Research Project

The Representation of Environmental Protest Online and Offline

Principal Investigators
Dr Anna Di Ronco
Dr James Allen-Robertson
Photo of a phone screen showcasing social media buttons

Investigating representations of environmental protest, harm and repression at the online and offline intersections

How do silenced and often criminalised environmental movements put forward their grievances and expose repression and environmental harms?

In many cases, through social media. This is why in our recent research on the resistance to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, commonly known as TAP, in southern Italy we decided to study representations of harms and resistance on Twitter via posted images and visual material. This allowed us to explore and understand what people perceived as causing harm to them, other species and the environment – harms that may not be accurately or sufficiently documented by mainstream media. Perhaps more importantly, such research aimed to ‘hear’ the voices of affected and unheard communities, whose voice are often disregarded by mainstream media and in public debates.

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But are activists posting everything on social media?

In one of our most recent publications, we addressed this question by studying the realities and representations of on-the-ground environmental resistance and their intersections with visual representations of protest on Twitter. Relying on mixed methods for data collection, including ethnographic observations, semi-structured interviews and an AI-assisted visual ethnography of a large collection of computationally collected and categorised images posted on Twitter, we compared online and offline representations of the NOTAP protest. Our study demonstrated that only a partial overlapping existed between the online and offline representations of the NOTAP protest. For example, if representations overlapped in relation to the description of activists’ peaceful protesting, substantial differences also emerged. The latter were mostly reconnected to the inherent secrecy of some of the protest’s strategies and to the typical ways in which Twitter tends to be used by social movements, that is, to facilitate political discussion and to convey information on the protest. Most importantly, differences were also related to activists’ lived experiences of repression and intimidation by the police, which only emerged in our on-the-ground ethnographic study. 


Our research, therefore, revealed the great potential that qualitative data analysis combined with computational methods for the collection of social media material have for the study of social media activism: they can go a long way into uncovering unrecognized sources of harm and suffering, which are often obscured by mainstream media. However, our research also shows that social media research can only do so much. In other words, to be able to comprehensively capture activist practice and, specifically, activists’ lived experiences of social control, social media research should necessarily be combined with on-the-ground qualitative ethnographic research. Find out more about our research here