Tweeting on #tarsands: Examining the Northern Gateway Pipeline on Twitter

Admin Note- Brittany White is a graduate student in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University and a Research Assistant at the Social Media Lab. Her research examines the use of Twitter by environmentalists to discuss the Northern Gateway Pipeline. This post is a summary of Phase 1 of Brittany’s graduate research. Recently, Brittany received a Graduate Award from the Atlantic Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers for her oral presentation based on this research.

via ianmackenz's photostreamEvery day, more environmentalists are utilizing social media tools, such as Twitter. Despite this increase, little is known about environmentalists’ use of Twitter. This study focuses on how Twitter is used by environmentalists to discuss a current Canadian environmental issue: the Northern Gateway Pipeline. To answer this question, I conducted a text analysis of the Twitter hashtag #tarsands in spring 2012. This blog post provides a summary of the preliminary results from Phase 1 of my research, the text analysis.



Environmentalists are turning to Twitter more and more, and they are doing so for three reasons. First, Twitter improves access to information. For example, in February 2012, Greenpeace requested a federal document on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The document identified adversaries and allies of the proposed project. Specifically, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and First Nations were labelled as adversaries, while the oil industry was labelled as an ally. Greenpeace shared this controversial document on Twitter, and as a result, the document reached thousands of people. Second, Twitter increases the number and diversity of voices in the discussion on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. For example, a recent protest held in Victoria, BC (Defend Our Coast), garnered thousands of supporters by actively promoting the protest event on Twitter. Third, Twitter provides a new public space for discussion on environmental issues. Traditionally, discussions on environmental issues are dominated by government, and then echoed by mainstream media. However, Twitter allows other groups, such as environmentalists, to share their opinions without passing them through government and/or mainstream media filters. Thus, environmentalists are actively using Twitter because: (1) it improves access to information, (2) it increases the number and diversity of voices, and (3) it provides a new space for discussion. Yet, it remains unclear how environmentalists are using Twitter.

To answer this question, this study used Netlytic – a web based system for automated text analysis and the discovery of social networks – to collect and analyze Twitter messages on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The messages, known as tweets, were collected from January 24th, 2012 to February 24th, 2012, inclusive. A total of 12,815 tweets, containing the hashtag #tarsands, were gathered during this time period. To analyze the content of these messages, a number of visualizations were developed.



After analyzing the messages, it was found that Twitter is predominantly used by environmentalists to: (1) disseminate information and (2) to organize action on the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Figure 1 Top ten most frequently used terms

First, Netlytic was used to examine the most frequently used terms on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Figure 1 displays the ten most frequently used terms in Twitter messages on the pipeline. The most common term was “RT.” Specifically, the bar at the bottom of the graph (with over 6,000 instances), represents re-tweets (RT). This is significant because it means that approximately 50 percent of the 12,815 messages on the Northern Gateway Pipeline are RTs. In particular, this may indicate that Twitter is used as a method to spread information and updates amongst environmentalists.

It is also interesting to note which tweets are re-tweeted the most often. For example, Naomi Klein, (@NaomiAKlein) a prominent New York Times columnist, sent out a tweet on February 11, 2012 that read: “Since Harper is using adorable pandas to sell his #tarsands pipeline, he should be pelted with teddy bears everywhere he goes.” Her message was re-tweeted a total of 186 times. This could demonstrate that Klein’s use of humour and her high number of followers led to a rapid uptake of the Twitter message. Torgerson (2000) refers to this concept as “performative green politics,” which includes the use of humour, to create an element of play in political debates.

Figure 2 Content of Twitter messages on the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Second, Netlytic was used to examine the content of the Twitter messages on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Figure 2 shows the content of the Twitter messages. It was found that a high number of Twitter messages contained links. Specifically, based on a sample of every tenth Twitter message (n=1280), it was found that over 50 percent of the messages contained links to news articles, websites, petitions, and videos. Merry (2011) notes that: “increasingly [environmental] interest groups are taking advantage of Twitter by posting action alerts or even links back to their websites” (215).

In addition, it was found that a number of messages included links to online petitions and websites with information regarding protest events, such as the Defend Our Coast protest. Hence, based on the content of the messages, it is demonstrated that environmentalists use Twitter to share information (i.e., news articles, websites, and videos) and to organize actions (i.e., petitions and protests).

Figure 3 Northern Gateway Pipeline posts over time

Third, Netlytic was used to determine when most of the tweets on the Northern Gateway Pipeline were sent. Figure 3 shows two main spikes between January 24 and February 24, 2012 (the spike on January 18, 2012 was excluded because it was outside the research timeframe). The first spike was on February 13, 2012 and the second spike was on February 22, 2012. To understand the cause of the spikes, the Twitter messages from February 13 and 22 were examined.

On February 13, 2012 the spike was primarily caused by a petition circulating on a Canadian wolf cull. In particular, the National Wildlife Federation (@NWF) circulated an online petition asking individuals to oppose the pipeline because wolves would be poisoned if the pipeline project were to move forward. While the second spike, on February 24, 2012, was the result of the European Union Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) vote. In particular, online petitions were circulated to raise awareness about the EU vote whether to label oil from the Canadian oil sands as a “dirty” form of oil. Hence, it was found that there is a correlation between a spike in the number of tweets and the circulation of online environmental petitions.



Based on the preliminary results, three findings were revealed. First, it was found that there was a very high number of RTs. In particular, almost 50 percent of the tweets sent on the Northern Gateway Pipeline were RTs.  Second, it was found that a majority of the tweets contained links to news articles, websites, petitions, and videos.  Finally, it was found that there was a correlation between the circulation of online petitions and the number of tweets on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Based on these findings, it was determined that Twitter is predominantly used by environmentalists to: (1) disseminate information and (2) organize action. This suggests that Twitter is actively used by environmentalists to move beyond the government and mainstream media filters to raise their own voices and to spread their own messages about environmental issues. Thus, environmentalists are no longer confined to simply waving banners and yelling through megaphones; they have gone online

Although these preliminary findings are a good starting point to understand how environmentalists are using Twitter, additional research is still required. Consequently, a social network analysis (Phase 2) and semi-structured interviews (Phase 3) were conducted to determine: who is tweeting on the Northern Gateway Pipeline and if there is a Twitter “community” on the pipeline.



  • Merry, M.K. (2011). Interest Group Activism on the Web: The case of environmental organizations. Journal of Information Technology & Politics. 8(1): 110-128.
  • Torgerson, D. (2000). Farewell to the green movement? Political action and the green public sphere. Environmental Politics. 9(4): 1-19.


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