Social media, social norms and the issue of plastic bags – Monash Lens

When the Quit campaign helped turn Australians away from nicotine, we also learned that publicity can be a force for good.

Behavioral science researcher Kim Borg wondered if the powerful techniques that inspired a generation to change their behavior for the sake of their health could also be used to protect the environment.

In the case of smoking, the change has been twofold: individual and societal. Smokers have been gradually evicted from workplaces and restaurants, and from parking lots and alleys. As more and more people have been forced to adapt to the new laws, once mundane behavior – a social norm – has become unacceptable.

Borg’s doctoral research focused on the evolution of standards towards single-use plastics, particularly plastic bags.

Its aim was to provide information to policy makers who wish to implement environmental policies designed to target “voluntary and prescriptive” behavior change. The ban on plastic bags was a powerful example that played out in real life.

How to persuade Australians to give up their free access to this ubiquitous product? Wouldn’t we forget to carry the heavier plastic or fabric replacement bags? Would we be mad at a supermarket ban on plastic bags?

Part of her doctorate examined the interaction between social media, regarding the ban on plastic bags in supermarkets, and reporting on the subject.

“Research is trying to understand how the media is already influencing our behavior without our necessarily knowing it,” she says. “I was trying to understand how social norms are expressed in news media and how they are expressed in social media, and look at the interaction between the two and see how things have changed over time. . ”


Read more: How to break away from plastics using behavioral science


Lightweight plastic bags make up only 1% of the country’s waste stream by weight, but have a shocking impact on marine environments, where they break down into microplastics and enter the food stream, or are consumed by marine animals because that they look like jellyfish.

In 2018, when supermarket plastic bag bans were introduced, the media reported starving dead whales with plastic bags in their stomachs. And influential documentaries have appeared, such as The war on waste and Blue planet 2, who examined how indiscriminate plastic consumption affects the environment.

Borg’s research looked at 42 news articles published between July 2017, when the bans were first announced by Coles and Woolworths, through September 2018, a month after the bans were fully implemented. During that time, “there were reports of backflip and backlash, and all kinds of stuff,” Borg says.

Sustained ban on social networks

On social media, most commentators, but not all, supported the ban on plastic bags. News media, on the other hand, initially signaled their support for the ban, but then published articles about disgruntled consumers complaining about the inconvenience, including a notorious incident in which a buyer attempted to ‘strangling a Woolworths staff member over lack of free plastic bags.

On August 1, Coles responded to the negative news by announcing that it was indefinitely introducing free reusable bags. This elicited a very negative response on social media, Borg says.

“Social media commentators said,“ Oh my God, you can’t backflip. ”People went from sharing opinions specifically about the ban to talking about Coles and their indecision… They said, he just make a decision and commit to it.

“If people are exposed to more content on social media, what do they think about social norms around plastic bags? And if they are exposed to more topical content, what do they believe? We found that the news media was not at all a significant predictor of perceptions of social norms.

The condemnation was similar to that of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who described climate change as the moral challenge of a generation – then withdrew from his own climate change policy. Politically, Rudd has never recovered from this about-face.

Likewise, Coles “damaged their brand” by being indecisive, Borg says. Reports of individual consumers reacting badly to the ban were not false, she said, although some were misleading. The story of the assault, for example, “was repeated in several newspaper articles, published at different times, which gave the impression that this behavior was really common, when it was only a question of an example”.

Interrupt the dominant narrative

Meanwhile, the social media response to these disgruntled consumers has also been instructive.

“The biggest opinion that came out on social media was, ‘We don’t approve of these bad behaviors and we don’t approve of your complaints.” The sentiment was,’ Go on with your life, shut up, move on, don’t you. that moan ‘. ”

Social media has given “everyday people the opportunity to interrupt the dominant narrative,” she says.

“What we’ve seen on social media is a lot better match anyway with what we’re seeing in opinion polls around the plastic bag ban,” Borg said.


Read more: Bans are effective, but not the end of the game to solve the plastic problem


This finding was reinforced by subsequent research which asked, “If people are exposed to more content on social media, what do they think about social norms around plastic bags?” And if they are exposed to more topical content, what do they believe? We found that the news media was not at all a significant predictor of perceptions of social norms.

A similar pattern could be seen with COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria. Reporting focused on their negative effects, but most Victorians have shown a remarkable willingness to comply with the restrictions for the greater good.

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