Government climate authorities on social media: a study triggered by social media activities on the wettest day in a city's history

On the wettest day in the history of a great Brazilian city, social networks were full of content posted by citizens. Surprisingly, information from the municipal climate authorities did not stand out. Such observation triggered a study of the social media presence of this sort of authority.
Government climate authorities on social media: a study triggered by social media activities on the wettest day in a city's history

In January 2020, there was heavy rain in Belo Horizonte, the Brazilian city where I live. The city is located in southeastern Brazil and has more than two and a half million inhabitants. The 2020 weather event included the day that is considered the wettest day in the city's history, just over 100 years. During the event, social networks (Twitter, now known as X, in particular) were bombarded with images and videos of floods throughout the city. At that time, I looked for official weather and climate information from the municipal public sector accounts on social media and had more difficulty than I thought I would have.

From this event onwards, I sought to study the presence of government climate authorities on social media. First, in an exploratory way, I searched both the literature on the subject and the social media profiles of climate authorities. There was a distance between the state of the art (scientific evidence) and the state of practice (the way authorities act) on how social media can be used. So, I sought to design a study to characterise the way such social media presence occurs in practice. I was especially interested in answering two questions: (1) What publication patterns emerge when local-government authorities communicate to the citizens through social media publications? (2) How do citizens respond to authorities’ publications?  The empirical study, collecting pieces of evidence, lasted one year, between July 2021 and July 2022. The result is reported in the article How Citizens Engage with the Social Media Presence of Climate Authorities: the Case of Five Brazilian Cities (Ponciano 2023), published this month in npj Climate Action.

In addition to the city of Belo Horizonte, the study covered all other state capitals in Brazil that had relevant characteristics of social media presence and climate events. It included the following Brazilian cities:  Belém, in the Amazon; São Paulo, one of the ten most populous cities in the world; Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil; and Rio de Janeiro, in the southeast of Brazil.  In a previous post, I briefly explained the study design, the conceptual frameworks (Social Media Presence and Citizen Engagement) and the main results. The data produced in the study from monitoring social networks and climate events over the course of a year is publicly available.

Much of the study of engagement was inspired by research analysing patterns of people's participation in sociotechnical systems (O’Brien and Toms 2008; Ponciano and Brasileiro 2014). I had previous experiences with citizen engagement analysis but had not yet used the social media presence framework. In addition to characterising the practical actions of climate authorities, the study made it possible to produce new records on human engagement. While some engagement patterns resemble those observed in other sociotechnical systems, others differ. The results that impressed me most were that citizens rarely associate local-level weather and climate events with the global phenomenon of climate change in their comments and that they engage in pointing out inaccuracies in the authority's publications.

Beyond the scientific contribution, the study elucidated why I did not see a prominent presence of the climate authority during the 2020 climate event. What happens is that these authorities have a social media presence that is very formal and structured. Authorities publish standardised content for typical situations and rarely engage in discussions started by citizens. The type of information (videos and photos of floods, damages, etc.) that circulates intensely on social networks differs from the type of information that climate authorities usually publish. The studied climate authorities seek to inform and not engage.


O’Brien, H. L., and Toms, E. G. What is user engagement? A conceptual framework for defining user engagement with technology. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59(6), 938–955 (2008).

Ponciano, L. How citizens engage with the social media presence of climate authorities: the case of five Brazilian cities. npj Clim. Action 2, 44 (2023). 

Ponciano, L. and Brasileiro, F. Finding Volunteers’ Engagement Profiles in Human Computation for Citizen Science Projects. Human Computation. 1, 2 (2014).

Poster image by TV Brasil, which is a public television belonging to the Brazilian government.  Its content can be freely used. The image shows a flood in part of the city of Belo Horizonte during the 2020 extreme weather events.

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User Interfaces and Human Computer Interaction
Mathematics and Computing > Computer Science > Computer and Information Systems Applications > User Interfaces and Human Computer Interaction
Social Media
Humanities and Social Sciences > Media and Communication > Digital and New Media > Social Media
Climate Change Ecology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Sociology > Environmental Social Sciences > Climate Change Ecology
Human-Computer Studies
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Science and Technology Studies > Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) > Human-Computer Studies

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