Austrian activists of “last generation Austria” have splashed a Gustav Klimt painting with oil in the Leopold museum in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, Nov.15, 2022. The painting is behind a glass cover and was unharmed. (AP Photo/Letzte Generation Oesterreich)

The theme for this series of columns can be summed up as an attempt to answer the following question:

Can supporters of a rational, economically-feasible transition to renewable energy reasonably hope to convince enough policy makers and members of the public that the overly zealous goals of dogmatic environmentalists are irrational and potentially dangerous?

I have spent some time over the past few months assembling research. And my research shows that the world of online communications has been turned on its head over the past couple of years. This is due to incredible advances in accessibility to big data and the capacity to analyze the massive amounts of information that are becoming available through large digital portals. Early days applications of these technologies include the Vote Leave side for the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s successful bid for the Republican presidential nomination – both in 2016. Since then, there have been more impressive developments in real time message testing, opinion polling and opinion shaping strategies.

What was state-of-the-art thinking for the Brexit campaign is now old news. It has been supplanted by new data platforms and systems of analysis.

As of this year artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have captured considerable public attention. It is widely assumed AI will change the entire landscape of digital data and opinion management. Furthermore, the capacity of AI driven technologies to create deep fake communications suggests that the production and dissemination of persuasive information will frustrate credulity. Fake news claims of the past will seem like minor irritants compared to what’s coming. Pundits from the computer world predict that the way information and persuasive communications is deployed on the internet will be revolutionized in ways nobody quite yet understands.

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At the same time it’s probably useful to remember how often futurists and boosters of all things digital get it wrong. Much of the hype around AI will no doubt fail to meet the expectations of the pessimists who predict computers will destroy civilization as we know it or the optimists who assume it’s going to solve all our problems.

It is unlikely everything that has been effectively employed in online communications and social media over the past two decades is obsolete. But we need to avoid the classic error of generals in the 20th century – thinking they could fight the upcoming war using the same strategies, tactics and technologies they used in the last war.

With the foregoing qualifications in mind, let’s look at how ENGOs successfully adopted the internet as their principal communications platform.

Environmental movement goes online big time in 2009

It was only 14 years ago when senior executives at Greenpeace made the decision to embrace the internet and more specifically social media as their principal communications platform. Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace, told activists at a climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that the environmental movement faced “a burning platform moment.”

Naidoo warned that if the environmental movement did not make a radical change in how it communicated and shift its activities to a platform based on the internet and social media “it risked becoming irrelevant.” More important than realizing that social media was about to shake up the world of communication was the fact Greenpeace took the action required to create a solid online presence and become leaders in the field of online communication.

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In 2010, Greenpeace hired the internet guru Michael Silberman to create and manage an organization named the “Mobilisation Lab”. It provided ENGOs with the opportunity to test advocacy messages on large online audiences and increased the digital capabilities of ENGOs when it came to message promotion and setting up community-based campaigns and organizations around the world.

FILE – Greenpeace activists protest with a banner reading “Future” on a big scale with a SUV car during the Supervisory Board meeting of car maker Volkswagen AG in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Dec. 9, 2021. A German court on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, rejected a lawsuit by environmental group Greenpeace aiming to force automaker Volkswagen to stop selling vehicles with combustion engines by 2030. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

 

The internet and digital platforms on social media became the ENGOs’ principal vehicles for conducting advocacy campaigns, education and awareness programs, communicating with activists and fundraising. Their advocacy and fundraising campaigns became more successful than ever and their bank balances soared as a result.

As it turned out, 2010 also marked the point when social media platforms like Facebook achieved critical mass and were starting to play a major role in shaping public opinion. Facebook was launched in 2004 and claims to have nearly three billion users today. Greenpeace caught the wave and went digital during the period when Facebook was in the midst of its most rapid growth phase.

By 2012 it was clear that Greenpeace’s Naidoo had been right, a communications revolution was underway. Instagram, a photo and video posting site launched in 2010, had 1 million users in its first month and 10 million by the end of its first year. Twitter was created in 2006 and had 100 million users making 340 million tweets per day by 2012.

