature on the mental health consequences of environmental degradation by investigating public opinion on this matter.

Following previous studies on topics such as politics, religion, and gender issues, we investigate citizen-consumers’ representations of environmental issues by examining user-generated content in the form of internet memes. Internet memes are a rich and increasingly investigated source of data for researchers. Combining words and images allows individuals to express a wide range of emotions and assert their opinions. Beyond their humorous intent, internet memes convey critical meaning and say a lot about ideologies, social structures, and cultural symbols.

“As trivial and insignificant as they may seem at first glance, these means of expression [memes] appear to have meaningful implications for understanding a culture.”

For our study, we collected and analyzed more than 800 internet memes collected rom major social media platforms and imageboards, such as Twitter, Instagram, and 4Chan. Using an inductive approach without expecting any specific phenomena a priori, we discovered that environmental degradation can be a source of serious psychological distress, as depicted in many memes expressing a pessimistic view of the future, feelings of powerlessness, and even environmental anxiety. Our results also stress the social consequences in terms of in-group/out-group opposition. Environmental concerns emerge as an important component in categorizing individuals and defining social identity. Moreover, our analysis emphasizes the existence of stereotypical representations of all the actors involved in the environmental crisis and the recurring tendency to anthropomorphize the earth.

“Despite the severity of the previously mentioned anxiety disorder, the vast majority of the memes we analyzed have a humorous or ironic tone. Humor appears to be a way of mitigating the dramatic situation.”

Overall, we propose that engaging in content generation in the form of memes enables individuals to feel re-empowered and reduce the psychological distress they experience due to climate change. We integrate our findings into a relevant theoretical framework.

Full reference: Elgaaied-Gambier, Leila and Timo Mandler (2021), “Me Trying to Talk About Sustainability: Exploring the Psychological and Social Implications of Environmental Threats Through User-Generated Content,” Ecological Economics, 187, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2021.107089

Cite for: Ecological crisis, qualitative analysis, internet memes, user-generated content and public opinion, psychological well-being, eco-anxiety, social tensions, social representations

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