Sociology prof and 10 student researchers dig into climate change, politics and social media

June 24, 2020 | Society
In September 2019, climate change was getting more airtime than ever. The international youth climate strike movement was at its peak, world leaders were rethinking their climate commitments and pipeline debates were heated.

With the Canadian federal election only a few weeks away, the planet’s health and what to do about it was a hot topic of conversation – 49 per cent of Canadians were talking about climate change on social media and 63 per cent were having in-person conversations on the subject, says Dr. Shelley Boulianne.

STORY_IMG_Infographic_BouliannIntrigued by the combination of circumstances, the sociology associate professor set out to collect as much information as she could about what the country’s citizens – and its politicians – were saying. She surveyed an online panel of 1,500 Canadians to find out where they were getting their information about climate change, what they believed was causing it and how they were choosing to talk about the issue.

The result was a huge bank of data – thousands of survey data points, more than 9,000 social media posts and a collection of Google images – that she and her 10 student research assistants have been combing through ever since. They’ve divided their research into two separate projects: one that explores climate change discussions during the 2019 federal election and a second that looks at social media and the international youth climate strike.

While their findings are following the traditional academic route and making their way into journals (most recently a piece in Media and Communication co-authored by Bachelor of Arts, Sociology Honours grad David Ilkiw), Boulianne has also been working with students to take a more innovative approach to sharing their research results: creating a website for the project, contributing to an online report, building infographics and finding new ways to visualize their data.

“I see making research more accessible as an important part of my Board of Governors Research Chair role,” says Boulianne. “To extend our reach beyond our traditional outputs and try to get our research out to the general public – and to involve MacEwan students with hands-on opportunities to do that.”

One of those students, psychology honours student Stephanie Belland, co-authored a paper with Boulianne that looked at how environmental concerns and climate change opinions factored into people’s voting preferences. They found that very few Canadians (only four per cent) reported that candidates’ environmental positions were not at all important.  


Political party leaders' climate-related posts

Sociology student Amber Pfliger who is also a student research assistant, uses jars and coloured beads to illustrate political party leaders’ climate-related social media posts.

Were politicians dodging the climate conversation?

They also found that while Canadians were certainly tweeting and talking about climate change in the run-up to the election, not all leaders were using their social media platforms to join the conversation. While the Liberal Party gave much attention to climate change in their social media presence (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned it in 11.3 per cent of his 1,872 posts), only five of the 2,096 posts from then Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer mentioned the issue.


Young climate strikers a sign of the times

A contributor to the second branch of Boulianne’s research, Joslin Jefferson, who is majoring in both psychology and sociology, spent last summer looking at the international youth climate strike through the lens of Google Images. She was trying to see which slogans were making their way onto protesters’ signs and whether those messages were critical of governments. This year, her Undergraduate Student Research Initiative-funded project will look at how COVID-19 has pushed climate action online.

“I'm one small part of a big project,” she says. “But this research has been a big part of my experience at MacEwan over the last two years and I’ve learned so many valuable skills in the process.”

Computer science students in Dr. Sharon Bratt’s Winter 2020 data visualization class also contributed to the youth climate strike aspect of Boulianne’s work. Andrew Dorokhine, Mathew Aloisio, William Song and Rebekah Mullins teamed up to find a way to convert hard data related to Twitter’s role in promoting youth climate activism into a visual form.

Rebekah, whose group looked at several research questions, including whether the size of a Twitter author’s following influenced the number of shares their posts received, says she appreciated the chance to work with real-world data.

“It made it more motivating to work on the project,” she says. “We knew there could be interesting things hidden in it that no one else has seen yet, and that – unlike with made-up data – our results could make a difference.”

For more information on Boulianne’s research, visit the climate change research website.

2020 Board of Governors Research Chairs announced

Two-year appointments recognize faculty members for their exceptional scholarly work.


Gift of time yields partnerships, papers and potential future researchers

Outgoing Board of Governors research chairs reflect on their two years in the role.

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter