Mapping online visuals of shale gas controversy : a digital methods approach

Rabello, Elaine Teixeira; Gommeh, Efrat; Benedetti, Andrea; Valerio-Ureña, Gabriel; Metze, Tamara


The internet is an increasingly influential actor and arena for debating emerging sustainability controversies, but studies often overlook the role of visualisations in online spreading of information. This paper offers a way to better understand this role: what images do competing online actors use, are there differences between opponents and proponents, differences between internet regions, and are there shifts in their online visualisations over time? Adopting a controversy studies perspective and the digital methods approach, we studied the online spread of visual information. We compared the use of visualisation about shale gas on top-ranked pages in the internet regions of South Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom in 2018 and 2019. The results indicate a connection between the actor’s standpoints in the controversy and the type of image used. In Mexico, proponents and neutrals used, most of all, photographs of people (officials). Opponents posted more data visuals. South African and British neutral actors used more data visuals, while proponents posted landscapes and opponents photographs of people (protesters). Also, we noticed that changes in the actor’s position in the controversy between 2018 and 2019 coincided with changes in the use of type and content of visualisations. Context-specifics of each country offered possible explanations for these shifts in standpoint and visualisation of the controversy. Our study indicates that visuals are highly relevant digital objects in public debate and the decision-making process.