Single Use Plastics: Identifying Influencers in the Push for Change

What started as an emotional reaction to Blue Planet II's depiction of the harm caused by ocean plastic has grown into a global campaign to ban single use plastics. In this post we focus on the organisations influencing the debate and driving the agenda for change in social networks. Sir David Attenborough hopes Blue Planet II has delivered a 'wake up call'. He's right and here's why.

In December we examined public reaction to the damaging effects of ocean plastics highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Our focus was on measuring the strength of public feeling and our emotiQ segmentation model detected high levels of sadness and fear in response to the final episode. In the following days, viewers’ feelings turned to anger. The results confirmed that Blue Planet II had injected a powerful emotional charge into the debate.

The aim of this second post is to examine if that initial surge of concern has been sustained, and how it is bringing different communities together to campaign for a reduction in plastic waste, specifically single use plastic bags and bottles.

Our latest research shows that Blue Planet II was the catalyst for a sharp increase in awareness of marine pollution. Elsewhere, Sky and Tesco both launched initiatives to cut use of single use plastic in 2017, but the real step-change in public attitudes occurred once Blue Planet II aired in the autumn.

Speaking in London last week, Sir David Attenborough said Blue Planet II was a wake-up call to the world on the dangers of plastic. He was correct and as the trend graph shows, momentum has continued to build this year.


The increase in awareness is bringing more people into the debate. It is also bringing people closer together. Like-minded individuals are forming communities based on their shared interest. In turn, these communities are connecting with established environmental organisations. Dialogue with industry and legislators is sucking in packaging companies, retailers, governments and the media.

The result is a complex online eco-system which resembles one of those three-dimensional star maps produced by NASA.  

Identifying the Gatekeepers in the Debate

Our network map is a subset of the 10k Twitter accounts present in the debate on single use plastics. It shows only the key stakeholders, who hold central ‘gatekeeper’ positions within the network and act as brokers in the flow of information. The gatekeepers might not have the largest number of followers, but they are among the most active accounts, they attract conversation and they perform the crucial role of connecting community members with each other and with other communities.

[use the Full Screen button for a better view of the network map]


@sascampaigns owned by Surfers Against Sewage is the most connected organisation in the single use plastic debate. SAS is a marine conservation and campaigning charity and founder of #PlasticFreeCoastlines. Sky’s @SkyOceanRescue campaign also feeds public awareness of the issues affecting ocean health but Sky is not so centrally connected as SAS.

Looking at the map more broadly, there is a clear pattern of organisations with aligned interests clustering together in communities. They talk mostly amongst themselves and the gatekeeper within their community connects them with the wider network.

The diversity and strength of each gatekeeper’s connectedness is key to understanding their potential to influence other groups. Our algorithms work through these connections to identify the most influential accounts. This is a very different approach to the more common measure of follower numbers, as we are seeking out those accounts people actually engage with and talk about. 

The most influential accounts bridge the gaps between communities and create links with other networks which hold similar or sometimes opposing views. There are also vertical connections between local, national and international interests. Tracing these connections shows how local activism is growing in national and international significance. 

The Value of Network Maps

Network mapping also offers a more useful interpretation of volatility in social networks. A typical ‘firestorm’ involves a sudden and short-lived upsurge in activity within a community. If unrest spreads to other communities, then the storm gets bigger and lasts longer. Eventually a tipping point is reached, beyond which the pressure for change becomes hard to contain.

“ If unrest spreads to other

communities, then the storm

gets bigger and lasts longer.”

In this case, we know people are highly motivated and they are building new connections. Ocean plastic has become a contagious issue. There appears to be very little chance of it returning to the margins of public concern.

As well as tracking the evolution of a debate, network mapping identifies people and organisations to reach out to. It also detects new communities of interest and identifies those who you didn’t know were influential. Using this information we can track users and communities going forward to see how connections evolve, who enters the debate and how conversations change over time.

The application of this approach is valid for political and social research, brand tracking and for any organisation seeking insights into behaviour change.

To access and download the full infographic for single use plastics click here.

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