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The 21st-century environmentalists: How social media drives activism

Publication Date: February 12, 2020

Think about how many times a day you check your phone. You scroll through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and repeat. It is no question that social media has become an essential part of our day-to-day lives. More often than not, it is our lone source of news and media updates. But what does that mean for how we discuss climate change?

According to research from, 2019 saw over 270,000 more articles written about climate change than years past. These massive social media platforms create an ease of sharing that allows information to be shared with hundreds and thousands of people with the tap of a screen. This means that friends and family can mark themselves “safe” from climate catastrophes, organizations can raise money to protect environmental causes and Greta Thunberg can broadcast her groundbreaking speeches at climate rallies around the globe. You can access it all from one tiny device. If you don’t know who Greta is by now, Google her!

Information is more accessible and more abundant than ever. One video is released of a struggling turtle with a plastic straw impeding its breathing and reusable straw sales skyrocket. Social media allows for huge waves of change to be made around the world, but one question still remains — will it be enough?

The sheer volume of discussion about climate change on social media platforms is a great step in the right direction towards addressing the sources of the issues, but it also creates a misleading sense of helpfulness. It is gratifying to put your electronic signature on an environmental petition and sign off for the day, but how much of that is actually creating on the ground change? Not only that, but the more time you spend clicking on environmental ads and articles, the less you will see of the dark side of the climate change conversation.

“With social media, people are easily swayed into wrong opinions from headlines that they see on Facebook, but it also holds so much potential for groups to use it to advocate for change,” said senior musical theatre major Jason Quackenbush comments.

Internet algorithms function in such a way that we only see the information that will trigger us to interact. This means that the movement of environmental activism online is not as accessible to certain demographics. Environmental brands tailor and target their ads towards those who they have already collected data from, as they are more likely to interact. This then creates an oversaturation of information to those that are already showing an interest in climate change movements and allows for climate deniers to put thousands, if not millions, of dollars into debunking climate change science to propagate harmful ideas on the feeds of those who are susceptible to that information.

Money and profit functions as a driving force for many mainstream brands that create trendy “eco-products” in the eyes of social media consumers.

“We vote with our dollar, and consumer culture is leading us to believe that our consumerism changes will make the biggest difference,” said senior musical theatre major and Eco-Rep Alison Fisher. “But in the end, it’s going to require changing the system and holding brands accountable for their environmental impact from their emissions to the way they use or abuse their internet platform,” she continued.

Big change is risky for businesses, so in today’s society, it is safest to follow along with the movements, but not stand up against the system that creates the source problems. Waves of change and conversation are easy to hide behind and it’s not difficult to get caught up in what that means.

Social media is a tool that is absolutely essential to the climate conversation and has already made major changes in our global reactions, but it must be used intelligently. Simply clicking on articles and signing petitions is not going to save our planet. Ordering a reusable straw from halfway across the world to cut out single-use straws is not going to save our planet. We all have to be conscious of what our online interactions actually mean – who is providing funding? What am I actually supporting? And think about what actions we can take to get up, get out and change the world.

Because there is no Planet B. Emma Harris Eco-Rep

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