Social media can be a potent weapon with which to shame wrongdoers
In 2008, environmental author Bill McKibben and a group of seven young activists scraped together $30,000, built a climate-awareness website called 350.org, and took to then still-novel social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr to spread the word.
The strategy was a runaway success: barely a year later, 350.org had evolved into a global movement, and in October 2009 its members staged 5,200 coordinated environmental protest rallies in 181 countries — the largest concerted political action the world had ever seen.
That kind of impact, McKibben says, “clearly wouldn’t have been even conceivable in a pre-internet age.” Thanks to the Web and social media, he says, environmentalism has become a worldwide movement — a paradigm shift made possible “not because we’re good organisers, but because we have new tools.”
In the years since 350.org’s inaugural day of protest, environmental groups around the world have embraced those tools. A full array of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr accounts are now de rigueur for any environmental organisation worth its salt, with campaigners finding innovative ways to use social tools to turn the table on bigger and better funded corporate and political rivals.
“Their strengths are all highly centralised. They’ve got tons of money and they’re under very strong centralised control,” McKibben says of the fossil-fuel industry. “We’re sort of the opposite: we have no money but we have a very loose, broad coalition that’s spread all over the world.”
Along with the success of 350.org, Greens cite Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign as a key factor in shaping activists’ use of social media. Led by Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, Obama’s digital team used social media as a gateway drug, getting supporters hooked with low-commitment online chatter before nudging them into more committed and active roles.
Obama’s social-media strategy raised $30 million and sparked 200,000 real-world campaign events — and that success inspired Greens to try similar approaches, says Trevor Martin, social-media marketing manager for The Nature Conservancy. “Once you’re engaged in the dialogue you can walk them up the engagement ladder — do they want to donate, do they want to volunteer,” Martin explains. “It’s a great first step.”
Still, to be effective online outreach requires a serious investment of time and energy, says Danielle Brigida, head of social media strategy at the National Wildlife Federation. She now oversees 100-plus Twitter accounts and around 20 Facebook pages for the NWF’s various chapters and campaigns, while also experimenting with more recent social tools such as Pinterest, Instagram and Google+.
It’s a lot of work, Brigida says, but different platforms appeal to different demographics, so maintaining multiple social-media outposts is a great way to boost the NWF’s profile.
Other groups see social media not just as a communication tool, but also as a weapon with which to shame wrongdoers and to goad corporate and political leaders into action. Some of the most confrontational — and successful — social media campaigns have come from Greenpeace International, which deploys a network of local field offices to coordinate global online action.
The group’s first big success came with a 2010 online video protesting Nestlé’s use of palm-oil suppliers linked to deforestation in Indonesia. Nestlé convinced YouTube to pull the clip — but the resultant furore turned the video into a viral hit, and within months the food giant backtracked and promised to clean up its supply chain.
That underscored social media’s power to embarrass big corporations in ways that conventional PR methods can’t counter, says James Sadri, head of mobilisation in Greenpeace’s U.K. office. “They’re extremely vulnerable,” he says. “It’s increasingly difficult for corporations to ignore.”
In the aftermath of Greenpeace’s Nestlé campaign, many corporations began investing in social-media countermeasures. Nestlé itself quickly hired a social-media director, Pete Blackshaw, who told the FT that his job was to replace online chatter about the company with “the resounding sound of silence.”
But even well-prepared companies find it hard to blunt the impact of a well-run social-media campaign. Facebook itself — which ought to know a thing or two about using social tools effectively — was forced to abandon plans for a coal-powered data centre after a 20-month Greenpeace campaign that saw tens of thousands of people post messages telling Facebook to clean up its act.
Such successes show the power of social media, but campaigners say there’s still a long way to go. Sadri daydreams of one day using social media to coordinate protests that transcend individual environmental organisations and grow into sweeping popular movements to rival Occupy Wall Street or even the Arab Spring.
“We have to take bigger risks and have bigger confrontations,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet.”
McKibben agrees, although he’s personally content to use Twitter to rally his 70,000 followers, and to leave the next wave of social-media innovation to a new generation of activists. “I’m 52 — I will play no part in figuring out what comes next,” he says. “But I’ll do my best to struggle to keep up with all the young people.”
Ben Whitford is the Ecologist’s U.S. correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com.