Citizen Engagement in Local Environmental Issues: Intersecting Modes of Communication

Citizen Engagement in Local Environmental Issues: Intersecting Modes of Communication

Lorna Heaton (Université de Montréal, Canada) and Patrícia Días da Silva (Université de Montréal, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1081-9.ch001
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Abstract

The goal of this chapter is to draw attention to the interrelation of multiple mediatized relationships, including face-to-face interaction, in local citizen engagement around biodiversity/environmental information. The authors argue that it is possible to fruitfully theorize the relationship between public involvement and the media without focusing specifically on the type of media. Their argument is supported by three examples of participatory projects, all connected with environmental issues, and in which social media-based and face-to-face interactions are closely interrelated. This contribution highlights the local uses of social media and the Web, and shows how engagement plays out in the interaction of multiple channels for exchange and the use of resources in a variety of media formats. In particular, new media significantly alter the visibility of both local actions and of the resulting data.
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Introduction

When studying citizen engagement and public participation, one policy area cannot be overlooked in international and national debate: the environment. Throughout the 20th century, concerns about pollution, conservation of biodiversity as well as about energy sources and their environmental implications gained in visibility. The 21st century has brought a push towards sustainable development as institutions, governments and citizens have started “going green.” Despite growing awareness, the complexity of both environmental issues themselves and the interplay between diverse stakeholders have often limited public participation. As scientific knowledge is often required to allow for a better grasp of key problems and prospective solutions, initiatives to improve public understanding of science and enlarge opportunities for participation in scientific projects to non-professionals have increased in the environmental sciences and related fields such as biology and zoology (Bonney, Cooper & Ballard, 2016; Nascimento, Pereira & Ghezzi, 2014; Science Communication Unit, 2013; Silvertown 2009).

Networked information technologies are changing the way environmental knowledge is produced and communicated. On the one hand, the digitization and availability of research data on the Internet enables its circulation among increasingly diverse publics – across disciplines, with government actors, the public, and so on. On the other, social media and Web 2.0 platforms create spaces that facilitate communication between professionals and amateurs and provide opportunities for participation.

The goal of this chapter is to draw attention to the interrelation of multiple mediatized relationships, including face-to-face interaction, in sustaining and structuring communicative practices and local citizen engagement around biodiversity/environmental information. The chapter argues that it is possible to fruitfully theorize the relationship between public involvement and the media without focusing specifically on the type of media used. The authors propose that citizen engagement and participation transcend the type of media used, and that one interaction format nourishes the other in many cases. Whereas the temptation in studying social media is to examine the ever-widening web of connections, this contribution highlights the local uses of social media and the Web. The authors support their argument with several examples of participatory projects, all connected with environmental issues, and in which social media-based and face-to-face interactions are closely interrelated. The examples come from different parts of the world, all are relatively local in scale and all rely on both personal outreach and social media. These cases challenge the established (social, scientific or political) order in different ways and open up spaces in which alternative sustainable futures may be shaped.

The chapter is organized in three sections. The background section contains a brief literature review and an outline of three empirical examples studied by the authors and their colleagues as part of two research projects (see Acknowledgements). The discussion is organized thematically in two parts. First, the authors draw attention to the importance of place and local anchoring experienced by participants, to issues of data quality and verification, and to how local actions and contributions can participate in knowledge creation and mobilization at larger scales. They then discuss the relationship between various media and mediatized relationships in this process. The examples illustrate multiple channels for exchange, and the use of resources in a variety of media formats, from books, local media and flyers to email, databases, interactive maps and social media. In particular, new media significantly alter the visibility of local actions and their results. The increased visibility afforded by the Internet and social media appears as both an advantage and a potential problem.

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