While researching UKIP attitudes to renewable energy projects in rural Britain, Matt Reed uncovered how social media is being used to promote climate change scepticism. Here, he demonstrates how UKIP is part of a wider wave of ‘anti-reflexive movements’, promoting distrust and doubt to further certain political ends.
Most political actors now use social media to promote and explain their positions; UKIP is part of that trend. How social media is used can reveal significant patterns in the intentions and messages that Twitter is being used to communicate. Most studies of such usage have tended to focus on an enormous number of tweets and then a system for testing sentiment or ideas by the use of keywords. In this study, I took a different path by collecting the entirety of the twitter feed of UKIP’s chief spokesperson on energy, as well as that of the leader.
Using specialist software, I analysed a thousand of these tweets manually and then used automated tools to explore the other 16,000. While reading and analysing the tweets I followed hyperlinks to the reports and newspapers items, collecting them as well and subjecting them to the same level of scrutiny. To this body of materials, I added a search of local and regional newspapers on the topic of UKIP and energy.
Very quickly it became apparent that UKIP had little to say about rural life, apart from some very generic statements about pubs and hunting with hounds.
“Not only does @DPJHOdges get my local [pub] wrong (I have 2, mind) but he also misses the point that in rural England these things do matter”. (Nigel Farage, tweet, 12 December 2012)
Boxing Day greetings to Hunt Supporters everywhere. I'm planning to go to the Fernie Meet in Great Bowden.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) December 26, 2013
Rather the focus of the messages was a case against renewable energy for a battery of interlocking reasons. Wind turbines in this argument despoil the countryside, are not economically sound:
@ret_ward Because they're despoiling our countryside, driving up energy prices, and undermining our economic competitiveness.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) August 5, 2013
In a link to the EU, they are part of the waste that it supposedly fosters.
Whilst you reach for your jumper to save on heating bills the EU gives your money to the energy companies to… http://t.co/tNU9Ehid9Q
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) October 28, 2013
However, most of all they symbolise all that UKIP see as wrong with contemporary British politics.
Most of all, I hate wind turbines because they're symbols of monstrous, pointless waste, and futile political correctness.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) July 1, 2012
Deeper analysis started to suggest that this opposition to renewable energy generation nestled in a wider pattern of directing readers’ attention to other arguments and opinions. Little use of hashtags or indexing terms in the tweets meant that they did not travel widely but were intended for those following the account. Rather than taking part in a wider debate most of the messages in the accounts were creating political messages. This strategy was reinforced by links to blogs, and websites that promote climate scepticism, mostly ‘Climate Depot’ and ‘The Global Warming Policy Foundation’, as well as conservative journalists and other EU-sceptics. In this discussion, the lexicon of climate change is changed so that concern about climate change is ‘alarmism’ and those raising public awareness are ‘warmists’.
Climate alarmism: Why we should challenge the "scientific consensus": http://t.co/vYooPiOSUY. And how money drives green attitudes.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) May 26, 2013
A favourite target is the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the sample: 78 tweets mention the IPCC. None of those references involves positive terms, but it is ‘bogus’, ‘falling apart’, ‘doctored’, ‘formalised guesswork’, ‘decisively disproved’ and ‘absurd.’ The following is used as an explanation:
@hashtageruk @UKIP No. And we're not sceptical about climate research. We're sceptical about the IPCC's dodgy assumptions & modelling.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) March 18, 2014
Readers are directed towards blogs which take a similarly hostile stance:
“IPCC lead author Dr Richard Linden has accused it of having ‘sunk to a level of hilarious incoherence. Nigel Lawson has called it “not science but mumbo jumbo”’. The Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Dr David Whitehouse has described the IPCC’s panel as ‘evasive and inaccurate’ in the way it tried to dodge the key issue of the 15-year at least pause in global warming”. (James Delingpole, The Daily Telegraph, 6 October 2013)
That all those cited above are well-known climate change sceptics is not mentioned. For example, Lord Lawson launched the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) but the article continues, “The man-made global warming scare story has not a shred of scientific credibility”, and that its defenders hide behind a “barrage of lies, ad homs, coverups, rank-closings, blustering threats”.
Taken together it is clear that social media is used by UKIP in these examples to foster their argument in a way that a pamphlet might. Because of the opportunity to link to other media, it starts to construct a situation where only similar or aligned arguments are expressed or heard. Often these are without the editorial oversight that might be found in traditional forms of media. It is clearly fostering not just a scepticism towards climate change but many of the key institutions around these public debates.
Opponents of the UKIP view are regarded as having selfish motives, foisting waste on others and benefiting themselves. The evidence in this paper showed that UKIP did not have an organised presence in rural areas but was taking opportunities where they found them. Countering this narrative involves engaging not only the arguments of UKIP and its allies but giving consideration to social conditions in which these debates are held. In this example, UKIP looked to exploit feelings of those who felt marginal; from Westminster, political parties and the development of contemporary society.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Space and Policy.
Matt Reed is Senior Research Fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Insitute.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: mkhmarketing on Flicker under a CC BY licence.