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Leonardo DiCaprio Made People Care About Climate Change, Statistics Say

Celebrities do have an impact on important world issues, modern data approaches prove.

The Washington Post reports that when Charlie Sheen confessed that he was HIV-positive, a research team found that media attention to the virus — which had been sorely lacking for a long time — suddenly increased by leaps and bounds.

The same now holds true for Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Oscar acceptance speech this year focused on climate change and the need for action. According to researchers, tweets and Google searches on the topic spiked enormously, and in the case of tweets, seemingly set a new record based on data analyses from 2011 to the present.

John Ayers of San Diego State University conducted the research with colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute, the University of California San Diego, and other institutions.

DiCaprio, winning Best Actor for The Revenant on February 28, was able to link the movie to climate change. He said,

Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.

The multi-awarded actor urged people to support world leaders, think about those who are unable to speak out, and consider the future.

At the time of DiCaprio’s speech, 34.5 million people were tuned in to the Oscars.

Ayers and the team used a mixture of media coverage searches using the Bloomberg Terminal, Twitter content searches, and Google trends search data to analyze what happened after the speech. They also examined the public attention to DiCaprio’s words compared to past responses on climate change at significant moments, including the Paris climate talks and Earth Day 2015.

In addition, the researchers used a modeling approach to figure out how much media coverage and social media interaction would have happened if DiCaprio had not made a stand. In short, what a more “normal” level of response would be.

The team found that while there was little to no news media attention on DiCaprio, the social media and search response was overwhelming: tweets on climate change or global warming jumped 636% higher than average on the day of the Oscar speech. The total number of tweets mentioning “climate change” or “global warming” was the highest recorded in the database at over 250,000 tweets, the researchers noted.

With regards to Google searches, the numbers went so high that it became the “third-highest point ever recorded for climate change or global warming on Google trends.”

Ayers says the significance of these findings is that celebrities speaking out makes a difference, even when it does not get as much coverage in more traditional outlets. He says that the methods in the study can be used to potentially set advocacy and engagement campaigns at certain times, so that the impact is maximized, such as what DiCaprio did.

These results also mean that when it comes to getting the general public to listen to things like climate change, it shouldn’t just be scientists, experts and policy makers talking. The study concludes that “The scientific community must adapt to the 21st century dynamic communication landscape and ready itself for the next opportunity to harness the agents of change.”

The study was published in PLOS One.

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