Current events

Instagram, an ally for environmental activism

  Instagram, an ally for environmental activism

Photo: Jeremy Bishop en Pexels

Pablo Ramos
UOC researchers have analysed the use of recurring images on this social network in relation to environmental activism

The most commonly used narrative resource in memes is that of 'before and after', which show a situation worsening or getting better

Social media have given rise to different forms of activism, which are more individualistic and different to the more traditional social movements

The popularization of social media and changes in consumer habits and models, which have become much more visual, have led to images and photographs playing a bigger role in all areas, including communications linked to all types of political content.

Due to this upsurge, a recent study conducted by researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) analysed the use of recurring images, such as comparison memes, on Instagram. They looked at images related to environmental activism, in order to understand them from an anthropological perspective, in terms of myths or narratives that shape the way we perceive, understand, judge and act in the world.

“The use of this type of comparative image is a reiterative format that fulfils its function of being easily recognizable, which is why they are very effective, despite being informal and sometimes humorous, they make it possible to tackle serious topics that are at the top of the environmental agenda”, explains Gemma San Cornelio Esquerdo, researcher of the MEDIACCIONS group of the UOC Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences and one of the key authors of this study, together with Elisenda Ardvol, professor of the UOC Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and Sandra Martorell, researcher of the UOC and the Department of Audiovisual Communication, Documentation and History of Art of the Universitat Politcnica de Valncia.


A predominant narrative structure

Specifically, this research, which forms part of a more extensive project about the study of environmental activism on Instagram, shows in detail how the most predominant narrative structure in environmental activism on Instagram, the most visual social network with a more personal perception, is the ‘before and after’ format. This type of model recurs over a vector of time that infers a message about the improvement or worsening of a specific situation, which is why it is one of the most popular visual resources in social media. Furthermore, these images are intended to show the changes in a specific situation, expressing the idea of “myth” as a fundamental truth, and they couple this with the concept of environmental damage or the end of the world.

"We focus on Instagram, a platform that nobody thinks is appropriate for activism at first, due to its relationship with personal narratives and influencers' lifestyles. However, this very visual social network is playing a very important role in environmental activism”, adds San Cornelio, who says that a comparison based on a time narrative with a future projection, which involves a cause-and-effect relationship, usually provokes a moral evaluation of each individual.

Therefore, comparative images aspire to shake up and raise awareness by showing environmental degradation, climate change and irreversible catastrophe that has derived from human actions, and comparing this with the solution, which is based on changes in human behaviour that can reverse the situation and improve the environment. 

“This is a very homogeneous structure that compares temporal aspects and is based on an economy of very clear language when it comes to preparing the messages one wants to communicate. Thanks to this duality, it is possible to send a very direct message that is capable of reaching many more people, which increases its impact on the public", points out the UOC researcher. 


Call to action

In fact, the use of memes is capable of putting the spotlight on certain conflicts or problems, which can provoke a reaction that encourages people to think about the topics it covers, as well as a change in behaviour. “This visual activism extends beyond the artistic aspect, as it offers content aimed at a specific political commitment and expresses a need to change our way of life”, explain the authors.

The authors also point out that most of the analysed images or memes implicitly call for individual action within the scope of a broader collective action. Thus, this type of visual composition aspires to achieve a positive change through personal involvement, with the aim of achieving something for the planet or the collective good.

“The social networks are creating a different kind of activism, with different connotations, as the desire for involvement in the more traditional social movements wanes. In this sense, the new models of activism in the social networks call for individual responsibility and action in order to achieve a profound change”, says San Cornelio.

What's more, the authors explain that the 'before and after' comparative structure or eschatological narrative is used recurrently in environmental activism. Yet it does not usually directly condemn the institutions or corporations that cause damage to the natural heritage, nor does it explicitly challenge the established social order. In fact, the environmental memes are usually aimed at the person as an individual and focus on messages such as tackling environmental disasters based on the sum of individual actions.

Thus, they manage to create a much more dramatic image that implicitly conveys a solution. “The use of a mythological narrative model for environmental change based on memes in social networks would help, on the one hand, create new spaces for citizen participation and, on the other hand, make complex subjects understandable, using concise visual impact, encouraging and inviting action based on emotion and personal involvement”, conclude the researchers.

This piece of work is one of the studies within a broader research project about narrative cultures, social action and the creation of audiences in contemporary society, focussed on the analysis of the digital media.


This research by the UOC favours the sustainable development goal (SDG) 13, action for climate change.



Ardvol, E., Martorell, S., & San-Cornelio, G. (2021).
 Myths in visual environmental activism narratives on Instagram.  Comunicar, 68.



The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health. Over 500 researchers and 51 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: #UOC25years


Photograph of Gemma San Cornelio Esquerdo

Gemma San Cornelio Esquerdo

Expert in: New media aesthetics; online identities; user-generated content; transmedia; co-creation and participatory design; creative work; social innovation; locative media.

Knowledge area: Audiovisual communication.

View file
Photograph of Elisenda Ardvol Piera

Elisenda Ardvol Piera

Expert in: Digital culture; ethnography; qualitative methods for research on the information and knowledge society.

Knowledge area: Digital, visual and media anthropology.

View file

Sandra Martorell

Researcher of the UOC and the UPV

Expert in:

Knowledge area: Digital, visual and media anthropology.