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The power to influence opinion on a massive scale

Climate change and the war on fossil fuels became top of mind issues for social activists, journalists, academics and policy makers around 2010 in conjunction with the digital revolution.

“Northern Awokening: How social justice and woke language have infiltrated Canadian news media”, a study by David Rozado and Aaron Wudrick, published this spring by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute describes how 2010 marked an explosion in support of a suite of postmodern ideas about social justice that constitute what is commonly referred to as “wokeness.” The study presents a series of charts that look like they were made with a cookie cutter that show how public opinion underwent a sea change in 2010. The study made use of data collected from two decades worth of articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post. Their results clearly show that the emergence of postmodern woke culture coincided with the period when digital and social media came to dominate and shape public discourse. As far as historical inflection points go, 2010 was a big one.

The topics explored in the study included ideas and key words including: transphobia, racism, misogyny, sexism, Islamophobia, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. Had the study focused more attention on Canadian media one would expect top billing to go to terms such as colonialism, reconciliation and climate change. Based on research presented in some of my past Pipeline Online columns, it is safe to presume that climate change activism along with veganism/vegetarianism are stars in the constellation of issues and ideas that constitute postmodern woke culture.

My February 2023 column, “How social media madness and sloppy journalism misrepresent climate science,” described the synergistic relationship between journalists from the mainstream media and climate change activists on Twitter. On the one hand, journalists purportedly provide environmentalists and climate activists with the objective “factual” information required to reinforce their opinions about oil and natural gas consumption. At the same time the journalists themselves make use of Twitter postings by climate change activists and woke social media influencers to determine what is accurate and newsworthy. So much for pristine journalistic objectivity.

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Journalists’ interactions with activists on social media occur within the internet geography occupied by the political left, the so-called “progressives,” and the postmodern culturally “woke.” Unfortunately, supporters of conventional energy are largely confined to those internet communities associated with right-wing conservative world views. This means that ideas and information supportive of conventional energy are stuck in one ideological silo and those who oppose oil and gas and have apocalyptical views about climate change are stuck in another. Both camps communicate largely with themselves, which means accurate reflections of alternative viewpoints typically don’t make it from silo to silo.

The gigabytes of information and analysis that is supportive of ongoing fossil fuel consumption and a less alarmist approach to climate change are employed when the already convinced are talking to the previously converted. Environmental activists don’t read Alex Epstein when looking for information on fossil fuels and climate change (and I doubt my columns are re-tweeted by Steven Guilbeault or Greenpeace). People looking for news go to the sites that confirm their pre-existing biases. Obviously, if the goal is to change minds and persuade others to see the wisdom of one’s position – you have to expose them to your message. People from the opposing camp need to hear what you’ve got to say and what you say needs to be convincing.

These tasks are especially critical for supporters of conventional energy and those who hold reasoned, as opposed to alarmist, positions regarding climate change. This is because policy makers, including senior civil servants, public opinion leaders, social media influencers, journalists and non-conservative politicians are inclined to obtain information from the left side of the digital universe. And, since people from the left frequently form governments we’ve been subject to tanker bans, Byzantine pipeline approval processes, carbon taxes and potentially ruinous plans to achieve net zero by 2050.

For Western Canadians who support conventional energy, policy challenges are of course exacerbated by the fact that wokeness is most prevalent in the big cities of Central Canada (and southwestern British Columbia) where federal elections are decided. People from the high population metropolitan centres are immersed in the zeitgeist of postmodernism and woke culture. Because of their physical and socio-cultural proximity to academics, school teachers and political elites from the left, voters from the major metropolitan centres are more likely to embrace postmodern interpretations of the world than voters from the rest of Canada.

As we saw in the first column in this series, supporters of Western Canada’s energy industry, like their counterparts in the US, were caught with their pants down when Big Green launched its internet savvy campaigns against oil and natural gas. Worse yet, the conventional energy industry and its supporters have not yet done what is needed to adapt to current conditions – let alone develop strategies for dealing with the impacts of new technological developments in the field of persuasion.

Tuesday: What can be done?

 

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