The role of space and place in social media communication: two case studies of policy perspectives

  • Adiyana Sharag-Eldin
  • Xinyue YeEmail author
  • Brian Spitzberg
  • Ming-Hsiang Tsou
Research Article


The study of how space and place intersect with social policy is still nascent but developing rapidly. As two exemplars of the potential that such research offers, the objective of this review is to integrate the research collected during recent studies of fracking and the death penalty. The primary disciplinary value of this review is to demonstrate the spatial value of communication and social media studies. This study adopts a communication-based theoretical framework as a lens to guide methodological choices in analyzing public perceptions. The social media application from Twitter is used as the engine to capture opinions of social media users engaging public controversies. This review locates connections in the literature between geographers/spatial scientists and communication media theorists.


Space Place Social media Communication 

Research background

The technological innovations in communication have historically outpaced the theoretical frameworks formulated to account for the effects of such innovations. Nevertheless, communication theory has co-evolved with such advances in general, and in particular in regard to smartphone technology [143]. Smartphones are a ubiquitous device for conducting social media network interaction [9] and have become essential in people’s lives [116]. Smartphones continue to expand their market and have yet to reach saturation in the population [60]. The conjunction of mobile phone technology with the global positioning satellite technologies allows geographers and social scientists to track both the approximate location and specific time of communication data sources, and increasingly, the real-time intersections and interactions of people using such technologies [137].

The development of digital technology brings a new momentum and access for researchers to georeferenced data embedded in social media [29, 46, 73, 125]. This social media connection makes it possible to link an Internet user with other users of the Internet within homophilous network groups. Internet users may choose from a variety of networking program applications appropriate for their activities [64]. Social media program applications also provide the affordance of microblogging (i.e., Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram) for sharing communication and information [132]. The access to proximity and co-location information has become part of the “geospatial revolution” [33] that is both reflecting and altering people’s sense of their place [38, 63] in their social and geographic spaces [10, 47, 85, 138].

An increasingly popular mode of web-based communication is microblogging. It allows users to broadcast brief text updates to the public or to a selected group of contacts. The launch of Twitter in October 2006 represented a revolutionary form of communication in social media [12]. Microblog posts on Twitter, commonly known as tweets, being at less than 280 characters (originally 140), are very brief in comparison to ordinary blog posts. Twitter is currently one of the world’s major social media platforms that allows users to express their thoughts publicly in brief messages [121].

Twitter has experienced global rapid growth since it was founded in 2006 [55]. A Twitter user can create a brief profile and choose a unique Twitter user’s identification or alias. The Twitter network program provides information of the number of the Twitter user’s followers and the number of people the user follows on Twitter. Most posted tweets consist of daily routine interactions, informal conversations, information sharing, and the reporting of news [12]. However, these posted tweets also include users’ opinions, especially the messages from individuals who post their opinions on controversial topics [93, 111]. Such opinions are often signaled by the Twitter convention of hashtags, which are originated and assigned to such posts by their sender(s) and can be publicly downloaded and searched by researchers. The two exemplary controversial issues of fracking and capital punishment illustrate the value of such analytic methods [12].

In the studies reported here, user participation ranged from concerned individuals to organized political groups, either of which may display attitudes ranging from marginally valenced views to strong political agendas. The majority of individuals may be influenced by direct exposure to fracking activities or their state’s policy on the death penalty, and such individuals might differentially diffuse such news to each other through social media communication [130].

According to classical mediated communication theory, a relatively small proportion of “opinion leaders” (actors) function as crucial intermediaries between the media and the majority of society [66]. As such, viral campaigns can reach wide audiences by identifying and persuading a relatively small number of opinion leaders [18] In contemporary developed societies, social power is exercised substantially by and through social networks [17]. These networks are avenues through which opinion leaders, or influentials [130], can exert influence since they provide forums and opportunities for interaction with other users of the social network [103]; Everett M. [104], especially when linking otherwise less homophilous groups [13, 14, 15]. This research utilized opinion leaders as the leading informer in the diffusion of messages to influence public opinion on social phenomena. Newer theoretical developments propose that opinion expression in social media may actually drive news as much or more as the media drive social opinion diffusion [111].

