Course:CONS200/2021/Can social media save the environment? Social media and environmental activism

From UBC Wiki


Social Media Marketing Strategy.jpg

Social Media has had many platforms and voices throughout its existence since 1997[1]. Social Media is an interactive internet-based application where users can create content, while connecting and communicating with other individuals online. These platforms include but are not limited to: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest and Youtube. As the internet has become widespread and advanced, social media has bared new opportunities in efforts to save the environment, notably for scientific research and data to be collected that have otherwise been inaccessible. Addressing environmental concerns such as global warming has gained traction on a global scale. Environmental activism involves a function of specific behaviours that include the following: being part of an environmentalist movement; taking action on a particular environmental problem or conservation issue; identifying strongly with a social group; attempting to change the attitudes and actions of policy makers and citizens, and those who threaten the environment; and being ready to engage in environmental protection behaviours[2]. Environmental activism has been a force to unite individuals that work collaboratively in social, political, scientific and diverse conservational fields, in hopes to make a positive impact on our environment. Social networking platforms benefit environmental movements by providing widespread connectivity, reaching individuals with messages efficiently and effectively. The case study of #FridayForFuture initiated by Greta Thunberg demonstrated a positive impact on environmental activism, proving that even a young girl can spread awareness globally, promote change and become an online environmental mogul[3]. Digital activism has its advantages, but has also been criticized for its lack of activity, while not requiring physical attendance and participation has made researchers question the dedication and effectiveness of participants to a social movement[4]. Increasing research and literature regarding the benefits of social media participation has prompted many to question: can social media save the environment? This Wiki Page aims to draw light on this query and provide an analysis as to why social media can be both a beneficial and disadvantageous tool for encouraging pro-environmental behaviours.

Benefits of Social Media on Environmental Activism

Widespread Connectivity

The main benefit social media brings to environmental activism is the speed and number of individuals at which information can reach. An estimated 300 million people spend up to five or more hours on social networks daily[5]. Facebook being the most popular social network worldwide with its rising 1.4 billion active users allows for immediate communication and source information through only one click[6]. Social media eradicates boundaries so people from anywhere in the world can connect with other like-minded individuals no matter time zones, social class or ethnic identity. This easy connectivity is especially useful for environmental activism as it can reach more audiences, different forums as well as present alternate framing techniques such as audiovisual and interactive features so more information can captive people's attentions[2]. Media has also improved societal communication because online content can be posted without any gatekeeping. This has brought unprivileged groups a voice to share their previously unheard opinions which is especially important as statistically, climate change impacts minority groups and marginalized communities[2]. The internet algorithm also works in benefit of environmental activism by suggesting for example Facebook groups of interests that an individual might be interested in. This connectivity means more success in the spread of information and events as well as better protest outcomes with the help of trending hashtags such as the one of Greta Thunberg's movement #FridaysForFuture[7].

Political Empowerment Through Internet Technologies

Due to the relatively low cost of owning a computer with internet access, individuals have been given unprecedented communication abilities and can network for common causes or communicate directly with their political representatives in masse. The Internet is therefore a unique medium because of its speed, low cost, easy capacity for forwarding messages, freedom from gatekeepers, and unlimited capacity[8]. Social boundaries are being broken down as the ease of communication allows for previously disparate groups working toward the same ends to converse with each other. For example, neighbourhood environmental activists can easily converse with academic experts as needed, and small locally based environmental justice organizations can converse with national and international environmental organizations to further their causes.

Political boundaries are also broken down as the Internet provides a mechanism through which to directly contact and challenge government officials. "Politically alienated individuals in the 1990s and beyond have an unprecedented ability to utilize communication technology to talk to each other and those within and outside their movement"[9]. Additionally, internet technologies are being heralded by some as tools which will facilitate a shift from representative democracy back to a more direct democracy, as technology provides the ability for wide range of participation by people outside existing power structures[10].

The Internet facilitates communication between citizens and the local government. Citizen participation through community organizations has been a particularly effective route through which to present a collective voice to local governments[11]. Because of its unmediated nature, social media provides a new "political space" where open communication is not hindered by profit motives or the gatekeeping function of traditional media. Presently, people and organizations with little or no resources can actively participate in political discussion using these Internet-based technologies[12].

