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Friday, April 12, 2024

Meet the Climate Change Activists of TikTok

When Louis Levanti woke up one morning last September, climate change wasn’t on his mind. “I was never huge into researching climate change, but I was aware that it is real.” So when the 24-year-old TikTok creator, who lives with his parents on Long Island, opened his phone and saw something about a clock being unveiled, he wasn’t initially interested. “I rolled my eyes thinking it had something to do with the stock market.”

The Climate Clock, in Union Square in New York City, counts down how much time we have left to act before climate change is irreversible. Levanti, who normally posts videos with topics like “weird food that celebrities like to eat” or “annoying things people do at the gym,” was distressed, and he immediately decided to make a TikTok video about it. “It’s a problem that can’t be ignored,” he said. “Why not responsibly use my big platform to educate people and wake some people up the way I was?”

In the TikTok video, Levanti, superimposed over an image of Earth on fire, says, “Hey, stop scrolling. Our planet is fucking dying.” It’s gotten over 314,000 views and been shared nearly 14,000 times. There are over 5,000 comments, some of which are heartbreaking: “I am 13, does that mean my future children will suffer.” “It’s sad that younger people have to suffer because of this.”

Levanti says that it distressed him to read the comments, especially the ones from younger users. “There are young kids on this app that won’t be able to experience this planet in the way I have, and I am only 24, so I’ve barely experienced it.”

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

A Climate Discussion Is Happening on TikTok

The world is facing a climate change problem, and climate change is facing a communication problem. The complexities and hypotheticals of climate science do not translate well to an audience who just wants to know whether the dress was blue or white. And yet, on TikTok, one of the world’s most active communication platforms, climate change is a rapidly growing topic. The hashtag #ForClimate has over 533 million views. A video showing a girl singing, “We’re killing the earth and that’s really fun, nobody believes us because we are young,” has over 6.4 million likes. Every day, thousands of mostly Gen Z content creators post videos about climate change and their personal relationship to it. In the span of five minutes, you can get tips on the zero waste movement, watch a teenager cry while looking at starving polar bears, learn about environmental racism, and see scientists working in Antarctica.

The idea that a bunch of TikTok users can change the world, while seemingly preposterous, is actually pretty accurate. In June 2020, a group of TikTok creators encouraged their fans to register for a rally for former President Trump and then not show. Over a million tickets were requested; less than 7,000 people attended. It was a public humiliation for Trump and a win for TikTok. When George Floyd’s murder sparked public outrage, TikTok creators flooded the platform with #BlackLivesMatter content. Abortion clinic defenders are taking videos of religious protesters and posting them on TikTok to support abortion rights. We’re already seeing TikTok users pushing for real, grassroots social change.

Thomas Schinko, leader of the Equity and Justice Research Group at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, says the storytelling aspect of TikTok is what makes it so effective. “From our research experience we know that storytelling is key for communicating the climate crisis in a way that can lead to taking action.” According to Schinko, TikTok has incredible potential as an arts-based activist platform. “With creative ideas, artistic works, and a lot of commitment, they show in a partly humorous, partly frightening and disturbing way how important it is to protect the climate.”

Schinko is leading a program that enables school-age students to become climate change “knowledge brokers.” Part of the program involves a workshop on using positive storytelling strategies on TikTok. For example, in a video that went viral last year, Summer Dean (aka Climate Diva) mimics the poses of the CEOs whose companies are responsible for destroying the rain forests. It’s funny, memorable, and less than 20 seconds long.

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

In this moment of misinformation and #fakenews, perhaps what’s most powerful about these eco-creators on TikTok is that their viewers trust them. Many of the users watching have followed these creators for months, if not years. Rather than a scientist or academic explaining climate change in a way that’s overly complicated and laced with jargon and hedging, watching these stories on TikTok is like having a friend tell you what’s happening and why you ought to be concerned. “People my age trust each other when we find and share information,” Dean says. “It’s so important to find ways to share information beyond mainstream news, because we can’t always count on them to talk about things like the climate crisis or social injustice.”

