Social media is a critical tool for climate activists.
Social media is a critical tool for climate activists.
Associated Press/Markus Schreiber

Social Media Gives Young Climate Activists A Platform – It Also Brings Out The Trolls

Online platforms are boosting climate activists’ voices like never before. But with that comes a challenging level of global exposure.

You would think the right-wing conspiracy theorists upset Jamie Margolin the most. For the last three years, the 17-year-old climate activist from Seattle has been tirelessly campaigning, marching and lobbying to draw attention to the climate emergency, earning herself over 50,000 social media followers along the way.

You would think she is most hurt when hateful Trump-supporters use online platforms to criticize Zero Hour, the youth activist organization she founded, or send her death threats, or call her a “bitch.” But in reality, Margolin says the worst thing about being a young climate activist with a social media presence isn’t dealing with trolls — it’s the people who are supposed to be on your side.

“People try to find things wrong with you because there’s this social media culture of performative wokeness, where it’s like, ‘Who can be the least problematic of all time?’” said Margolin, explaining that commenters will criticize her for driving to events.

“It’s so toxic and it’s anxiety-provoking, but it’s also like they lose sight of who the real enemy is and they attack their own for not being the most pure and perfect … It’s like, come on, yeah, I exhale carbon dioxide too, do you want to arrest me for that?”

Since the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s, it has been widely accepted that social media is an invaluable tool for activists. While terms like “hashtag activism” and “clicktivism” mock the potential of social media campaigns, the last decade has seen a flurry of revolutionary activity take place online. Movements like #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter allowed marginalized people to make their voices heard, while 2018’s #MarchForOurLives saw teenage survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting organize an unprecedented gun control rally.

For young climate activists like Margolin, social media is undoubtedly a critical tool. Earlier this year, I met with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the original climate striker who has since inspired millions of young people to skip school to attend protests around the world as part of the #FridaysForFuture movement. She admitted that “without social media, I don’t think it would have worked.”

Thunberg first drew attention to her solitary protest outside the Swedish Parliament via Instagram and Twitter posts. After they went viral, more and more children joined her movement, and she now has over 11 million followers across social media. But Thunberg also acknowledged there are limitations when a movement plays out online. “If all the people who followed me on social media did something, then the world would look very different,” she said.

Online life can be a double-edged sword for young climate activists, who benefit from the reach and community offered by the internet but must also face trolls and death threats. Many of them also struggle with the additional challenge of being female online in misogynistic spaces. It’s hard for anyone — never mind a teenager with all the particular pressures that stage of life brings — to navigate this kind of global exposure and the bullies that come as a package deal.

“People try to find things wrong with you because there’s this social media culture of performative wokeness ... It’s so toxic and it’s anxiety-provoking.”

- Jamie Margolin

Margolin first began using social media to spread her message at the end of 2016. “I didn’t have very many followers … so I posted what I wanted to, and I didn’t feel as restricted and anxious about it as I do now,” she said.

The internet was absolutely pivotal in the teenager’s journey — she founded her coalition Zero Hour with other young people she met on Instagram and later used the platform to organize the Youth Climate Action March that took place in Washington, D.C., in June 2018. After the march, Margolin began to rapidly gain followers online.

“It feels good, obviously, that sort of validation, and the eyes on you, it makes you think you can do so much more and spread the message to so many people,” she said. “So initially it’s a pretty good thing, but the thing with social media is it never feels like enough.”

Just like any other teenager, Margolin feels the pressure to get an ever-increasing number of likes and comments on her posts. When she doesn’t get enough engagement, “a tiny voice” in her head questions whether she “wasn’t that good” or “people don’t care,” but she says she tries to block those voices out.

Margolin says the most impactful moments in her activism often don’t resonate on the internet. “Social media makes you feel like success is the amount of likes and retweets, where in reality I can get likes and retweets for something that’s just a statement or a picture of myself, but a picture of a really important meeting I had or off-camera things that people are never gonna see are way, way, way more important,” she explained.

The activist constantly reminds herself that social media is not a marker of her success, and says some of her climate activist heroes are “bad” at using the internet but are the people doing “the real work.”

She also says Indigenous activists and people of color receive less attention and praise for their climate work despite their tireless efforts. Success on social media can often rely on privilege; Thunberg first gained attention when her mother, famous opera singer Malena Ernman, shared her posts on Twitter.

Greta Thunberg, left, talks to Jamie Margolin, right, during a joint hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment Subcommittee, and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Greta Thunberg, left, talks to Jamie Margolin, right, during a joint hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment Subcommittee, and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
ALASTAIR PIKE via Getty Images

Young climate activists hoping to make a splash online can also face one crucial, somewhat simplistic-sounding barrier: social media age restrictions.

Genesis Butler is a 12-year-old animal rights activist from California who advocates veganism for ethical and environmental reasons. This February, her Instagram account was temporarily shut down because the platform’s terms of service say users must be at least 13 years old. “I think that kids should [be allowed to use] social media,” Butler said. “We all have a voice, and we all should use it, and this is really the time where kids can make an impact on the planet.”

Butler’s Instagram page has since been reinstated after her family clarified that her mother controls the account. “I think social media is very important because by doing one post you could reach so many people and make such an impact,” Butler said. “It’s important because you’re raising awareness by doing so little.”