The role of space and place in communication theories

Communication and Geography are two traditional, relatively separate, academic fields. These fields, however, share and overlap at certain borders where interdisciplinary activities constitute fecund intersections [2]. The earliest intersections between geography and communication theory were articulated by scholars who were involved in the study of place names and dialect of geography in the first half of the 1900s [39, 80, 81, 83, 84, 123]. Afterward in the 1960s, Rogers [65, 67, 105] and Hägerstrand [49] conceptualized a theory of innovation diffusion, followed soon after by Lefebvre in the 1970s with his significant definition of space and time [49, 77]. In the 1960s, sociologists such as Durkheim proposed theoretical analogs such as ‘social space’ [91, 112], while Lefebvre suggested the ‘representation of space’ (i.e., the social space constructed through communication) is occupied by artists, writers, and philosophers. In contemporary society, these spaces of communication are also shared, occupied and co-created by Internet bloggers, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and political figures [76].

More recently, the geographer Adams [1] and Adams & Jansson [2] argued that mediated communication reflects a social space comprised of abstract, theoretical, and production-oriented space. This social space involves the co-construction, representation and formalization of powerful actors’ formal plans and abstract blueprints that influence social action [1, 2]. This argument is parallel to Tuan’s [127] earlier conceptualization of place and space as ephemeral or virtual areas rather than fixed locations [127]. ‘Place’ represents a complexly layered subjective experience that is grounded in local discourses and conditions. In contrast, ‘space’ reflects actual and potential movements of bodies, entities, information, and communication [36]. It can be conceptualized in regard to ‘personal space’ [6, 40, 50, 79] or proximity (Menne, Joy M. Cadiz; Sinnett, 1971; [118, 119]. The intersection of language, thought, space and time continue to provide an important location for theoretical development [95, 101].

The study of communication geography has allowed focus upon the various means through which political and economic power are legitimized through communication, which establishes boundaries of space and time of various scales of space and mobility in society [17, 31, 54, 106, 107, 108]. Traditional communication theory has generally presumed rather than theoretically specified the central roles of place and space in human interaction, but as attention to mediated communication has increased, so has the development of communication theory [26, 52, 96, 115]. The contributions from the communication discipline are strongly indicated in studies by Chong and Druckman’s focus on framing of opinion in a competitive elite environment [22, 23], Dodge’s [31] inquiry into the prevention of chronic violence in American Youth, or Castells’ [17] examination of the need for violence and intimidation to shape collective minds, all of which illustrate the heuristic value of integrating communication theory with human geography.

Developments in the internet, social media, and their computer applications have enabled widespread explorations of online data mining in investigating the various intersections of space and place. Among some of the more notable achievements have been in such applied contexts as social movements [44, 88, 98], emergency disaster response [71, 99, 129], and terrorism [20, 41, 75]. One of the most opportune applications of such communication technologies is in the surveillance of public opinion. In particular, for example, media-related research on environmental issues and climate change has followed the same path as communication research and technology [43, 78, 90].

The multilevel model of meme diffusion (M3D) is a communication framework theory about networked messaging developed by Spitzberg [115]. The M3D model identifies a variety of constructs to account for the influence of the diffusion and replication of memes through messages that transfer cultural information from individual-to-individuals and from individuals-to-groups [115]. Memes are the cultural analog to genes, referring to any replicable messages that transfer cultural information from individual-to-individual [30]. The word “meme” is widely used in social media to describe a unit of information that spreads through person-to-person communication in social networks. Once a meme is identified, it can facilitate classification of different types of social processes [74]. Meme theory also suggests that imbedded in viral messages is the framing of positive and negative opinions regarding issues, which must compete with other memes in the communication ecosystem. The informational ecosystem is also an analog for biological ecosystems in which any given organism (and its genes) must compete for resources; memes, in contrast, compete for attention in contexts in which counter-frames and other memes compete for this attention [115].

Implicit in the M3D theoretical analogy to ecosystems is the assumption that top predators, or influentials, would have disproportionate impact on that system’s dynamics. These impacts tend to occur in two forms: objective and subjective. The objective impact of influentials in social networks occurs because of their structural interconnectedness and numbers of followers, which make them important conduits in diffusing information to the rest of the informational ecosystem. The subjective impact is that, the broader social network views influentials as homophilous and aspirational. That is, people tend to affiliate and link with others with similar attitudes, and they want to communicate with those who are most influential and have the highest status in their social networks. M3D also proposes that several geotechnical factors influence the diffusion of communications in such social networks, including geospatial proximity, which facilitates homophily and reduces the friction of distance, even in cyberspace [53]. Furthermore, a reasonable extension of M3D is that “local” sense of place, city, and state boundaries, major newsworthy economic investments such as fracking, and local political movements such as ecological resistance or death penalty resistance would signal homophilous activity in the diffusion of social media activity relevant to such factors.

