Social Media Activism: The Planet’s Best Defense?

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists are using social media to further their causes?

—Sam Baskin, Tullahoma, TN

Environmental advocates and organizations have embraced the revolution in online networking in no small way to raise awareness about climate change and the need for conservation of wild lands and animals—and to generate support for specific campaigns and the green movement in general.

selfie sml 400x267 Social Media Activism: The Planets Best Defense?
One way people are using social media to further the environmental cause is by sharing their mountain-top selfies, engendering public support for the conservation of wild lands. Credit: Daniel Patman, FlickrCC.

Perhaps the most immediate way social media help the cause is via the mountain-top selfie. For many of us, a trip into the wilderness isn’t complete without a public post to announce our whereabouts. At the University of Vermont, researchers are using geo-tagged photos on social media to study the use and relative popularity of different parks and even specific trails. New tracking capabilities of personal technology also record real time statistics that can be used as a crucial defense of public parks.

Social media has also been repurposed for environmental activism in several ways. Advocacy organizations are able to widely disseminate their messages through different social media platforms. By delivering their messages in a short, dynamic format, these groups are able to reach a wide consumer base. However, it’s difficult to assess the long-term engagement resulting from these messages.

Nevertheless, larger environmental groups have hundreds of thousands of online fans that drink up every post and call-to-action. For instance, the Sierra Club has some 625,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 200,000 “followers” on Twitter. A number of environmental campaigns have used social media to apply key pressure on polluters, including the Greenpeace anti-Arctic drilling campaign. Groups have used disturbing videos and touching images alike to garner large-scale public support.

And social media isn’t just for the large, well-heeled groups. Individuals are using social media to similar ends, telling their stories and drumming up sympathy and support. Communities that are suffering particular environmental damages are able to tell their stories on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, helping to humanize the issues. For example, victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill posted about the environmental effects of the accident on Facebook and Twitter.

Social media platforms also effectively connect these stories to larger issues through the use of hashtags. This includes a recent movement nationwide to reach Donald Trump through his daughter, Ivanka, whom the President-elect stated he leans on for advice. The #DearIvanka campaign on Twitter allows individuals to raise their concerns about a number of proposed policy changes, including environmental deregulation and nominated officials. One such tweet read “@IvankaTrump Please work with your father to respect the environment. Our children’s future is at stake. #dearivanka #greenpeace.”

“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all,” says Public Lab co-founder Shannon Dosemagen. “It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community.”