The Aarhus Convention and the Protocol on PRTRs – Some Thoughts on the Right to Information and Social Media

On 2nd July 2014 I was privileged to participate in a high level panel at the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention and to the Protocol on PRTRs.  I was invited by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to talk about the Right to Information and social media.

For those of you not familiar with the Aarhus Convention, the treaty provides protections for the environment and human rights.  The Convention’s critical focus is on involving the public to keep governments accountable.  Our rights under the Convention include the right to have access to environmental information, the right to participate and the right to effective access to justice.   Here is an excellent guide Quick Guide to the Aarhus Convention.

I think it is clear that social media has transformed human communications and it has profound implications for the Right to Information and the Right to Participation. So that’s what I broadly spoke about. Below is a summary of what I said, it’ not a transcript as I did add lib and missed some things out, but it covers the main points of my contribution; plus a bit extra now that I have had chance to reflect on the subject even more.

So why is social media so important for the Right to Information?

Social media is so important because more and more of us are spending time with our eyeballs in Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Vine and so on, rather than staring at other media.  This means information is increasingly finding its way into people’s minds through a myriad of social channels[1] and less through traditional means.   So if environmental information is just the same as any other information, then executing The Right to Information successfully will be dependent upon being good at social media.  This includes environmental data being provided in a social media ready way e.g. by making it available in the form of infographics, social video, animation and pictures.

Secondly, social media is also changing people’s behaviour.  People have embraced the sharing phenomena so much so that it is has become a cultural norm to check social networks and spread information, advice and guidance to their connections.  Consequently social media has democratised the distribution of environmental information.

Social media has also widened the opportunities for participation through simple acts of engagement like retweeting, liking, commenting and sharing. Yes some people do just lurk, checking out what people are up to but not engaging,  but even the ‘lurkers’ (and the less active commentators) are still getting their news through social networks[2].  So social media has fundamentally changed how people access environmental information even if they do not participate.

Another reason social media matters so much is because of its impact on the human psyche.  It is said that people get withdrawal symptoms if they don’t check their networks and that they get a rush when someone interacts with their posts or social content[3].  It almost seems that people are getting hooked on consuming their news this way.  So obviously people who care about the Right to Information need to take advantage of this addiction, to help to spread their news.

Social media also has an amazing reach.  For example, during the morning session of the Maastricht Conference #aarhusconvention reached at least 54,000 accounts with some 183,663 timeline impressions. There were even more posts about the environment flying around the social universe as we all spoke.  So another benefit is that social media is built for the distribution of information, advice and guidance and this includes digital content about our environment

But it’s not all good is it? There are bad things about social media that must be considered.

One of the most negative aspects of social media and the Right to Information is the ease at which misinformation and even worse disinformation can be spread, often quickly and gain traction.  Social media posts and the facts they contain are hard to check, accounts are hard to verify and it is very easy to remain anonymous.  So there are potential problems with the quality of environmental information circulating around social networks.  Even worse, people can easily spread untruths and manipulate the facts (engaging in disinformation).

There is also a plausible argument that, unchecked, social media can insulate people against new information or more so information that challenges their preferred view.  Research shows that humans have a natural tendency to be drawn to information or conversations that support their beliefs, so called confirmation bias[4].  In the social media era this can result in people forming likeminded networks and living in so called propaganda bubbles.  The big danger for the effectiveness of the Right to Information is that these propaganda bubbles could easily be propagated with misinformation and disinformation.

Another issue is that not everyone is equal in the world of social media and some individuals and organisation are able to disseminate information better than others.  Certainly NGOs have become powerful digital gatekeepers who are able to push stories and set off Internet memes much more effectively than many other stakeholders involved in environmental issues. For environmental information this means that some individuals and organisations can dominate the distribution of information across social networks, drowning out the voice of the less influential.

Then there is the problem of the digital divide. Many people still do not use social media and/or do not have access to the Internet.  These people are already being placed at a disadvantage, as more information is distributed through social media channels.  Unchecked, this digital social exclusion will only get worse in coming years, undermining some people’s right to information.

Another concern is that protesting is too easy in the age of social media.  It is possible to get involved in environmental issues and campaign against projects impacting on the environment at the click of a button; by hitting the like button or retweeting a comment.   People can therefore indicate support for a particular issue or protest against it without needing to digest the facts in detail. I.e. they just pass them on by sharing, retweeting, reposting and so forth.  For this reason, some people think that social media is undermining people’s capacity to deliberate important environmental issues.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that social media reinforces the ability of the so called NIMBY[5] brigade to mobilise against projects that impact on their immediate environment.   Social media accounts are easy to create and fast to set up.  Once they are created they become a powerful tool for spreading information, misinformation and disinformation with little scrutiny or accountability of the author.   This can make it hard for other interested parties to find the truth behind arguments that quickly become polarised and extreme.

But the opportunities are too huge to let any of the above stop us socialising the Right to Information, surely?

One fundamental benefit of social media to the Right to Information is its tremendous lowering of the barriers to participation, to finding information about our environment.  It must be true that never before has there been such an accessible mechanism for connecting with people and organisations that have information and knowledge about the environment.

Furthermore, if folk choose to connect with other people interested in the environment, then they will never be short of environmental information.  The architecture of social media will also ensure that once these connections are made, environmental news and data will always find them. All of this will fundamentally reduce the effort it takes to access environmental information, thereby encouraging greater participation.

In addition social media also encourages people to create their own content, for example pictures, videos and infographics about their environment. This type of behaviour is ideal for encouraging people to access environmental information, by creating it themselves and by sharing it across their networks.   This distribution of user generated content greatly enhances the Right to Participation and has created a massive opportunity for people to engage in the principles of the Aarhus Convention.

Finally, the saying goes that information is power. Therefore if social media has radically increased people’s access to information, then power must have shifted towards the people and away from representative organisations. Informed people must be more likely to challenge environmental decisions and will more readily scrutinise information organisations produce.  This has placed a premium on transparency and accountability with more and more people demanding access to the truth.  Clearly this has significant implications for Parties to the convention and people involved in environmental decisions.

So what conclusions can be drawn from all this?

The conclusion is quite simple. It has to be accepted that social media has changed how humans consume environmental information and engage in environmental issues. Parties to The Aarhus Convention must therefore embrace this change. Failure to do so will undermine the relevance of the Convention and it will prevent interested parties getting their information to the right people at the right time.

Jonathan Bradley September 2014.

@jontybradley

www.participate.uk.com

[1] 59% of online adults say they use YouTube for information [OFCOM 2014]

[2] There are 2.1 billion search engine queries on Twitter per day [http://www.statisticbrain.com/twitter-statistics/] and 40% of Twitter users don’t Tweet but jus watch

[3] http://guardianlv.com/2014/06/social-media-is-addictive/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

[5] Not in my back yard

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