Scholarship in the communication discipline is progressing in the surveillance [25, 110, 142] and taxonomic classification of memes in cyberspace [109, 134, 144]. The application of communication theory to social media memes was used to trace the source of public opinion in both cases of fracking practices and the death penalty policy in a manner that illuminates human geography.

Case study 1: the death penalty abolishment and reinstated in Nebraska (2016–2017)

As a controversial topic in the United States, the capital punishment is supported by over three quarters of Republicans, yet is opposed by the majority of Democrats [7]. Most citizens support the death penalty, although the level of support has been falling consistently for about two decades [97]. The death penalty is legal in 30 states as shown in Fig. 1. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reported the status of the five states with Gubernatorial moratoria on capital punishment: California (2019), Colorado (2013), Pennsylvania (2015), Washington (2014), and Oregon (2011) [5]. The Nebraska abolishment and repeal of capital punishment has attracted widespread interest in the social media [8, 24].
Fig. 1

Tweets distribution of death penalty

The political decision-making that drives policy in regard to death penalty legislation is based more on concerns about public opinion majorities rather than the morality of the policy per se [89]. The M3D framework theory proposes that such opinion spreads less because of the moral or political perspectives expressed in such memes, and instead due to the novelty or informational utility of such messages, the status of the source of such memes, and the facility of the social networks into which the memes are diffusing. In other words, it is the extent to which the messages agree with one’s own perspective, or can be incorporated into one’s own opinion, that facilitates diffusion within social networks. Furthermore, given the adage that “all politics is local,” M3D anticipates geospatial locale will be reflected in such diffusion processes.

Such networks can be approximated by identifying the opinion content of certain policy agendas. The tweets were downloaded using the hashtag “#death_penalty” as the keyword to capture the different opinions on the capital punishment. The tweets compiled ranged from May 27 to December 31, 2015, with approximately 389,800 geotagged tweets as shown in Fig. 1.

The tweets are classified using sentiments words to distinguish the difference in opinions. For example, there is a strong opinion on the Boston bomber that triggers the tweets for supporting the death penalty. Thus, the words related to “Boston”, “Tsarnaev”, and “bomber” were classified in the category of Pro-Death Penalty (Pro DP = 0). On the other side, the words related to “Nebraska”, “First conservative state”, “banned” were put into the category of “Against Death Penalty” (Against DP = 1). From the 380 K data points, only one-third of the text mentioned the words that are captured in the sentiments table. The rest of the tweets are irrelevant and neutral without expressing any sentiments. The list of sentiments words related to this research is available in the Appendix Table.

The state’s policy on the death penalty is also put into two categories: the states with support to the death penalty or “States with DP” in red polygons (with DP = 0), and states with moratorium and states with banned on the death penalty is in category “States without DP” in light blue and purple polygons (without DP = 1).

The Chi-square statistical analysis tests the relationships between the states with the support of death penalty and the state with a ban on the death penalty. The null hypothesis is there is no statistically significant relationship in the opinion of the death penalty between the states with the moratorium and banned on the death penalty and the states supporting the death penalty. The alternative hypothesis is that there is a statistically significant relationship between the state with the banned on the death penalty and the states with support on the death penalty.

The results of Chi-square test shown in the table below:

Chi-square tests




Asymptotic significance (2-sided)

Exact sig. (2-sided)

Exact sig. (1-sided)

Pearson’s Chi-square





Continuity correctionb





Likelihood ratio





Fisher’s exact test




N of valid cases



a0 cells (0.0%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is 11,740.21

bComputed only for a 2 × 2 table

The probability is p = 0.000 that is smaller than α = 0.05, which means that there is a statistically significant difference between the states with death penalty moratorium and those states that supporting the death penalty with regard to their population sentiments on the death penalty.

The M3D framework theory proposes that memes such as Twitter messages that refer to sensitizing issues for any given social network will activate cascading diffusion of such memes throughout the broader media ecosystem, and this diffusion process will reflect geospatial gradients based on local boundaries and proximity. Thus, the research questions focus on the reciprocal relationship between the State and the users of social media (shown in Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Research scope diagram

(RQ1): Are the states with policies that regulate capital punishment will be reflected in social media (i.e., Twitter) by significant moral sentiments and opinions of their citizens?