Non-Governmental Organizations on Social Media

Non-governmental organizations, also referred as NGOs, are known to be the mediators between scientific expertise and the public[13]. As a result, NGOs have been using social media to address news media, gain outsider's support for more action and to frame information to the public in an understandable way[2]. Framing information is especially important because the way a message is portrayed will influence an audience's perception of the topic and, choosing the right way to communicate complex problems such as climate change can encourage more environmental activism to take place[13]. In addition to framing, NGOs take advantage of social media because it's a very cost effective tool to reach a wide range of audiences across the globe and the savings can be put into other resources regarding climate action[13]. The topic of climate change has also a tendency to be misrepresented through news media and only adds uncertainty about climate issues to its millions of watchers. Through NGOs, there is a possibility of correcting misrepresented information about climate change that happens in media which can lead to the influencing of policy making in regarding climate problems as well as behavioural changes in individuals which contributing to climate activism [13].

Disadvantages of Environmental Activism on Social Media

Cyber Skepticism

The major criticism directed against the online environmental activist enthusiasts is “slacktivism”. Slacktivism (a combination of the words "slacker" and "activism”) is a term first coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 to describe participants involved in a virtual social movement, with a minimum personal effort to support it[4]. The term also finds its expression in different pejorative descriptions like “clicktivism”, “armchair activism” or “feel-good activism”[14]. Slacktivism is most commonly associated with virtual actions such as signing e-petitions, joining social networking sites’ groups, publishing and sharing campaign content, participating in short–term boycotts and taking part in online discussions[14]. The term generally points out activities that are performed with minimum personal effort are more efficient in making the participants feel good about themselves than to achieve the stated political goals[4]. Thus, these critics argue that these activities are only for participant gratification because they lack engagement and commitment, and fail to produce any palpable effect, in terms of promoting a cause.

Online Interaction Versus Physical Interaction

Some have argued that the internet has a destructive influence on civic engagement; because it is a tool mainly used for entertainment purposes[15]. In this way, individuals who are interacting less socially become “lonely bowlers” who are reluctant to take part in political activities. The internet, like television, plays in important role in decreasing the opportunities for social interaction between people. In this way, to a large extent, it contributes to the unwillingness of citizens to participate in political matters[15]. In this context, although these online activities are considered as a way of political participation, they do not play a key role in achieving expected political outcomes. Similarly, Henrik Christensen states that many activities organized via social networking sites are not able to turn into a mass social movement which has sufficient strength and public support for achieving concrete and sustainable gains[4].

Unequal Global Internet Access

Cyber skeptics also attract attention on unequal opportunities to access the internet throughout the world. A lack of Internet access, as a barrier in front of the social media’s power in mobilization and political participation, should be considered as one of the most important limitations of this mode of activism[16]. In this context, the online form activism reinforces participation inequalities.

While digital activism has a lot to offer the savvy campaigner, it does sometimes have limitations as to how much effective change it can generate. With this in mind, it is essential that all online activity should be coupled with offline activity in order to have an impact[17].

Greta Thunberg #FridaysForFuture

Case Study 1

#FridaysForFuture by Greta Thunberg

#FridaysForFuture is a movement on climate change that was established in August 2018, after 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament. She planned to refuse to go to school until the Swedish general election on September 9, 2018, as a protest against the government's inaction on climate change. After the election, Thunberg went back to school but continued her strike every Friday with a sign "Skolstrejk för klimatet" meaning school strike for climate, and thus, #FridaysForFuture movement was born.[3] The goal of #FridaysForFuture is to overcome the climate crisis and create a society that lives in harmony with its fellow beings and its environment. The purpose of the movement is to put moral pressure on policymakers, make them listen to the scientists, and then take forceful action to limit global warming. Spreading global awareness and reaching every continent, more than 14 million people have joined this movement among 7,500 cities.[18] Due to COVID-19, they held a protest online after Thunberg stated on Twitter, "we'll have to find new ways to create public awareness & advocate for change that don't involve too big crowds."[19]

Thanks to social media, Thunberg's beliefs immediately spread throughout the internet, reaching more individuals than possible before. Ingmar Rentzhog, a Swedish entrepreneur and environmentalist, posted her picture on social media and her thoughts became widely known beyond the local press. Sasja Beslik, Head of Group Sustainable Finance at Nordea, a Finnish bank, retweeted the photo to his 200,000 followers. By this time, the school strike she started had spread outside the country, with children using the hashtag #FridaysForFuture to spread their activism.[20] In the seven months since the first strike, Thunberg's Instagram following had grown to 1.1 million and her Twitter followers to 400,000, and she has become a leader for climate action. Currently, Greta has about 4.9 million Twitter followers, which gives her a major platform to influence her following for the greater good of the environment.

