Increasing the Visibility of Appeals on Social Media Lead Regulators to Become More Responsive
When high levels of pollution filled the air and waterways of American communities in the 1960’s, citizens took to the streets and marched for change on the first Earth Day in 1970—leading to major government efforts to control pollution. Today, social media has largely become the gathering place for people throughout the world. But does it effectively lead to change? A new study takes up this question.
The international team of researchers investigated if citizen pressure could improve environmental enforcement and reduce pollution, and if so, what types of citizen pressure—private or public. Exploring this in the context of China, citizen volunteers sent messages appealing for action after an industrial plant violation occurred. Some of the messages were sent privately through a government hotline or online messaging platform, others were sent through the popular Twitter-like Chinese social media site Weibo.
The researchers found that the public appeals for action delivered through social media reduced violations by more than 60 percent, and decreased air and water pollution by 12.2 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. Private appeals also led to improvements but by a lesser amount. When the visibility of the social media appeals increased through “likes” and “shares,” creating at least the appearance of growing public support, government regulators were 40 percent more likely to reply and about 64 percent more likely to inspect the polluting plants.
Bottom line: Engaging the public in efforts to reduce pollution can significantly reduce air and water pollution. Additionally, social media is a powerful tool to facilitate citizen involvement in policy implementation and to hold regulators accountable. And these lessons extend beyond China to include countries like the United States, Canada, India, Indonesia, and others looking to citizen engagement to overcome environmental enforcement challenges.