Droughtshaming on Twitter during the 2011-2016 California drought



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The latest drought in California (2011-2016) was the most severe in a millennium to befall that region. As historically low rainfall combined with record high temperatures, the state sustained long-lasting catastrophic damage to the subsoil and to precious aquifers. However, despite such a grave environmental, economic, and agricultural crisis, the human costs of the drought continue to be tallied. Part of the tragedy of the crisis could have been significantly mitigated if only California’s mega-user water consumers and their entire class of residential consumers could have been compelled through official means to significantly cut their water usage to preserve the hundreds of millions of gallons that went to lawn care, or decorative and ornamental foliage. Internet shaming has proven effective in correcting the illegal behavior of minor criminal defendants, and has been applied to the virtual and then real-world denigration of persons deemed socially deviant. However, this study examines whether the usual social media shaming platforms, specifically, Twitter, was successfully applied to the behavior of California’s negative drought deviants who hitherto could not be persuaded by fines, higher water rates or other forms of coercion to reduce their outdoor water

This study therefore collected a sample of historical droughtshaming tweets (N=158) via the Twitter API posted by Californians from January through August 2015. Applying the entitlement theory and the low-cost hypothesis, this dissertation tested three research questions concerning the likelihood of these tweets’ distribution across wealthy versus disadvantaged communities, the likelihood that lower income Californians were shouldering the burden of the drought, and how the existence of droughtshaming in water districts may impact how much California water districts’ communities cut their consumption. Results revealed that businesses were droughtshamed more (51 times) than residences (48 times) and government sites (30 times). In the wealthiest communities, residences were shamed more, but in the affluent, middle class, working class, and income communities, businesses were shamed more. In fact, the wealthiest communities had more shamed locations of all three types than the other kinds of communities. Among the shamed locations were three water companies, a city hall, and twenty-one public parks including Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The working class and low-income communities received the fewest tweets but lots of residences were shamed among the wealthy communities, and then slightly fewer commercial and government sites. But in the other communities there were easily more businesses shamed than any other locations, and in poorer communities there are only a few residences shamed with golf courses emerging as some of the business sites shamed. This implied a pattern of shaming high-status targets: wealthy residences in wealthy areas, businesses in less or non-wealthy areas, especially with golf courses—a pursuit of the privileged-- in the lowest quintiles. The findings for Hypotheses 1a and 1b strongly indicated a link between privilege and droughtshaming tweets with a disproportionate chance – greater than one in three (37%)-- that a droughtshaming tweet would target a wealthy location, and that the true proportion of droughtshaming tweets that shame wealthy locations was 39 percent and 24 percent for affluent locations. Hypothesis 2 demonstrated that there was an inequality of drought burden in the respect that many of the state’s lowest water consumers were likely to be situated in water districts with much wealthier or privileged Californians whose excessive water consumption drove up the district’s overall consumption resulting in unduly high water cuts for lower water consumers. Hypothesis 3 demonstrated that despite the small dataset of tweets and the limitations of working with social media data that the existence of droughtshaming tweets in a water district was indeed a factor in Californians’ reduction in consumption during the hottest and most severe portion of the drought—the summer of 2015.



Social media, Water conservation, Shaming