Greta's movement has had a strong impact on world leaders, and many politicians and industry leaders are supporting the #FridaysForFuture strike. Angela Merkel has expressed her welcome to the protesters, and Norwegian Socialist Left MP Freddy André Øvstegård nominated Thunberg for the Nobel Peace Prize. In December 2006, Thunberg took the stage at the UN Climate Change Conference. The news media outlet Brut UK uploaded the video to Facebook, where over 9.8 million people viewed it at the time. She also took the stage at the Davos conference on January 22, 2007. On September 20, 2019, students from around the world held the world's largest climate change demonstration, with about 4 million people in more than 160 countries and territories on all seven continents. On September 21, 2019, UN Youth Climate Summit was held in New York. The idea was to give young people a chance to speak out and demand that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions be accelerated at once.[21]

Case Study 2

Advertising campaign by Greenpeace to raise awareness of unsustainable palm oil in Nestlé's Kit Kat chocolate bars

Greenpeace Versus Nestlé: Protests Over Palm Oil Use

Public Activism

In March, 2010 UK Greenpeace posted a gory parody video of the standard Kit Kat – Take A Break advertisement, showing an office worker gnawing on an orangutan’s finger instead of a Kit Kat bar, accompanied with the tag line “Kit Kat Killer”. The purpose of the parody was to get Nestlé to stop buying unsustainable palm oil from Sinar Mas, a global supplier that was shown to be destroying the Indonesian rainforests, where orangutans are endangered[22]. The campaign gained global traction, with many people posting boycott Kit Kat messages on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. In particular, Nestlé's Facebook page was overrun with people urging Nestlé to stop using palm oil and killing the orangutans. Nestlé deleted many of the messages and responded with angry comments, prompting additional backlash for poorly handling their social media account, and inappropriately engaging with potential consumers.

Nestlé similarly withdrew the video from YouTube, however, Greenpeace later posted it on Vimeo, another social media site, where it had 78,500 views within hours; it reappeared on YouTube on March 21 and had been viewed 180,000 times overall. The challenge for Nestlé was twofold. They had to limit the immediate damage. And in the longer term, Nestlé needed to address the palm oil sourcing issue and turn the reputational risk into an opportunity[23].

The Result

Instead of trying to control social media conversations, Nestlé decided within two months to adapt its approach. First, to deal with the short-term damage, Nestlé suspended sourcing from Sinar Mas, and the company held meetings with Greenpeace in which it provided details of its palm oil supply chains. With a focus on the longer term, Nestlé sought a credible external partner to certify the sustainability of its palm oil suppliers. The company chose the Forest Trust, a non-profit organization that helped the company when it came to liaising with Greenpeace as well as helping Nestlé to audit its suppliers. In May 2010, Nestlé also joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a partnership of companies and other parties aimed at eliminating unsustainable production[24].


Can Social Media Save the Environment?

Social media has the potential to change the way that the environmental sector and all stakeholders involved — public, corporate and government — interact, share information and make decisions. Social media furthers the reach of the public, allowing members to influence shifts in the environmental sector on every issue from moving away from fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy or changing the dynamic of current conversations on climate change. Likewise, social media has provided a new platform for users to generate and circulate ideas, concerns, information and awareness about environmental issues[5].

Although providing a beneficial digital arena by drawing traction on environmental issues has merit, without physical action the ability of social media to "save the environment" is unconvincing. Crucially, the ease with which people can rapidly support environmental campaigns by clicking on links or buttons can be powerful for information sharing, but also has the potential to lead to a diffused environmental movement in which most supporters only participate through acts of “clicktivism” that don’t necessarily translate to environmental transformation[6]. Ultimately it seems that social media can be an incredibly effective tool for communicating about climate change. That’s especially true if we’re focused on community building and bringing like-minded people together. However, it seems there is also a point where we have to bring our climate activism offline and ‘act’ on it.

