The title was carefully chosen.
On Monday, I gave a talk to around 100 engaged and engaging students taking part in the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenge 2017. The students are introduced to a number of global challenges, and expected to work in interdisciplinary groups to come up with solutions. This year, climate change features in a number of the challenges and so I talked on “surviving the climate communications environment”, from the perspective of a scientist.
I’ve been thinking about this talk for a little while – this version (lightly edited slides here) was tailored for students who might be engaging on climate online, but I’m working on a version to help and encourage my scientist peers to talk about their science online.
In preparation, I asked those peers already on twitter what their experiences were.
HEY EVERYBODY I’m writing a talk on communicating climate change from a scientist’s perspective, and I’d like your input … 1
— Doug McNeall (@dougmcneall) May 25, 2017
Good, bad, life changing or funny, I wanted to hear what happens when you talk climate science online. I had a great response to the tweet – both on twitter and via email – and I’d like to thank everyone who responded. I’m collating the responses, and will talk about them a bit later.
But I’d like first to talk about what I think is the most important issue that arose from that tweet. I was contacted by a female scientist who no longer posts on twitter because of online harassment. Not just the abusive language that seems to be a common feature of talking about climate science online, but stalking. I don’t want to give out details that might identify that scientist, but the stalking was serious to the point that they had good reason to believe that the stalker would seek them out in the real world.
The scientist spoke to a surprising number of others who had had similar experiences with stalkers, and have stopped engaging online. This then becomes an “invisible” problem – if those who are subject to harassment online aren’t talking about it online because they are harassed, online, then … the subject disappears.
I’m pretty upset and demoralised about this. People (and let’s be clear, it’s mostly women) are at the least put at a disadvantage, and at the worst put in actual physical danger, and I don’t think we have any good solutions for it. With some googling around, the best description of twitter stalking seems to be this, but even that page seems to focus on what the recipient of online harassment can do about it, rather than discussing ways that we as a society can deal with the root problem.
So, I’d add a “grand challenge”: How do we make sure the climate communications environment is a safe, positive and productive environment for all? And if that’s too ambitious for a Friday morning, what steps do we take first? I’d say we start by acknowledging the problem.