Genesis Butler is a 12-year-old animal rights activist from California.
Genesis Butler is a 12-year-old animal rights activist from California.

Graham Meikle, a professor at Westminster School of Media and Communication in the U.K., says one of the best and worst things about social media is that it lets “people make themselves and their views visible to others who become visible to them in turn.”

Meikle says the last decade has proved the power of the hashtag as a call to action (#OccupyWallStreet), a personal declaration (#IllRideWithYou), and even a demonstration of empathy (#JeSuisCharlie). He argues that regardless of the outcome, getting young activists’ voices heard is itself a marker of success. Change often happens locally first, “so we shouldn’t imagine that social media campaigns somehow don’t work just because large global hashtags don’t always lead to an outcome that we can see,” he said.

Meikle notes that it is the personal element inherent to social media that allows messages to spread so quickly — he says the Parkland survivors personified an issue that would otherwise feel overwhelmingly large. Margolin, who also helps run the official Zero Hour social media accounts, has learned firsthand that personal posts often resonate most. Even though her personal account has fewer followers than the main account, posts there get far more engagement, she said.

This is a lot of pressure for a young activist — Margolin used the word “anxiety” four times over the course of our 20-minute conversation. Kehkashan Basu, the 19-year-old founder of the Green Hope Foundation, a youth organization that runs conferences and workshops to educate children and adults about sustainable development and undertakes projects such as tree planting initiatives, says her cyberbullying started when she first spoke out about climate at age 10.

“Anonymous messages, malicious content and even threats of physical abuse were hurled at me to derail my work,” the teen based in Dubai said. She later discovered that the father of a girl from her school was sending her hateful messages.

Kehkashan Basu received the International Children's Peace Prize in 2016 for the work done by her child-run organization Green Hope.
Kehkashan Basu received the International Children's Peace Prize in 2016 for the work done by her child-run organization Green Hope.
JERRY LAMPEN via Getty Images

While there are many young male climate activists, academics have found that American climate strikers are overwhelmingly female, and the global faces of the movement are also young women. Studies show that nearly one-quarter of women have experienced online abuse at least once, and women are twice as likely as men to be targeted online because of their gender.

Thunberg has been targeted by trolls on multiple occasions. Many of these detractors aren’t just anonymous basement-dwellers: Young activists face criticism from powerful older men. This includes a Fox pundit who called Thunberg a “mentally ill Swedish child” (a comment Fox later apologized for) as well as the president of the United States, who downplayed Thunberg’s concerns by sarcastically saying she looked like a “very happy young girl.”

In the face of cyberbullying and the psychological pressure of being the figurehead of a movement, some activists are simply logging off. When I tried contacting Anuna De Wever, the 18-year-old leader of the school strike movement in Belgium, I am met with an-out-of-office-like email:

“I’m sailing the Atlantic Ocean to change the world. My boat has no Wifi connection and neither does the amazon forest where I am invited after setting foot in Brasil… In any case I’ll be offline for very long.”

Basu, however, is glad she stayed online. She says that once she posted openly about the hate messages, they began to die down — she believes that acknowledging the hate openly “scares away the bullies.”

When asked about the time she got the best response on social media, Basu cites Green Hope’s first global Twitter campaign on mangrove conservation. “During the one hour span of the discussion, Twitter analytics showed that we influenced over 35,000 people which was truly amazing… I was absolutely elated,” she said.

In a nutshell, this is why young activists continue to share their messages online. Not only can teens reach an unprecedented number of people, but their work can have a direct effect on the political landscape. In February, an environment minister in Belgium, Joke Schauvliege, was forced to resign after she called children’s climate strikes “a setup.” In her apology, she said she overreacted because of criticism she had faced on social media.

Young strikers have undoubtedly raised awareness about the climate crisis; the global children’s climate strike in March was covered all around the world after 1.4 million children skipped school, and in September, #ClimateStrike topped Twitter trends worldwide after week-long international strikes.

“We all have a voice, and we all should use it, and this is really the time where kids can make an impact on the planet.”

- Genesis Butler

A 2018 report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that Americans are increasingly certain that global warming is happening, but just over half accept that it is human-caused. Meanwhile, 65% of people say they rarely talk about the issue.

This is where the youth climate activists’ social media power can help. A 2017 paper from Dr. Ashley Anderson, a scientific communications professor at Colorado State University, found that “personalization” is key to making climate change less abstract in the public mind, and Anderson argued that social media is inherently personal. While more research is needed to determine whether people’s minds are changing because of social media, it is clear that young climate activists are able to get people of all ages talking. Children have now gone beyond raising awareness of the climate crisis: They now make it impossible to ignore.

It’s this kind of impact that means logging off isn’t an option for Margolin, though she sometimes takes short social media breaks. “We can spread the message through social media, but there’s only so much that a few ones and zeros are going to do to change things,” she said when asked about the limitations of social media. “You have to actually go out there and make a real change in your community.”

And Margolin is making that change. Shifting beyond social media, she is taking her message on a #ClimateTour around America, giving talks and promoting her new book “Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It,” out next summer.

Despite homework and impending exams, the teenager remains dedicated to using her voice to urge politicians to take action on the climate crisis. “In those moments where I do take a social media break, it’s really, really helpful,” she said. “It reminds you what really matters.”

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