According to the study, two key moments in the film's life—when it initially appeared on HBO, and when it was nominated for an Academy Award—coincided with increased social-media chatter and mass-media coverage of the issues it raised.
Moreover, "screenings of Gasland in different locations had an effect on the mobilization of local campaigns against the controversial process," writes a research team led by University of Iowa sociologist Ion Bogdan Vasi.
YouTube searches for "fracking" spiked in June 2010, when the film made its debut on HBO, and in February 2011, when it was nominated for an Oscar.
In turn, those local mobilizations made policymakers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia "significantly more likely to take action to ban the practice" of fracking, the researchers write in the American Sociological Review.
For the uninitiated, hydraulic fracturing—popularly known as fracking—is a method of extracting natural gas from shale rock. This process, which has boomed over the past 15 years thanks to new technology, uses large volumes of water under high pressure.
While opponents of the practice have tied it to everything from polluted wells to earthquakes, "no conclusive research exists to prove that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous," the researchers note. A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence of "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water," although its conclusions, like those of many similar papers, are considered tentative due to a lack of data.
But when it comes to grabbing the public's attention, a vivid image is worth 1,000 data points. In Gasland, filmmaker Josh Fox visits residents living near fracking sites "and witnesses them light their (apparently methane-contaminated) tap water on fire." Not surprisingly, this bizarre and frightening demonstration became something of an Internet sensation.
Specifically, the researchers found YouTube searches for "fracking," which were generally on the rise as the process gradually got more attention, spiked in June 2010, when the film made its debut on HBO, and in February 2011, when it was nominated for an Oscar.
Similarly, on Twitter, its initial release and subsequent nomination "are accompanied by an increase in chatter not only about Gasland, but also about fracking," Vasi and his colleagues write. "Chatter increases by approximately 6 percent after the release, and approximately 9 percent after the [Academy Award] nomination, compared to the previous month."
Besides its presence on television, Gasland was screened in many cities, and the study finds these events had an impact on the local level. In the short term, they led to "a significant increase in anti-fracking events," the researchers write.
These screenings, and subsequent discussions, mobilized a segment of the public, and the pressure these citizens put on local politicians "had a significant influence on the passage of moratoria against fracking," the study concludes. In other words, the film's impact was indirect, but real.
So Gasland succeeded at getting people to pay attention to a previously obscure issue, and played a role in getting local politicians in some communities to insist on halting the procedure until more is known. Not a bad return for a film with a budget of under $15,000.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.