A campaign case study: Unfriend Coal

March 28, 2012

Over at the Climate Access blog, David Minkow showcases the 2011 Greenpeace campaign to pressure Facebook to adopt clean energy to power its massive servers. This campaign took place over 20 months and was successful in getting the social media giant to buy more renewable energy.

Minkow’s article starts with “It’s all—or at least a real whole lot—about awareness” — a statement pointing out that Greenpeace’s campaign focused on raising awareness amongst Facebook’s users that Facebook primarily used fossil fuels, and subsequently raising awareness with Facebook’s corporate managers that their data centres were fueled by dirty coal stations. Tzeporah Berman, co-director of Greenpeace’s international climate and energy program said:

“One of the problems with working on climate change is that it’s invisible, something that’s far away—‘it doesn’t have anything to do with me other than whether I walk to work or drive.’—People have a hard time connecting to the issue,” explains Berman “The Facebook campaign was the beginning of people starting to realize that when they change their status or they upload a video, it actually has real-world consequences—not just about what happens when you plug in your computer, but how the cloud itself is powered.”

The outcome of the campaign was an agreement between Facebook and Greenpeace, with Facebook committing to making renewable energy a priority when developing future data centres, and using its purchasing power to try to convince power companies to provide more renewable energy. Facebook also committed to working with Greenpeace to engage their social network users around energy conservation and clean energy issues.

Looking at these achievements, after a 20 month campaign, I have to ask, was Greenpeace successful?

Berman notes in the Climate Access blog that the campaign Facebook page, Unfriend Coal, gained over 700,000 likes (although their page hasn’t been updated since 16 Dec 2011 and post campaign there are are zonly 181,000 likes), and a record 80,000 likes in 24 hours. They produced a video (called a “viral” video in! the article) with around 530,000 views on YouTube, and held a photo competition asking supporters to post photos with the campaign logo on Facebook.

Certainly getting 700,000 likes for a campaign is impressive, as is over 530,000 video views and loads of photos submitted… but (and it’s a big but) did Greenpeace achieve its objective of getting Facebook to switch to clean energy?

The answer appears to be… no.

Greenpeace does a lot of good work, and certainly, their campaign has raised awareness with a large number of people. They have got the giant of social networks to sit up and realise that their data centres are powered by fossil fuels. But Facebook’s commitment is to making renewable energy a priority for future data centres, and to try to convince electricity producers to increase their renewable energy production.

Hardly revolutionary.

My fear with this campaign is that Greenpeace gave up a huge opportunity to translate online action into off-line, real world action. It’s dangerously close to “clicktivism” — with the only off-line action that the campaign achieved being convincing people to take and upload photos, and attendance of a few hundred people at rallies outside the Facebook corporate HQ in Texas.

By focusing on raising awareness, Greenpeace have fallen into the trap that “all people need to take action is more information” — that by changing peoples’ attitudes towards Facebook and renewable energy, there will be an increase in demand for renewable energy (from individuals and from Facebook).

This is known as the Attitude-Behaviour approach:

Is it warranted to believe that by enhancing knowledge, or altering attitudes, behavior will change? Apparently not. Numerous studies document that education alone often has little or no effect upon sustainable behavior.

Author and sustainability expert, Doug Mackenzie-Mohr, cites numerous examples and studies, which demonstrate time and time again that changing attitude does not lead to change of behaviour. Everyone knows that we should recycle, but unless someone gives us a recycle bin and promises to pick up our separated recycling, almost no one would go to the trouble of separating and driving their recyclables to a processing centre.

In fact, all the evidence shows that “information campaigns that emphasize enhancing knowledge or altering attitudes frequently have little or no effect upon behavior”. Lack of knowledge rarely has anything to with the failure to take action. The main reason why information campaigns are so common, is that they are easy to do. It is easy to distribute posters, brochures, broadcast television ads and post Facebook ads. But they rarely actually change behaviour.

Greenpeace also missed largely the opportunity to turn their campaign’s Facebook fans into off-line activists. I’m a big proponent in progressive campaigns using the “commitment and consistency principle” to turn people “liking” things on Facebook into deeper activism (see here for example). By conducting the campaign entirely on Facebook though, they have no way of taking their fans engagement off-line. Their campaign page does not include a panel to encourage people to sign up for emails, for example. None of the updates on their campaign page prompt fans to visit the Greenpeace landing page to sign up to updates, or even join or donate to Greenpeace.

Finally, their campaign “finished” on 16 December 2011, after which there has been no engagement or communication from Greenpeace to their fans. Their campaign page has fallen silent, and there are few (or no) comments after this date. So, Greenpeace missed the opportunity to switch their supporters from this campaign to another sustainability/clean energy campaign.

I’m not writing this to bash Greenpeace or the value of online campaigning. Greenpeace is a wonderful organisation that does essential work to promote environmental issues. I also don’t want to bash their achievement of getting an agreement with Facebook — I’ve defended incrementalism and argued that small steps are essential to achieving big change.

My point in this article is to make the point that campaigns that take place (almost) entirely online miss the point. Without thinking about what change, what action, in the real world, supporters and activists can take, progressive organisations not only miss valuable opportunities, but can over-egg the “success” of their campaigns.


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