During a week-long data sprint at the University of Amsterdam between 28 March and 1 April 2022, we set out to study how human-nature relations were (re)imagined during the first global COVID-19 lockdown across five major social media platforms: Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok . We analyzed the stance, affect, focus, and visual style connected to various memetic phrases found there. The data sprint was part of the interdisciplinary project “Climate Change to COVID-19: Communicating Complexity and Collective Affect Through Digital Memes” led by Eileen Moyer (Anthropology), Andreas Schuck (Political communication science), and Daniël de Zeeuw (Media studies), and funded by the Global Digital Cultures initiative at the University of Amsterdam.
In March 2020, COVID-19 became a truly global crisis, overshadowing another looming and equally global crisis: climate change. During the first COVID-19 lockdown the decrease in human activity due to lockdowns had a direct effect on our ecological footprint, as shown by satellite imagery of Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions. This has been referred to as the Anthropause. This in turn led to a supposed resurgence of nature, popularized by pictures of wild animals roaming urban infrastructures or soaring through crystal clear skies – even when these were often fake like the swans and dolphins returning to the Venice canals. Nature’s return was still seen as a “silver lining” to the COVID-19 pandemic by many. Attitudes toward the resurgence of nature were articulated through memetic phrases like “We are the virus,” “Corona is the cure,” and “Nature is healing.”
The goal of the data sprint was to answer the following research question: “How is climate change and the relation between humans and nature imagined on social media during and after the first global COVID-19 lockdown?” This was explored through several sub questions:
- What are the key phrases that emerged from the first COVID-19 lockdown, and where on the Web do they occur?
- How does engagement with the phrases change over time and between platforms, and what kinds of engagement are dominant?
- What are the differences in stance, affect, focus, and visual style between phrases and across platforms?
We found that, whereas phrases like “Nature is healing”, “We are the virus”, and “Corona is the cure” were first used in earnest to express either optimistic or pessimistic sentiments, more ironic uses of the phrases became dominant on platforms like Twitter and Reddit. These often take the form of memes mocking these phrases’ original pathos and challenging the stark opposition between humans and nature assumed and produced through them. Concerning affect, we found that both Twitter and Reddit posts are mostly neutral, which seems to correspond to their ironic character. Facebook and TikTok posts are predominantly optimistic, whereas Instagram wavers between the optimistic and neutral. Across platforms the trend is towards more optimistic posts. Finally, regarding focus, during the first wave Facebook and TikTok are mostly ecocentric, while Twitter and Reddit are egocentric; again Instagram is split between eco and ego.
Besides a peak during the first lockdown in 2020, we also found a second peak in May 2021. During this second wave, “Nature is healing” is by far the dominant phrase, whereas there are almost no occurences of “We are the virus” and “Corona is the cure”. Given the fact that in May 2021 the “resurgence of nature” was no longer an issue, why do we see the resurgence of the phrase? Looking more closely at the images connected to the “Nature is healing” phrase in May 2021, we found that, rather than celebrating the return of nature due to people having to stay inside, on the contrary, now the phrase is mainly used to celebrate people being able to go outside and socialize again, i.e. the return of everyday social and cultural life. While still in ironic reference to the connotations of the phrase in the first lockdown, its meaning is thus almost completely inverted, which explains why the other phrases do not peak in this period, as well as the overall optimistic and egocentric tendencies.
You can read the full report on the Digicologies Blog and the project website: https://crisismemes.com/. The main output of the data sprint was a research presentation poster, which can be downloaded here. We also published a more artistic version of our research in the Critical Meme Reader II: Memetic Tacticality (published by Institute of Network Cultures, 2022).