Study shows how fracking documentary influenced public perception and political change

September 2, 2015

Social scientists have long argued documentary films are powerful tools for social change.

But a University of Iowa (UI) sociologist and his co-researchers are the first to use the Internet and to systematically show how a documentary film reshaped public perception and ultimately led to municipal bans on hydraulic .

By measuring an uptick in online searches as well as social media chatter and mass media coverage, Ion Bogdan Vasi, an associate professor of sociology at the UI and corresponding author of a new study, demonstrated how local screenings of Gasland—a 2010 American documentary that focused on communities affected by natural gas drilling—affected the public debate on hydraulic fracking. Additionally, Vasi and his collaborators demonstrated how local screenings were linked to an increase in anti-fracking mobilizations that, in turn, influenced the passage of local bans on fracking.

"There are few studies that describe the effect of documentaries on and social movement campaigns," Vasi says. "They used anecdotal evidence but not rigorous research."

The study, "'No Fracking Way!' Documentary Film, Discursive Opportunity, and Local Opposition against Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States, 2010-2013," was published online today and will appear in the October print issue of the American Sociological Review.

According to the study, "screenings of Gasland in different locations had an effect on the mobilization of local campaigns against the controversial practice of ; in turn, those local mobilizations made local policymakers significantly more likely to take action to ban the practice of fracking."

Vasi, who studies collective behaviors, says the documentary worked as a catalyst for policy changes in the Marcellus Shale region (Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia) where Gasland was filmed.

"The documentary clearly made an impact, but it was indirect," he says. "On average, more screenings led to more mobilizations, which led to policy changes."

Vasi says he chose Gasland for his study because it contains dramatic images similar to those of the burning Cuyahoga River, which helped launch the environmental movement in 1969. In Gasland, viewers witness people set fire to tap water allegedly contaminated by fracking in Pennsylvania and other states. Another reason for his choice was that scientists still don't agree on the dangers of hydraulic fracking—a method of horizontal drilling into shale formations.

During his research, Vasi zeroed in on two time periods for his data collection: June 2010, when Gasland was released on HBO and February 2011, when the documentary was nominated for an Academy Award.

"For the period of the study the number of Google searches for 'fracking' was much larger than for 'Gasland', with two exceptions: the months when the documentary was released on HBO and when it was nominated for an Oscar," Vasi says. "In fact, in June 2010, the number of searches for 'Gasland' was four times higher than the number of searches for 'fracking,' indicating that the created significant interest in the topic among the general public."

Researchers also found that chatter on Twitter about fracking increased over time, particularly after Gasland was released on HBO and again when it was nominated for an Oscar. The study shows "chatter increases by approximately 6 percent after the release and by approximately 9 percent after the nomination (compared to the previous month)."

Finally, mass media coverage of fracking—as measured by newspaper articles—increases over time, particularly after Gasland's release and award nomination. According to the study, "more than half of the articles that mention fracking in June 2010 and January 2011 also mention Gasland."

However, Vasi says negative public sentiment about hydraulic fracking was most readily apparent in online activity and social media chatter because traditional newspapers are obligated to show both sides of an issue.

He also said that fracking serves as an excellent example of how community activists grapple with contentious energy issues and the environment, particularly because of recent legislation that makes local fracking bans illegal in states such as Texas.

Authors of the study hope future studies will investigate the effects of other and see why some films lead to large-scale mobilizations and others do not.

Explore further: Fracking caused 2014 Canadian quake: media

Related Stories

Fracking caused 2014 Canadian quake: media

August 26, 2015

Fracking by a Canadian subsidiary of Malaysian oil and gas giant Petronas triggered one of the world's largest earthquakes linked to the controversial practice, Canadian media said Wednesday.

New York state bans fracking

December 17, 2014

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he would ban hydraulic fracking in New York State, citing health concerns about the controversial oil and gas drilling technique.

Hospitalizations increase near fracking sites, study shows

July 17, 2015

People living in areas of Pennsylvania where hydraulic fracturing is booming are suffering increasing rates of hospitalization, a new study says. The study is one of a small but growing number suggesting that the practice ...

The trouble with fracking

June 15, 2015

The UK may be sitting on vast reserves of shale gas accessible with today's technology to the petrochemicals industry only through the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking". Unfortunately ...

Drought threatens US fracking industry

February 6, 2014

The two years of drought in the central United States is placing strains on the water-intense oil and gas fracking industry, according to a new study Wednesday.

Landmark fracking study finds no water pollution

September 16, 2014

The final report from a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has found no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water at one site ...

Recommended for you

Experts uncover hidden layers of Jesus' tomb site

October 27, 2016

In the innermost chamber of the site said to be the tomb of Jesus, a restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where ...

Important ancient papyrus seized from looters in Israel

October 27, 2016

(—Eitan Klein, a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has announced that an important papyrus document dated to 2,700 years ago has been seized from a group of Palestinian looters who reportedly ...

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (4) Sep 03, 2015
Can't believe idiots like ryggeson always bleating about "fascist liberals". Denton TX passed a fracking ban with a public referendum vote and then 30 Republicans in the Texas legislature passed lege making banning fracking a crime. Who's against public opinion? Who's forcing their agenda down the majority's throat? Can you name one example where on of the luddites' ideas have been passed in a public referendum and a minority of liberals made what was passed a crime? Once?

Don't confuse them with the facts and don't expect liberals to act on their preaching. Expect us all to die together bickering like a dysfunctional family on a doomed airliner. No dignity, no grace, no rationality. No hope.
not rated yet Sep 04, 2015
fracking serves as an excellent example of how community activists grapple with contentious energy issues and the environment

Wow. Just wow.

What it really shows is how gullible people are; blindly accepting on faith the assertions of a one-sided "documentary" and apparently never exhibiting even a modicum of skepticism before taking action. Sounds pretty religious to me. If you thought "creationists" were troublemakers, look at these people. Wow. Oh well, I guess the states that didn't enact fracking bans, which is most of them, will reap the benefits.

Here are just a few links debunking "Gasland":


And here's one published in the New York Times, not exactly a conservative rag:

not rated yet Sep 04, 2015
California uses fracking water, re-pumped, to irrigate their crops. Fracking chemicals are now food in USA. Americans are truly their own worst enemy

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.