More and more people are using social media to influence the actions of people, governments and organisations, and to make change happen – or is it all just ‘clickvitism’ that doesn’t translate into environmental transformation? Chris Elliott investigates

Once upon a time, campaigning about the environment was hard work.

When Friends of the Earth first got going, in Britain in 1971, its main tactics were eye-catching posters, marches, and publicity stunts aimed at capturing the interest of TV newsrooms.

One of the organisation’s first efforts involved returning thousands of empty bottles to the London HQ of Cadbury Schweppes, to promote the re-use of glass.

Nearly half a century later, there’s a much easier way to get your message across. Use of social media has exploded, giving everyone – whoever they are and wherever they live – the power to comment, complain or campaign with the tap of a finger.

People keen to encourage others to buy less or to waste less create hashtags that spread like wildfire.

The big three platforms in the UK – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – reportedly have more than 75 million users between them: Facebook has more than 40 million, Instagram 20 million-plus, and Twitter about 15 million. All three have become important outlets for those keen to promote environmental campaigns and connect with others, worldwide, on issues ranging from global warming and climate change to renewable energy and waste management.

Primarily, social media offers access to what is termed ‘the crowd’ – the vast mass of people using digital networks around the world. People take photos of illegal dumping, for example, post them online and send them to their local council. Before they know it, the images can be shared widely – even globally – by thousands upon thousands.

People keen to encourage others to buy less or to waste less create hashtags that spread like wildfire. Crowdsourcing is used to launch new projects or push existing ones, such as rounding up an army of volunteers to clean up a polluted beach.

In addition to phone cameras, technology such as sensors and ‘wearables’ have given people the ability to track information about themselves and their surroundings, and monitor environmental concerns such as air and water quality.


The problem with crowds, however, is that they can – like Frankenstein’s monster – get out of control, and all reason can fly out of the window.

Misinformation, or disinformation, disseminated deliberately to mislead, can trigger nasty consequences, such as cyber-bullying or ‘Twitterstorms’. Communication can be a good way to share ideas, learn about the world and create positive change, but the information has to be reliable and true.

In an online article published by the World Economic Forum, Shannon Dosemagen, co-founder of the USA-based Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, says: ‘The environmental sector has embraced social media rapidly and wholeheartedly. It is using the medium to support environmental campaigns and to connect people locally and cross-nationally on major environmental issues, such as climate change.’

However, a big problem with this, she adds, is ‘clicktivism’ – where people offer support for a cause with no depth of engagement or genuine commitment: ‘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 into environmental transformation.’

On the campaign trail

Daisley and his team have been instrumental in building Twitter’s strong base in the UK

The leverage social media can achieve is perfectly exemplified by Swedish teenage campaigner Greta Thunberg, whose stern online rebukes for politicians and businesses have garnered massive followings. Her Facebook account has nearly three million followers, and has been ‘liked’ 2,789,000 times; her Twitter followers number nearly two million, while pictures posted on her Instagram page have won her 9.8 million followers.

When Thunberg has something to say – and she has plenty – she merely types it out, and it’s eagerly devoured by legions of fans all over the planet.

Organisations such as Greenpeace are also using the internet to impressive effect. One famous victory was the environment campaign group’s battle against Nestlé. It wanted to stop the food giant using palm oil in its KitKat chocolate bar and, in 2010, mounted a Twitter offensive – using the hashtag #kitkat – urging people to besiege Nestlé with complaints.

Palm oil has increasingly been grown on land previously occupied by rainforest and, as well as highlighting the destruction of trees, Greenpeace made the point that it was a habitat for orangutans – going so far as to post a video parody of a KitKat advert, showing an office worker opening a bar of the chocolate to find an orangutan finger. The campaign worked, with Nestlé agreeing to cut palm oil as an ingredient. It might not have done, however, if the social media posts had not been picked up by TV and newspapers.

The great strength of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is in mobilising street-based action. Activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion – which has nearly 400,000 followers on Facebook and numerous local Facebook splinters – is using social media to coordinate protest gatherings.

Aisling Ryan, managing partner at The Corporate Practice, Ogilvy Consulting/WPP, says: ‘We are witnessing a cultural shift happening between old and new power.

‘Old power structures are perceived as being held by the few: closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. New power structures – driven by the growing uptake of social media across the world – operate differently and are made by many. They are open, participatory, and peer-driven.

‘In today’s state of climate emergency, there is mounting pressure on companies to ensure their sustainability messaging is transparent and inclusive. To achieve this, the new soft power of social media has become a vital tool.’

Ryan says WPP helped the United Nations leverage the power of social media to accelerate its reach and encourage citizen engagement around the Sustainable Development Goals.

