By: Emily Pecsok
Meet Shereen. Shereen is an environmentalist who grew up hearing about the threats of climate change. She loves using social media, especially Instagram and Twitter to learn more about climate injustices around the world and how she can help. She follows Greta Thunberg on Twitter and uses the hashtag “Fridays for Future” to share information about protests (Boulianne, Lalancette, & Ilkiw). It is extremely rewarding for Shereen to see posts of people in the streets and she always makes sure to double-tap those pictures when scrolling through her feed. In order to stay up to date on any climate news, Shereen also follows different organizations like the Sierra Club and National Geographic (Tien Vu et al.). They post a lot of articles about climate news and innovation. Even if she only reads the headlines, Shereen feels like she can stay somewhat up-to-date on the environmental world through social media. Since Sheeren does not know a climate change denier in her own life, she’s never followed any on social media, and the only content she sees from “conservative social media” is when another climate activist shares it with a witty rebuttal. On social media, Sheeren has been able to connect with other environmentalists; people with a similar dedication towards fighting climate change have taught Shereen more than she thinks she would have learned through traditional media.
Meet Jared. Jared never heard the words “climate change” until he started using social media; the concept was never brought up to him in school. He was first introduced to the term when his timeline was filled with support for a political candidate who was debunking the myth and stating that climate change was merely a hoax. People were saying it was only a way to stunt technological innovation and human dominance. This made sense to Jared. He always believed that humans controlled the planet, so surely something as imperative to humanity as innovation would not cause the destruction of the world. Plus, he has seen no convincing evidence in support of climate change’s existence. Even if he had, he would still believe that the reactions of liberals went too far; banning cows because of their farts is absolutely absurd. On social media, he follows other people that have his same views and doesn’t usually interact with climate change believers unless one of the accounts he follows responds to it. He prefers it this way because it is not a toxic environment where people yell at each other; rather, his timeline is a place where he can interact with like-minded people. Even though he does not follow any accounts that directly post about climate change, he sees a lot of content that has been shared by other accounts, and he, in turn, shares them again to get his followers to see it as well (Treen, Williams, & O’Neill).
Meet Amber. Amber learned about climate change in school but doesn’t see much information about it on social media. She is aware that it is an issue that needs to be addressed, but she’s not sure what can be done and does not think about it much. Amber does not follow any organizations or non-entertainers on social media, so her feed is mostly apolitical. Sometimes, when there is a big storm or a climate catastrophe that causes massive damage or even forces people to leave their homes, Amber will see posts on her friends’ and celebrities’ stories alongside some advertised to her on her explore page. It usually only takes a day or two for her to stop seeing posts about it, and content about a new headline comes her way (Nixon). Otherwise, Amber only sees environmental posts if they’ve been flooded by conservatives deeming climate change to be a myth in the comments. Amber will also occasionally see scientists trending; she remembers when a scientist posted a “misleading” tweet that made Amber slightly skeptical of their authority. The contentiousness of environmentalism on social media is too much for Amber, so she tries to avoid it for the most part.
How can three people have such different experiences using the same apps? How can three opposing groups of people all exist on one platform? The examples of Sheeren, Jared, and Amber are quite common. One person’s experience on social media can so vastly differ from another’s that it seems as if they’re living in two separate realities. Sheeren’s example shows the ways in which social media can help promote environmentalism and create a space for activists to discuss and share information. The other two, however, are common cases where social media can harm progress towards climate change by either not promoting it or allowing for the spread of extreme misinformation. Social media advertising and the creation of “homogenous clusters of like-minded users” result in hotspots of misinformation (Treen, Williams, & O’Neill 7). In regards specifically to climate change, studies have shown that “corporate and philanthropic actors with vested interest provide funding to…produce climate change misinformation” (Treen et al. 5) and these posts are then amplified “through sharing and repetition behaviors of online social media users” (Treen et al. 5). The advertised freedom these platforms provide is exploited by those for whom climate change denial benefits. This is why someone like Jared can fall so deeply into a rabbit hole of climate change misinformation on social media. Finally, Amber’s example can be explained by the fact that social media does not favor the slow, highly conceptual nature of climate change. The algorithms that run these platforms reward and prefer posts and content that get strong reactions from their users so they spend more time on the app. Climate change, however, consists of “delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (Nixon 2). This results in many users online overlooking the dangers of climate change or, even worse, encourages them to make misleading claims.
Social media can be a great place for people to learn more about social justice issues, including climate change. However, it can also be a place where people are plagued with misinformation. It is possible to change social media; increased regulations could limit false claims and have more resources to learn about climate change. Yet, in its current state, social media in its current form is ultimately harmful to environmentalism.