(RQ2): Are Twitter users who posted their tweets on social media are influenced by their geographically bounded state policy on the death penalty?

Figure 2 diagram shows the inter-related connectivity between the State as policymakers and the Twitter Users as the representative of public perceptions. Research Question 1 (RQ1) is drawn as the first arrow on the left reflecting the influence of public opinion over the death penalty that motivates the decision on the death penalty at the state-levels. Research Question 2 (RQ2) is drawn as the second arrow representing the connection between the state’s policy on the death penalty that triggers public reaction to accept or to oppose the policy.

The state-level association is detected between the death penalty policy and the public perception on the death penalty (Fig. 1), with clusters of geotagged tweets formed in the neighboring states [4] along with a positive spatial autocorrelation of Moran’s I 1.15 (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Spatial analyses using GeoDa

In Fig. 3, the upper-left map is the density of geotagged tweets per 1000 persons by State (data from Census 2010). The graph on the upper-right corner shows an autocorrelation among the states. The lower-left map displays the significance of Local Indicators of Spatial Association (LISA). The lower-right map shows clusters and outliers: High–High (HH) clusters include Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Georgia. The HH indicates positive local spatial autocorrelation.

The low–high indicates negative local spatial autocorrelation or spatial outliers [3]. In Fig. 3, the LH spatial outliers are Missouri and Mississippi, showing low values surrounded by high values in the neighboring states.

The low–low (LL) indicates a cluster of low values surrounded by low values in the neighboring states. In Fig. 3, the LL cluster is Maryland.

The cluster and outlier analysis distinguish between a statistically significant cluster of high value (HH), cluster of low values (LL), and the outliers in which a low value is surrounded by primarily high value (LH). The results are consistent with the upper-left map of Fig. 3 revealing a dark brown color for Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Georgia. The users in the Southern United States or informally called the Bible Belt region (including Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Georgia) posted their perception on the death penalty significantly more than other regions in the United States.

The findings of this research are as below:
  • The clusters of states with high rates of tweets per population are located in the states that maintain capital punishment. These states are located in the colloquially named “Bible Belt” region of the US, known for its religiously grounded political conservatism. Such a pattern of data suggests that religion either has a direct influence on geography of moral policy-based opinions (in this case, regarding the death penalty), or at least that religion is correlated with geospatially clustering of political attitudes and beliefs. Consistent with RQ1, social media do appear to reflect moral reactions to public policy, illustrated by views expressed in regard to capital punishment policy.

  • Regarding RQ2, there is a low level of correlation between the states’ death penalty policies and the number of posted tweets in each state. The Moran’s I positive autocorrelation value of 0.145 means there are some clusters of states with a similar density of tweets per state population in the study area. In other words, the results from the spatial statistical analysis indicate that some states that keep the death penalty have the same users’ sentiment of expressing opinions in social media. Visual inspection confirms that the majority of the tweets opine against the death penalty. Thus, contrary to RQ2, the spatial analysis indicates that the Twitter users who posted their tweets on social media were not influenced by the geographically bounded State policy on the death penalty.

The State of Nebraska experienced the abolishment of the death penalty in 2015 (Berman, 2015). However, a year later, the citizens of Nebraska voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the death penalty and nullify the historic 2015 vote by the State Legislature [51]. Nebraska’s abolishment of the death penalty in 2015 was apparently caused by an economic issue rather than moral issue. The debate in the Nebraska legislative forum concluded that the lethal injections serum to perform executions was too expensive for the state to uphold (Berman, 2015).

The statewide campaign in Nebraska launched by the pro-death penalty supporters was led by Governor Pete Ricketts. The Governor and his family donated $400,000 to the campaign to reinstate the death penalty [100]. Since the primary articulated decision to abolish the death penalty in 2015 was based more on economic rather than moral criteria, supporters of the death penalty tried to raise money for the state to afford lethal injections drugs [34]. The Governor of Nebraska had already been discussing the possibility of changing Nebraska’s lethal injection protocol. Despite nationwide support for a ban the capital punishment, the voters in Nebraska handed back the option of lethal injections and voted to reintroduce the death penalty on the November 2016 election day [51].

