Research

How the European social web reacted to the winter drought

Winter drought: Social media reaction

A dry spelled record of 32 days without rain in France; the Po River or the Rhine lowered to hot summer levels; England bracing for water shortages: the 2023 winter drought documented by Copernicus has everything to generate massive flows of anxious online conversations. Social Listening being precisely designed to grasp the Zeitgeist and decode the multiple voices of online opinion, we’ve set up a YouScan Topic to take the pulse of three social webs defined by languages and countries (France, Germany, UK, Ireland) facing sécheresse, drought, or Dürre, Trockenheit.

Xavier Bouvet

Xavier Bouvet

Social Listening Expert

17 March 2023

After multiple refinements and noise reducing (let’s not forget the devastating drought in the horn of Africa, a lateral though major issue), we’ve kept 6 weeks of contents (2023-02-01/03-12) coinciding with the gradual awareness of the situation, and accounting for 93k mentions (37k 🇫🇷, 38k 🇩🇪, 19k 🇬🇧🇮🇪). 

Here are some findings cleared by YouScan’s features - opening new fields for deeper online studies with YouScan or other analytical tools, or to initiate/complement (traditional) opinion surveys. 

1. As for every exogenous phenomenon - far from a social native movement, for instance, the mentions volume over time won’t help us, too dependent on media coverage (with a clear stop on february the 24th in all countries, when the media agenda was focused on analyzing a full year of russian aggression against Ukraine), media coverage being dependent as well on geographical situations. The three very different dynamics of french, german, and anglo-irish social webs do only give some hints about when the genuine conversation might be happening. 

More interesting is to go directly to one of YouScan key features : the Word-of-Mouth, cleaning the corpus from all kind of media contents in order to underline spontaneous and autonomous conversations. The drastic reduction of contents both in volume and nature helps us to identify soon some lines of force in “Word-of-mouths peaks” :

Word-of-Mouth dataWord-of-Mouth data
  • The strongest attention in Germany was actually generated by the French situation, in an obvious proximity effect even if southern Germany was already affected due to snow shortages in the Alps.

  • The UK-Irish debates trigger has to be found in what has been called the “veggie drought” or “tomato crisis”, directly linked to drought conditions in Portugal and Spain from where the UK gets 80% to 90% of its consumption. 

  • France at last was clearly driven by political debates, fed by a major controversy - and online opposition - to “mega-basins” projects supported by the government to keep water on surface; but also by politician uses (or misuses) of the situation in an extremely tensed political context.

Data from YouScan Data from YouScan
The controversy and opposition to mega-basins, by activists and scientists, explained for a large part the strong political dimension of the french debate - way beyond German or English social webs. Source: https://twitter.com/Kerantour/status/1630704255953694725

2. Now let’s have a deeper look, with few more right clicks. 

Sort all the Word-of-Mouth by sources. It quickly appears that Telegram, on that issue like many others, is far more present in forging the online opinion in Germany (>4% of all WoM contents, rising to 8% of total contents) as it is in France (less than 3% WoM) or the UK. The weight of Telegram in Germany isn’t a surprise; what’s more interesting is the nature of speeches spreaded through Telegram channels. The World Cloud allows us to distinguish among all Telegram posts the recurrence of particular expressions like “vertikale Durschmischung”. What’s at work here is actually the spreaded accusation of wind farms to allegedly worsen drought by mixing hot and wet air.

Data from YouScan Data from YouScan
An example of German Telegram message targeting wind energy for its impact on wet air. Source: https://telegram.me/holgerarppe/4040

The real impact of wind farms and its large-scale environmental entanglement remain subjects to studies (here is the world-wide debated Harvard University study validating this approach); what’s obvious though is how quickly drought has been weaponized to disqualify the visible sources of renewable energy. A gephi map of telegram channels could here be plenty justified to decode better who pushed this narrative at this particular drought time.

Harvard University studyHarvard University study
An example of gephi network visualization in progress on OS2INT.com Source: https://os2int.com/toolbox/creating-visual-intelligence-from-telegram-user-group-data/

Apply the same sort to French data, and it will soon pop out that one of the main viral content on the matter - apart from media and official sources, is a TikTok video flirting - on an alleged ironical tone - with conspiracy theories based on the HAARP project. No less than 173k viewers on that content. 

3. The Visual Insights tells us also an other part of story by enlightening a specific type of contents : maps. 

One the most engaging object on the corpus as revealed by YouScan visual analysis

Trending wordsTrending words
YouScan Trending Words analysis

At first glance an expected piece of illustration when it comes to weather or climate changes on the rise. Actually a piece of debate, used to drown all kind of denial under facts and datas like in this viral thread of french Twitter - with strong resistance based on contradictory and often short-sighted “local observations, or micro-controversy in Germany about the “over-dramatic” choices of colors in maps (actually on old topic already addressed by counter-disinformation entities). Maps belong in any case to the most engaging contents to be found on that issue. 

Twitter trends Twitter trends
Maps recurrence among the corpus : three peaks to inform, decode, & anticipate

4. What’s left after 32 days without rains ? In Germany or on the irish-UK social web, not that much : the first rains in Southern Europe and France wiped out for a large part conversations and fear about water restrictions. 

The French situation is however very unusual with a stable if not growing volume of contents in the very end of our segment. A first cause is easy to find, the drought far from being over in some regions… and an anecdotal  “religious parade” to implore God for rain having generated a national laugh. 

Beyond the surface something is however moving with a remarkable constant growth : pinterest has quietly become the #1 source during that first week of recovery. 

social media trendssocial media trends
+65% posts on Pinterest during the last 12 days of our french corpus

The visual gallery speaks here for itself: “plants who don’t need water”; plants resistant to drought. 

Plants that don’t need waterPlants that don’t need water

Beyond Pinterest, the occurrences of “jardin” (garden) and “plantes” (plants) is furthermore a clear trend on our corpus (see below) at the very difference of feared “water restrictions” for instance:

Social media mentions dynamics Social media mentions dynamics

 No definitive conclusion has to be drawn here, since Social Listening through some operational features is essentially suggesting trends and opinion movements, weak signals to be further deepen and complement. The last data show however how much internet users, exposed to vivid political polarization or dis- and misinformation, are keen to adapt by “cultivate one’s garden”. 

Even if - at the very contrary of Voltaire’s precept - it’s here be taken in a very literal, a-political meaning, by engaging citizens on self-sufficient and controllable aspects of their lifes instead far from collective efforts and unsteadiness. 

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This is a guest blog post by Xavier Bouvet. Xavier, based in France and Estonian e-Resident, is a social listening specialist focused on public and environmental issues.

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