On a regional and global scale, the key to addressing environmental concerns appears to lie in policy and regulatory actions by governments, to implement actual change in efforts to save the planet[25]. It appears digital campaigning isn't going to cause this revolutionary change alone. A "tweet" from Twitter isn't going to influence the wavering or uninterested citizen. The bonds of Facebook aren't so strong that a "like" or shared infographic will cause someone to stop denying climate change. Taking online action offline is essential to saving the plant and having a real world effect, however it isn't easy.


  1. "The Evolution of Social Media: How Did It Begin, and Where Could It Go Next?".
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Schäfer, Mike S. (09/13/2012). "Online communication on climate change and climate politics: a literature review". Wiley Online Library. Retrieved 04/12/2021. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tait, A. (2019, June 11). Greta Thunberg: How one Teenager became the voice of the planet.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Christensen, Henrik (2011). "Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?". First Monday. 16.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Barrett, Brendan F.D (06/14/2010). "Debate: How Can Social Media Save The Planet?". Our World. Retrieved 06/11/2021. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Guedes, Eduardo (03/29/2016). "Internet Addiction and Excessive Social Networks Use: What About Facebook?" (PDF). Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health. 12: 43–48. line feed character in |title= at position 65 (help); Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. Segerberg, Alexandra (09/09/2011). "Social Media and the Organization of Collective Action: Using Twitter to Explore the Ecologies of Two Climate Change Protests". The Communication review. 14: 197–215. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. Frantzich, Stephen (2008). Citizen democracy: Political activists in a cynical age. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 69–77.
  9. Sachs, Hirem (1995). "Computer networks and the formation of public opinion: An ethnographic study". Media, Culture & Society. 17: 81–89 – via Sage.
  10. Grossman, Lawrence (1995). The electronic republic: reshaping democracy in the information age. New York: Penguin Books. line feed character in |title= at position 52 (help)
  11. Craig, William (1998). "The Internet aids community participation in the planning process". Computers, Environment, and Urban Systems. 22: 393–404 – via JSTOR.
  12. Hill, Kevin; Hughes, John (1998). Cyberpolitics: citizen activism in the age of the Internet. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. line feed character in |title= at position 46 (help)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Vu, Hong Tien; et al. (11/12/2020). "Social Media and Environmental Activism: Framing Climate Change on Facebook by Global NGOs". Sage Journals. 43. Explicit use of et al. in: |first= (help); Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Morozov, Evgeny (2012). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Ltd. ISBN 1459638816.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Putnam, Robert (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 152–162. ISBN 9780684832838.
  16. Gurevitch, Michael (2009). "Political communication—Old and new media relationships". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 625: 164–181 – via Sage.
  17. Lim, Merlyna (2013). "Many clicks but little sticks: Social media activism in Indonesia". Digital activism in Asia reader: 127–154.
  18. Fridays For Future. (2021, March 15).
  19. Greta, T [@GretaThunberg]. (2020, March 11). The climate and ecological crisis is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced but for now (of course depending on where you live) we’ll have to find new ways to create public awareness & advocate for change that don’t involve too big crowds - listen to local authorities. 3/4 [Tweet]. Twitter.
  20. Tait, A. (2019, June 11). Greta Thunberg: How one Teenager became the voice of the planet.
  21. UN youth CLIMATE SUMMIT, 21 September 2019 for youth. (0AD).
  22. Greenpeace. "Green Peace Asks Nestlé to Give Rainforests a Break".
  23. Steel, Emily (March 29, 2010). "Nestlé Takes a Beating on Social-Media Sites". The Wall Street Journal.
  24. Ionescu-Somers, Aileen (December 3 2012). "How Nestlé dealt with a social media campaign against it". Financial Times. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  25. Kemper, Alison (2012). "Saving the planet: A tale of two strategies". Harvard Business Review. 1: 48–56 – via Ostara.

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Course:CONS200. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.