Last Fall, CBC aired a documentary about social media entitled “Facebook Follies”, which dealt primarily with the dangers of sharing information on the Internet, but also the ways in which social media websites are changing how we interact. In light of our class discussions pertaining to public involvement in EIA processes this got me thinking, “Couldn’t we make use of social media to help encourage public participation?”
When it seems like almost everyone is on Facebook or blogging (yes, this too is a form of social media), this would appear to be an easy solution to the complicated problem of getting the public involved in EIA (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).
In a presentation given by Tim Bonnemann, founder and CEO of Intellitics, Inc, several basic advantages and disadvantages for the use of social media in public participation were pointed out (Bonnemann, 2010). First of all, they allow proponents and consultants to increase the extent of their reach. In this way not only are they able to spread the word to as many people as possible, but they can do so at minimal costs, since most social media sites are free to use (Bonnemann, 2010; Hartenstein, 2011). What’s more, once something is up on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, it only takes a few people to show an interest before the subject spreads like wildfire. Moreover, not everyone has the time or capability to make it to actual consultation meetings, and as such allowing the public to post comments or questions via the Internet can help resolve some of these issues. Additionally, some people may feel too shy to speak in front of a large audience, or are afraid of saying anything at all because of how their views might be received by their peers. Giving them the option of writing it down, and potentially posting anonymously could also help break these barriers.
At this point you may be thinking, “can it really work?”. Well as it so happens there have been a few cases (EIA-related no less) that have been making use of social media and the Internet. Take for example the Thames Tunnel project (Thames Water Utilities Ltd.). Through its website the public is given access to all sorts of documents related to the project, and encouraged to leave feedback concerning the project and its possible location. There is even an interactive map which can be used to browse the various proposed alternatives. In addition, at the top of each of their News articles there are links to both Facebook and Twitter so that the reader is encouraged to share the information with his or her friends.
Now obviously this is not to say that social media are the magical solution to the issues surrounding public participation. The larger issue remains the ability to get the more remote and secluded members of the community involved, members who likely do not have easy access to the Internet or simply do not use it (Bonnemann, 2010). And certainly, messages read through the Internet are not likely to have the same power as a face-to-face conversation. Nevertheless, we are in what is colloquially known as “The Age of Social Media” (Hartenstein, 2011) and therefore I feel that we should embrace it. And who knows, maybe incorporating these websites into regular EIA practice will help close the divide that exists between proponents, consultants and the public. In my opinion, this is at the very least an interesting option which should be further researched, since as of yet, very little peer-reviewed work exists on the topic.
Bonnemann, T. (2010). The Role of Social Media in Public Participation. Available from Slide Share website [January 10, 2012]: http://www.slideshare.net/intellitics/the-role-of-social-media-in-public-participation
Hartenstein, B. (2011). Public participation increases power of social media. Available from The Mount Holyoke News website [January 10, 2012]: http://themhnews.org/2011/02/perspectives/public-participation-increases-power-of-social-media
Kaplan, A.M. and Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53, 59-68.
Thames Water Utilities Ltd. Thames Tunnel: creating a cleaner, healthier River Thames. Thames Water Utilities Ltd and Thames Water Ltd. Web. 10 January 2012. Available at: http://www.thamestunnelconsultation.co.uk