Social Media for Environmental Action: What Prompts Engagement and Intent Toward Activism

By Carol Terracina-Hartman, Brian Bienkowski, Michael Myers and Shaheen Kanthawala.

Published by The Technology Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: March 21, 2014 $US5.00

As many communications organizations employ social media without a handbook or from prior decades of public relations guidelines, how these groups use this new delivery method to build relationships must be examined. These are groups that need to spur people to action, to activism, and to continually act – sometimes digging into their wallets, often to spread the message. Environmental messages can prompt fear and high perceived threat, or remain informational. The impacts of different framing methods are important to research to determine effective messages through social media.

Using electronic means to communicate allows organizations an option for promoting and branding themselves as more sustainable for not producing and distributing a printed product. Is it as effective? What is the most effective framing method? Fear? Informational? Thus our study asks the research question: How is behavioral intent to take environmental action influenced or moderated by perceived environmental threat, perceived efficacy, and fear level?

For this study, we have chosen an experiment and survey as our method. We randomly assigned a questionnaire with a video about coal from the Sierra Club to half the participants. The video offers much information about coal as an energy source. The other half of participants received a questionnaire with a video about coal from Greenpeace. The video contains no information about coal. Instead, it is an ominous animation that starts with a single piece of coal that ends up destroying the world. Prior to viewing the video, participants detail levels of ecological concern and level of involvement in environmental issues. Their responses provide a baseline demographic profile as to their engagement in community, social issues, as well as social media use and their opportunities for activism.
Results show people are motivated to act when frightened, threatened, and responses exist that could alleviate those threats.

Keywords: Social Media, Ngo, Environment, Activism, Efficacy, YouTube, Twitter, Engagement

International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp.143-161. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: March 21, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 475.549KB)).

Dr. Carol Terracina-Hartman

Doctoral Researcher, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

Carol Terracina Hartman has 18 years experience working in communications, ranging from public radio to daily newspapers to book publishers. Her job titles range from designer to producer to news editor. Presently, she is the owner / operator of Terracina Editorial & Graphics, based in Pennsylvania, counting Columbus Business Journal, Central Pennsylvania Business Journal,, Trail Runner, Second Front radio, Comstock’s Business, and others as regular clients. She maintains a foothold in the academic world, having served as a campus media advisor for 12 years, working with student journalists in Wisconsin, California and Pennsylvania. The American River Current earned General Excellence five consecutive years in JACC statewide competition while she was the advisor. She saw The Clarion Call through a redesign, a lab rebuild, and the addition of an online edition, including video. Presently, she is a third-year doctoral student at Michigan State University, working as a grad assistant with the Knight Centre for Environmental Journalism. Her research has been accepted at AEJMC 2011 (mid-winter and national), CMA / ACP 2011, 2011 Conference on Sustainability, Journalism and Media Regeneration; ICERI2011, BEA 2012. She also serves on the advisory committee for IATED 2012. Her research will be published in an upcoming edition of “Public Understanding of Science” and is in revision to “Mass Communication and Journalism Educator.”

Brian Bienkowski

Graduate Assistant, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

Brian Bienkowski is a 2012 graduate of the master's program at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He conducted both qualitative and quantitative research on environmental communication while at the Knight Center. He is now a senior editor at Environmental Health News, where he writes and edits stories about health issues linked to environmental causes. He has been an environmental journalist for three years.

Michael Myers

Graduate Assistant, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

Michael Myers is a second-year graduate student working toward his Master's degree in Advertising at Michigan State University. His research interests include analyzing emotions and motivations involved in commercial advertising. Under the direction of Patricia Huddleston, he developed a study investigating the effects of sexual stimuli in advertising on purchase behavior. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts & Graphic Design from Hillsdale College.

Shaheen Kanthawala

Graduate Assistant, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

Shaheen Kanthawala is a second-year Master's student in the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism program at Michigan State University's School of Journalism. She is conducting both qualitative and quantitative research, currently working on a content analysis of climate change reporting in the Great Lakes newspapers. She is a native of Bombay, India, where she earned a Bachelor's degree in biology. See her journalism work at


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