Social media engagement increases government action, reduces pollution: study

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Citizen engagement through social media leads to a significant improvement in government response and a decrease in water and air pollution, a new study has found.

Using China as a testbed, an international team of researchers said they asked citizen volunteers to send out both public and private messages appealing for action after industrial plant violations occurred.

Public appeals for action — sent through the Twitter-like social media site Weibo — reduced violations by more than 60 percent, according to the study, published on Thursday by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Such appeals decreased air and water pollution by 12.2 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively, the researchers found.

“We found that social media is the new ‘public street,’ galvanizing momentum for change in much the same way as a protest or march, and the more popular the social posts are, the more effective they are in generating action from the government,” study co-author Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute, said in a statement.

“More specifically, it demonstrates that providing the public with information about individual polluter’s emissions can lead to pollution reduction,” Greenstone added.

When the visibility of social media posts increased through “likes” and “shares” — boosting the appearance of public support — government regulators were 40 percent more likely to respond and 65 percent more likely to inspect the plants in question, according to the study.

While private appeals — sent through a government hotline or online messaging platform — also led to improvements, they do so by a lesser amount, the researchers noted.

“Our study found that social media can be a very effective, and easy, tool to involve citizens in the government process and hold regulators accountable,” Shaoda Wang, deputy faculty director for the Energy Policy Institute’s China branch, said in a statement.

“The fact that the more popular social posts spurred more action from government officials is not surprising, but does confirm that there is a lot of opportunity for citizens to participate in governance and help improve government accountability,” Wang added.

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