School of Communication Graduate Researches how TikTok Influences Climate Change Communication

June 20, 2024

Fascinated by climate change since he was a kid, School of Communication graduate Ryland Shaw joined the School knowing that he wanted to study climate change and storytelling. Now finished the program, he is confident in his ability to make real contributions to this research area.

His thesis explored how TikTok creators produce news about the climate crisis. Shaw used qualitative analysis to find out who the prominent creators were and what they were saying, as well as interviewing eco-influencers. He found that while videos that utilized TikTok trends may get more views, utilizing these trends may not be appropriate for the content they were sharing. For this reason, the most-viewed content would generally go against what environmental communication experts would deem “effective” climate change communication.

“I’ve come to see that how we tell stories about the environment is really important, not only for raising awareness, but for imagining what a positive future might look like,” says Shaw.

“Studying the ways platforms invisibly influence the content they host is just as important as identifying ways to help eco-creators make more effective content.”

Shaw was invited to present his thesis work at international conferences in Toronto and Philadelphia, as well as a weeklong intensive course on internet research at the University of Amsterdam.

Shaw’s research also includes areas such as Sound Studies, recognized by receiving the R. Murray Schafer Soundscape Award for his work designing and conducting the Soundscapes workshop hosted at SFU’s Media & Maker Commons.

His research excellence was also recognized by Microsoft Research, where’s he joined the Social Media Collective as a pre-doctoral research assistant. Here, Shaw works on a vast range of research projects including cultural questions about artificial intelligence and creativity. He says that this work feels like a natural extension of the best parts of graduate school.

For the future, Shaw plans to stay with the Social Media Collective for one more year before joining a PhD program. In the long-term, he is interested in researching how companies enact and perform corporate responsibility and what unintended societal consequences may arise from this.

When asked what advice he would give to other graduate students joining the School of Communication program, Shaw says:

“Get involved! In grad school, it’s easy to cast aside social events because you have so much work to do. But the friends I made in the Communication program are the only reason I made it through. Go to the caucus meetings and socials, go to the TSSU meetings, apply for things!”