Activist Website Shortcomings Identified by Students

By Charlotte Ryan, Professor, UMass Lowell


The Survey: Students in Sociology of Communication and Social Change SOCI 3110 put themselves in the shoes of the roughly 48% of UMass Lowell students who think that climate change is real, but will not impact their lives and or their families’ lives in the near future. It is important to note that only 3% of UMass Lowell students were climate deniers – a massive reduction in the last five years.

As a service to the Climate Change Initiative, and the broad climate justice network, SOCI 3110 students reviewed climate action websites. We wanted to assess climate action sites’ utility from the perspective of typical UMass Lowell students burdened by financial, personal, time and family pressures. Almost half of our students think climate change will not affect them significantly in the near future. And so they feel no need to engage in climate activities.

Main finding:

The websites were very useful for viewers who already identify as climate activists.  But for the most part, few spoke to viewers who were not already engaged scholars.

Typical responses:

  • “Overall, I did not find any information on the website that spoke to students who acknowledge climate change but do not feel urgency.”
  •  “This web site does not convey how climate climate will impact students who believe that they will not experience serious effects of climate change in next decade. In so doing, the website is counter-productive.  In failing to do so, the website reinforces student conviction that climate change won’t matter (to them) in the near future.”
  • “The website raises the impacts of climate on health broadly (asthma, water issues, food loss), but gave only broad basic information. I was left to do further research.”
  • “This website says, ‘Climate change is real and it is happening NOW.’  But site doesn’t show this—at least not locally and concretely in the global north.”

Students then proposed changes to website content and design to better engage audiences that are indifferent and inactive.  Students’ ideas for content and design changes are below.

Content ideas from Communication and Social Change team:

  1. Lucid presentations of fundamental science facts help: these slip away from non-scientists. BUT, it is a problem that so many sites feature primarily this. Not sufficient.
  2. Many sites focus on devastating climate change events elsewhere that do not impact UMass Lowell students worried about debt, jobs, and family problems.  Start where we are at.
  3. Make campaigns relevant. College students don’t water lawns. So if you want to influence students, ask yourself whether a campaign to stop watering lawns is best choice.  It may be ‘low-hanging fruit’ but for suburbanites, but why college students?
  4. Make danger/crisis local— the level at which humans interact day to day. If pollution or water quality is impacted, given state and regional figures over time.
  5. Show solutions in which readers can participate. Demonstrate that these solutions can be brought up to scale to slow CC and mitigate effects. Show cities, communities making progress. Country-wide stories are good, but scale, at present, seems untenable for us.
  6. Build rewards for good behavior.  Ex: Conservation rebates for dorms that lower costs.
  7. Offer multiple entry points to demonstrate CC’s concrete impact in our lifetime: Health, Air, Food, Extreme Weather, Jobs, War, Love of nature, animals.  Each entry point should concretize impacts for constituencies who currently feel little urgency.
  8. None of sites surveyed attended sufficiently to futures in terms of impacts on current professions and how CC will create new opportunities.
  9. Provide an annual running list of CC impacts on key countries (India but for U.S. student audience show THIS country). Media only shows disasters, sometimes not linked to CC.
    But show the full impact. Show a year in climate events in US.
  10. Show us what students our age and circumstances can do.  “I was nspired by the young Lakota leaders, and I began asking myself, ‘What can I do right now?’

Presentation ideas

  1. Content is clear but very dense. UMass Lowell students will struggle to read much less understand material given how densely it is written.
  2. Material is too packed with statistics and scares readers away.  Make danger visible in photos, and data visualization.
  3. Show us change over time. Media just gives us day-day crises and we lose track of cumulative impacts.  Visualizations that show forest and river water losses for instance.
  4. Use interactive social media so that students/others can upload local exemplars.
  5. Use clear navigation. Some sites are hard to navigate; viewer can’t easily find info.
  6. Leave white space (most sites are too wordy).
  7. Write in a matter of fact way not an accusatory way.
  8. Use color and visuals.  We love videos of student activists.
  9. I see the value of websites that link to interesting content elsewhere. But honestly that seems lazy.  Realize staff may be limited, but still…
  10. You need your own authors producing your own content about your work.