The team analyzed reactions to climate-focused TikTok videos posted by farmers and found that many viewers reacted with warmth and compassion, indicative of emotional empathy.
However, the videos were less successful in stimulating cognitive empathy, which is marked by viewers actively engaging in discussions, providing insights, or seeking further understanding about the content.
Ilkay Unay-Gailhard, affiliated with the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies in Germany, noted that platforms like TikTok can enhance the ways farmers communicate with consumers.
“Today’s consumers are increasingly looking for transparency in agri-food systems and want to know who their farmer is and how their food is produced,” said Unay-Gailhard.
“They’re also increasingly willing to ensure a sustainable agri-food sector by supporting farmers involved in decisions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. These trends indicate an opportunity for farmers to engage more directly with citizens, as policymakers, media, scientists and activists already have been doing.”
Study co-author Mark Brennan emphasized that fostering empathy (as opposed to sympathy) can lead to more fruitful understanding and collaboration between farmers and consumers.
“This empathy also shows that farmers and consumers are not that different and want the same things many times,” said Brennan. “Connecting with them builds understanding and breaks down the artificial divides that are often propagated in our society. We are better together in the end.”
According to the researchers, the work was inspired by the dual way that food production both contributes to and is affected by climate change.
For example, food production can create heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, and the subsequent climate warming has negative impacts on food production.
Unay-Gailhard said this intersection gives farmers a unique perspective, and while conversations about food production and climate change typically happen at the social and political level, the rise of new social media platforms is giving farmers new ways to speak out.
“Today’s young farmers are becoming involved in climate actions in different forms than previous generations,” she said.
“Even though farmers are still in the early stages of using social media to initiate conversations about climate change, some social media platforms like TikTok present an opportunity to use new forms of communication with ‘millennial- or Gen-Z-style’ humor to connect with diverse communities on the topic.”
To unravel TikTok’s potential for fostering climate change dialogues, the team executed a two-step analysis.
They examined user engagement with farmer-generated TikTok videos from the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in late 2021. Their sample comprised 29 TikTok videos, including almost 3,000 conversations from six countries.
Interviews were conducted with 12 farmers active on TikTok from four countries to gauge their sentiments about climate change discourse on the platform.
“When we talked to farmers, they believed that creating entertaining content on TikTok resulted in more engagement more quickly than content on YouTube, where it takes longer to reach viewers,” said Unay-Gailhard.
“They also felt that presenting themselves and their viewpoints in ‘imperfect’ ways promotes engagement on TikTok, compared to Instagram, where pleasing aesthetics are valued, or X – previously known as Twitter – which is highly polarized.”
The interviewed farmers added that, on TikTok, presenting a straightforward argument with playful and humorous tones can promote more constructive dialogues, even when disagreements arise.
“What is notable from the narratives of TikTok farmers is how empathy among farm-interested viewers turns the platform into a learning landscape,” said Unay Gailhard.
“The self-representation of farmers on TikTok with professional identities is not only about having a voice and joy but also reciprocally investing in others in their online community. This reciprocity emerges with gathering and sharing experiences and knowledge within informal educational contexts.”
Going forward, the researchers said additional studies could explore how content could go beyond triggering emotional empathy and foster cognitive empathy, as well.
The study is published in the Journal of Rural Studies.
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