‘Our WPP-wide team, led by Grey London, brought to life a creative idea to give people the chance to have their voice heard at the UN Conference of the Parties (COP24) – all through social media,’ she says.

‘Our campaign, The People’s Seat, allowed the UN to open itself up and engage directly with people across the world. We used the hashtag #TakeYourSeat to encourage open access and enable different organisations and influencers to amplify their message on climate change. This inclusivity helped to accelerate reach and impact, highlighting the pertinence of the UN’s role in fighting the climate crisis.’

The campaign #OurPlasticFeedback is a good example of how social media users are putting pressure on supermarkets to cut back on unnecessary plastic packaging.

The campaign #OurPlasticFeedback is a good example of how social media users are putting pressure on supermarkets to cut back on unnecessary plastic packaging. Launched on Twitter last year as part of the BBC TV series War on Plastic, presenters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani urged shoppers to unwrap plastic items at the till and hand back the packaging to the store with a written note.

One of the campaign’s big targets was multi-buy goods wrapped in plastic, with people posting examples on Twitter and other platforms. In January this year, Tesco announced it was going to stop wrapping its multipacks.

One man with a good handle on whether social media can affect real environmental revolution is Bruce Daisley, until recently Twitter’s most senior executive in London.

Earlier this year, he quit as vice-president of the platform’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division, having moved across from YouTube in 2012. Daisley and his team have been instrumental in building Twitter’s strong base in the UK, moulding it into the company’s healthiest revenue market outside the USA.

He has written a book, The Joy Of Work, and after leaving his job exhorted on Twitter: ‘If anyone is doing anything to fight climate change and wants someone to help them for free, PLEASE hit me up.’

Speaking exclusively to Circular, Daisley says: ‘Social media – for all of the criticisms that people might throw at it – has allowed mobilisation of interest groups like never before. In previous generations, it’s possible that a local TV crew might have been sent along to talk to a teenager sitting outside a government building, but never would she have found herself as Time magazine person of the year in just over a year.

‘It’s not just Greta – who, as an aside, has been brilliantly able to deflect the ire of rich old men with wit and humour – but community action groups have built a quorum of interest in ways that would have proved costly and time-consuming in the past.’

Different platforms, Daisley argues, work for different audiences. ‘Twitter is exceptional for getting into people’s flow of news – it’s a very high-attention environment. Facebook can be powerful for reaching older audiences. Instagram is very much the mainstream way to reach 15-40-year-olds.’

Expanding the environmental movement

Communications were much different when Friends of the Earth began half a century ago, with fewer avenues for engaging with the public and highlighting its campaigns.

‘Print and broadcast media were the main methods for mass communication in the 1970s,’ says a spokesman for Friends of the Earth. ‘Our very first campaign action gained lots of coverage when we dumped thousands of “non-returnable” bottles at the HQ of their manufacturer, Schweppes. For many years, developing interesting stories and visual events was the only way to gain mass attention.

‘In recent years, there has been a communications revolution, with the rise and rise of social media and online content.’

Friends of the Earth’s social media manager, Joe Downie, adds: ‘Social channels help us speak to more people in an inexpensive way, to share the latest environmental news – often providing a counter-narrative to the mainstream media. Why isn’t anyone talking about the climate emergency in relation to the recent UK flooding emergency, for example?

‘We also use social platforms to expand the environmental movement, reaching people with useful content about how they can take action – whether that’s by sharing our films and photos, making simple lifestyle changes, or joining a Climate Action Group and encouraging local politicians to take action in their area.’

Social devices

When it comes to understanding the power of social media in saving the planet, it’s important to bear in mind that it also plays a part in energy consumption: the manufacturing, use and disposal of the devices – such as smartphones, laptops and desktops – on which people access social media platforms.

Then there is the background infrastructure needed for those platforms, including data centres, internet routers and the base stations that make mobile internet accessible. Data centres can get very hot because their equipment consumes a considerable amount of electricity, requiring further energy to cool it down.

A study by Jens Malmodin, of Ericsson Research, and Dag Lundén of Sweden’s mobile network provider Telia, has estimated that, for 2015 – the latest year for which statistics are available – the annual electricity consumption of the world’s ICT networks was 242 terawatt hours, equivalent to 1.15 per cent of the total electricity grid supply.

To understand the total ICT sector’s electricity consumption and operational carbon emissions, including all user equipment and the full life-cycle, further studies are needed, say researchers.

Tech companies are seeking ways to curb usage. Microsoft, for example, has sunk a data centre in the sea off Orkney to see if it can boost energy efficiency. An undersea cable feeds power to the facility and then relays its data back to shore and the internet.

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