From these data points, the word “Nebraska” were added to separate a specific case related to Nebraska’s abolishment of its death penalty, in comparison to the national data in the present study. Approximately a total of 10,500 tweets from the entire database were selected with the hashtag “#death_penalty” and “Nebraska”.

During Nebraska’s abolishment of the death penalty in 2015, the news diffused extensively due to the unexpected reactions of the repeal of the death penalty from a conservative state, although the establishments of a major political party and religious leaders were both in favor of keeping the death penalty. The viral message was illustrated by the Associated Press on May 27, 2015:

“Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than four decades to repeal the death penalty” (R. Berman, 2015).

The rapid, extensive and global diffusion of such news is considered an example of meme diffusion due to its viral effect. Memes represent a mechanism of cultural transfer, but memes sometimes go “viral,” such that they reveal rapid social sharing across a wide range and depth [92] Thus, all viral social media are memetic, but not all memes go viral. All diffusion and viral events (i.e., retweets) imply influence, but influence is not isomorphic with persuasion (Pentland, 2010), which would imply a transfer of attitude change in the direction of directed social media message views. Some memes may not mean the same thing for the people who send them around [117], and forwarding a tweet does not equate with agreement or a modification of belief.

Despite some contrast and similarity between the memetics application in communication theory and geography, this study explores the meme’s function as a productive concept for the analysis of a contemporary phenomenon. The interconnectivity between communication and geography require renewed attention to the need for cross-disciplinary theory and research in these disciplines. This study offers new insights into the influence of communication technology as a tool to represent and potentially predict social phenomena in general, and the formation of policy in particular. Pursuing these public opinion exchanges will assist in the early detection of social and political processes related to public opinion formation and their roles in influencing criminal justice and human rights.

Case study 2: the fracking controversy

Fracking indicates that a high-pressure water mixture is injected into the rock to extract the gas. Fracking is controversial between public opinion and political agendas. The political debate surrounding fracking represents an exemplary public policy issue upon which social attitudes are written both in traditional news media as well as online and social media messaging [140]. The impact of Internet technology and social media communications reflect, influence and form personal perceptions and opinions on social issues directly and indirectly [21, 42, 62].

In developing opinions, people often do not use their rationality to form their own views or decisions, especially in regard to environmental awareness [72]. Most people express their opinions by adopting or expressing the opinions of other people or those of opinion leaders as social ‘actors’. Such actors consist of celebrities (movie actors and singers), prominent people, public figures, politicians, and religious leaders. These actors have the ability to influence the opinion of their followers and diffuse political agendas through social media [21, 25, 32]. The news contains public controversy become popular on the media coverage [48, 94, 102].

The controversy surrounding fracking can at least be traced in large part to the release of the movie Gasland in 2010. This documentary by Josh Fox on the societal and environmental effects of fracking was widely noted as revealing potential hazards of fracking [45, 136]. The opponents of fracking have focused their campaigns on environmental problems, public health concerns and earthquakes [113, 114]. Some studies have also linked the fracking process to drinking water contamination [11, 57, 124] due to the massive amounts of water required for fracking operations. Since Gasland, the public debate on fracking has represented a sensitive issue in US Presidential administration’s policies. On July 2017, the Trump administration announced an intent to roll back fracking protections from Federal lands [87]. According to Samuel Kernell (1997) in his book, Going Public, the direct support from the American public is often bypassed by Congress [69].

According to Johnson and Boersma (2012), the operation of fracking requires 2–4 million gallons of water and 15,000–60,000 gallons of chemicals for a single lateral well. This massive amount of water is multiplied by the numbers of gas wells at every site [11]. In addition, the transportation of wastewater from the drilling sites to the designated injection well pits is another risk an environmental disaster waiting to happen [27, 133]. Transporting of the waste liquids from the fracking wells requires a fleet of trucks and large underground injection wells with full Federal requirements. Due in part to such risks and complications, three states in the United States (New York, Vermont, Maryland) and some local governments ban fracking or have imposed a moratorium within their jurisdictions [16, 135].

Another environmental impact related to fracking involves earthquake incidents possibly associated with hydraulic fracturing in certain locations such as Youngstown, Ohio and in south-central Oklahoma. One study identified 77 earthquakes with a magnitude of 1–3 on the Richter scale near Youngstown, OH [59, 114]. Some studies focused on the injection-induced earthquakes in Oklahoma as part of the process required to stimulate the production from dense shale formations, or by disposal of wastewater associated with hydraulic fracking [37, 58, 68].

