Publications and Reports

When news media and social media meet

Action and reaction to the plastic bag ban

In 2018, Australian supermarkets introduced a ban on free single-use plastic bags and unleashed a storm of publicity about this new policy in both the news media and on social media. BWA PhD candidate, Kim Borg is working with industry partner, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (Vic) to understand how media can change social norms to encourage single-use plastic avoidance.  

With supervisors Jim Curtis (BWA Senior Research Fellow) and Faculty of Arts Professor, Jo Lindsay, Kim recently had a paper published looking at the reaction to the plastic bag ban and the interplay between news media and social media when it comes to expressing social norms.  Its findings suggest that when it comes to plastic use at least, social media challenges the dominant news media narrative. 

Staring social media in the Facebook

In the paper, Kim argues that, by monitoring social media such as Facebook when a new policy such as the plastic bag ban is announced and implemented, policymakers can make more considered decisions. The study sought to address three key questions:

  1. What behaviours, opinions and expectations are expressed in both news and social media comments regarding supermarket plastic bag bans.

  2. Was there a difference between news media and social media comments, and

  3. Did these change over time?

When the supermarkets introduced the bans on free lightweight bags, they continued to offer thicker reusable bags for 15 cents each. However, in response to the apparent consumer backlash, they decided to offer the bags for free for a short period of time, then a longer period of time, then ‘indefinitely’. On social media, this ‘backflipping’ resulted in a backlash to the backlash.

Two-way communication

Our social norms are heavily influenced by the behaviours of those around us, as well as what we see portrayed in the media. There are very few studies to understand the role of new media when it comes to establishing social norms. Social media has changed the way we interact with each other socially and the way we consume news, and for the first time, allows users to comment and reflect opinions back in a public space. 

The shift away from traditional media means that social media users are able to challenge the media narrative and, in some ways, take control away from the one-way communication of media owners and policymakers. Despite news articles reporting on apparent consumer backlash, many Facebook uses appeared supportive of the single-use plastic ban and criticised those who resisted. According to Kim, the sheer abundance of social media engagement may have worked as an unofficial source of social marketing, where social media users rather than policymakers were the communicators.

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Watching this space

Had Coles and Woolworths been monitoring social media, as well as mass media reports, they would’ve seen that there was underlying support for the move away from single-use plastic bags. 

Disapproval of the backflip, rather than the actual ban itself, became stronger and in the end, the dominant opinion.  

Most policy changes face resistance at one level or another. But as the study points out, as more people get used to a new habit and adjust to the social pressure to ‘get on with it’ social media provides an opportunity for this pressure to occur in real-time and in a public manner. Analysing social media reactions to news reports can be a valuable tool for policymakers as a way of tracking ongoing public responses and understanding related social norms. 

The link to the paper is here.  If you’re behind a paywall you can still read the full paper for free by selecting “Access Options” and choosing “Rent with DeepDyve”.