On the other side in this controversy, there are some substantial media campaigns to promote fracking, primarily supported by the oil and gas industry, state policymakers and shareholders. The content of such campaigns by fracking supporters tends to include the economic benefits and cleaner technology compared to coal, as well as the potential for reduced national dependency on imported oil (Charles [28, 70]. There is evidence that the contemporary administration and policymakers have consistently downplayed the role of the oil and gas industry to reconcile the drilling practices with fossil fuel policies enacted prior to the emergence of more pressing environmental policy concerns [86, 141].

During the recession, in the beginning of 2010s, in a depressed economy state, Ohio, was desperately in need of a stimulus to its economic development from the jobs promised by shale oil exploration in east Ohio. A study by Weinstein and Partridge [131] argued that the energy development industry from a natural gas exploration in eastern Ohio would serve as a reliable economic engine for the whole State [131]. Another study by Hill and Kinahan [56] study supported the same kind of economic development (Hill & Kinahan, 2013). A study by Thomas et al. [122] predicted the employment growth generated by the Utica Shale company would generate 1000 jobs for engineering and 1000 jobs for environmental technicians in 2014. The estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the gas and oil industry was expected to represent $54.9 billion dollars (Thomas, Lendel, Hill, Southgate, & Chase, 2012).

The polarized opinions reflected in social media regarding fracking demonstrated that the public has difficulty in formulating rational behavior or opinion regarding complex public policy [82]. In such cases, the public is likely to rely more on social media to gage, influence and form personal opinions on social issues [42]; Haens [21, 62]. In such complex public policy issues, people tend to depend on the opinion leaders who can be trusted to serve to validate self-opinion formation [140].

This study uses geotagged tweets with the hashtag “fracking” from 1/1/2017 to 1/1/2018, returning over 15,000 data points as public reactions within the contiguous United States. The public reactions are captured in the posted Twitter and arrayed on a time-series graph as the spikes between mid-July to early August 2017 (Fig. 4). The majority of tweets compiled on July 2017 contain various messages about the threat of fracking operations on the environment, especially on the water supplies. The following texts are examples from the tweets posted in mid-July 2017:
Fig. 4

Numbers of Tweets with #Fracking by Day

  • Trump administration to overturn fracking controls on public land.

  • RT @RobertKennedyJr: Stop Dumping Offshore Fracking Waste into the Gulf of Mexico.

  • @RT_America: Sediments downstream from one treatment plant contain about 200 times the level of #radium found upstream.

  • RT @SafetyPinDaily: Fracking can contaminate rivers and lakes with radioactive material, study finds.

  • RT @RoseAnnDeMoro: Wastewater produced by #fracking contaminates waterways with radioactive waste and hormone-affecting chemicals.

  • RT @cleantechnica: Waste Water from Fracking Pollutes Pennsylvania.

  • RT @3DTruth: Penn State finds PA river dumped with treated fracking water just 14% below the level to qualify as radioactive waste.

Although the areas that cover the shale deposits of natural gas only covers 22% of the contiguous U.S., the posted tweets as public reactions on fracking show up everywhere across the U.S., not just the areas directly affected by fracking. The map in Fig. 5 shows the posted tweets overlaid upon the areas with shale deposits. This map also displays the public concern of fracking operations reflected through posted tweets beyond the areas with direct impact from fracking.
Fig. 5

Map of Shale Basins in the United States

The density of posted tweets is concentrated in the urban areas such as Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles-San Diego in the West Coast. From New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC in the East Coast. This finding is consistent with the previous study using a smaller sample size [139].

There is a significant role for opinion leaders (or ‘actors’), led by movie actors/actresses from Hollywood, California expressing opinions about the danger of fracking. The tweets from these actors were diffused faster compared to other news media due to their popularity and ability to capture large numbers of followers. Some studies have found that well-educated actors have important influence within mainstream media, not only in the spreading of political opinions, but also through discussing these opinions with other users [128]. There is some representation of Hollywood actors with anti-fracking agenda captured in this study. They are:
  • Cher messages on the earthquakes in Oklahoma became viral and repeated over 500 times.

  • Ian Somerhalder concerns on St. Tammany Parrish in Louisiana as one of the fracking destinations was retweeted for 900 times.

  • Mark Ruffalo sent many messages to ban fracking in various locations in the US.

At the state level, the public opinion reflected in the tweets focused more on the internal problems of the respective states. In California, for example, many tweets were anti-fracking, emphasizing mostly concerns about water contamination, water preservation and climate change. New York was one of the states with a statewide fracking ban. However, the majority of tweets posted from New York state were sent by the Environment Group, which warned the Government about the danger of fracking practices. In Ohio the majority of public opinion on fracking was focused on its environmental hazards, especially related to major earthquakes near Youngstown. Large numbers of tweets from Ohio and Pennsylvania showed public dissatisfaction with the local township policy that accepted fracking within its jurisdictions.

One drawback of this study using social media as a tool to capture public opinions is the biases in data sample. The concentration of posted tweet messages represents only urban areas, especially concentrated within the states with advanced technology and large populations of well-educated occupants [35]. The spatial distribution of posted tweets with hashtag #fracking is shown in Fig. 6.
Fig. 6

Hotspots of Geotags with #Fracking

Figure 6 shows the clusters of posted tweets (normalized with total population from Census 2010). The concentration of Twitter users who posted their opinion on fracking are located in California (S.F. Bay Area, Los Angeles-San Diego areas), Colorado, Florida, and the East-Coast urban areas.

The contribution of this study demonstrates that the M3D framework theory from communication is applicable as a general theory. This communication framework theory anticipates that people and their opinions cluster in ways that reveal and reflect their geospatial locality, in this case, regarding their views regarding fracking operations. The objective of this study is to investigate the role of opinion leaders in influencing public opinion. These inquiries provide a window within which the formation of local and state energy policy could be understood.


This article offers a selective literature review based on case studies of social phenomena using public perception data derived from social media. The first study analyzed public reactions to Nebraska’s abolishment of the death penalty in 2015, which was subsequently repealed in 2016. This study focused on the moral perspectives expressed in social media regarding the value of capital punishment. The second study was on fracking operations in the United States that triggered political debates from supporters and opponents. Both studies utilized public perception data from Twitter, and contained recoverable online conversation information, news commentary broadcasts, sharing forums, and social media news circulation. Both studies applied the multilevel model of meme diffusion (M3D) as a communication perspective that accommodates the relationships between communication and geography [115]. Meme source, space and place play a significant role in the diffusion of opinions in social media, and reveal local, regional, and state-level differences that are sensitive to events in realspace. Much work still needs to be done to specify the interrelationships among these factors and will require disciplinary contributions from multiple fields [126]. The presence of social media communication creates a new method for conducting geographical research by collecting public perceptions from the Twitter communications. An ample collection of literature review was compiled in and stored in Mendeley reference management software.

There are some limitations. The first was the limited number of keywords for searching tweets. Fracking is a term used more by anti-fracking groups, whereas proponents tend to use the terms “shale-oil” and “natural-gas” in their social media. The inherent keyword bias is likely to have overrepresented one user group’s sentiments. In the case of the death penalty study, the keyword used in this study is “death_penalty,” which may have also reflected similar biases relative to alternative terms such as “execution,” “death_sentence” and “capital punishment” [120]. A second limitation is the availability of geotagged tweets. Only a small proportion of Twitter users activate their GPS location on their smart phones [61]. This limitation has been adjusted using the “User Location” in the tweets attribute to estimate user location [19]. However, the exact degree of error in this interpolation of location is unknown. A third limitation is that the M3D is an evolving theoretical model, and its predictive status is still relatively nascent. Several of its potentially relevant variables were not examined in this particular study, such as social network structure of the communication, the rates of diffusion, the specific message features that facilitated diffusion of opinions on the death penalty or fracking, and so forth. Continued work on M3D will pursue a more propositional and predictive model as empirical research continues to inform the theory’s content. The fourth limitation is the interactions of robotic technology used by humans to multiply the posted tweets for individual or groups benefit.

The studies synopsized here are grounded in the two disciplines of geography and communication. These two social scientific fields are connected by the human activities to communicate using social media. As communication technologies advance and are more ubiquitous in adoption, they will continue to demonstrate the necessity of integrating communication theory and geography to understand the complex human dynamics.


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyKent State UniversityKentUSA
  2. 2.Urban Informatics and Spatial Computing Lab, Department of InformaticsNew Jersey Institute of TechnologyNewarkUSA
  3. 3.School of CommunicationSan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  4. 4.Department of GeographySan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA

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