Going Viral Is a Double-Edged Sword

But one of the challenges of having thousands of eager “knowledge brokers” telling their stories about climate change is exactly that: For the sake of good engagement and a good story, they say (and do) whatever they want. Discussion of global warming on TikTok is often simplified to “doom and gloom” commentary, or the misguided idea that at this point there’s nothing we can do to stop climate change, something that Cameron Brick, a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, says is actually dangerous. “If you paint it as a terrible tragedy, people either turn away from it or internalize it and feel despair and then disengage.” A study published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Communication revealed that dire climate change content can lead to fatalism and inaction.

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

Many TikTok creators believe that the algorithm promotes “doom and gloom” content, which in turn encourages the creator to focus on that type of content. For example, Levanti’ video telling us to stop scrolling because the world is ending got over 300,000 views, but a video about greenhouse gas emissions has only been viewed 1,000 times. Abbie Richards, who is working on a master’s degree in climate change disinformation and social media and is also one of the creators behind the collaborative TikTok account Eco_Tok (responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions video), says plenty of accounts just focus on doom and gloom scenarios in order to appease the algorithm. “What gets the strongest emotional response is going to go viral. Our videos about green premiums don’t tap into that lizard brain.” Richards says that Eco_Tok, on the other hand, focuses on fact-based education. “We try to avoid click baiting and meaningless climate change content.”

Another result of unvetted climate change information is a misguided focus on individual actions, such as using lower-wattage light bulbs or metal straws. “One of the dangers of this kind of unvetted information is that people can be led into low-impact behaviors that are not going to move the needle enough,” said Brick. Leah Thomas, the creator of Intersectional Environmentalist, disagrees. “There's too much gatekeeping of activism and what it could look like. Let the kids pop lock and drop it for the planet on TikTok.” She says she’s seen firsthand the impact of bringing attention to climate change. “Awareness leads to empowerment and knowledge, which leads to real action.”

Of course, not all TikTok eco-creators are uncredentialed. Hashem Al-Ghaili is a science communicator with a background in molecular biotechnology. He’s been making videos about science since 2009, first on Facebook, then on YouTube, and now on TikTok. He spends hours on each video, not just reading studies and researching, but also determining which storyline will be the most compelling. “When you’re turning science content into a video, you have to make it something people can connect to.” One of his recent videos, about how melting ice caps could cause more pandemics, was launched with the hashtag #sciencefacts as an official partnership with TikTok; it’s been viewed 6 million times.

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

Is Raising Awareness Enough?

Clearly, TikTok is effective at getting lots of people to engage with environmental content. But how valuable is that engagement? Sometimes it’s easy to lump activism under the umbrella of “raising awareness” without answering the more difficult question: Is it actually doing anything? Brick is unconvinced. He pointed out that a recent study by Yale showed the majority of US residents believe climate change is a major problem and that young people are already very concerned about environmental issues. “It’s good to do awareness raising, but at this point, awareness has been raised.”

There’s also the sheer opportunity cost of how much time it takes to create the content. Sabrina Wisbiski, one of the creators behind Eco_Tok, says she spends at least an hour filming each 30-second video. “Because of TikTok, I don’t have as much time anymore to be as hands-on in my community.” Still, she says the pros have outweighed the cons. “Some of my videos have reached like millions of people.”

When I started writing this piece, I felt fairly certain about what I would discover: a group of earnest college kids who think that crying about climate change is trendy. Endearing? Sure. World-changing? Doubtful. In fact, I suspected (as did many of the experts I spoke with) that too many TikTokkers were confusing “social media activism” with “real activism.” So many of us who grew up with Myspace profiles, who remember the days when only college students got to have a Facebook account, fall into the trap of underestimating social media. We tend to see it as separate from the real world—less worthy than, say, attending a #BlackLivesMatter march (which a recent study showed that TikTokers are 50 percent more likely to do) or canvassing door to door.

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

But for the people who actually matter in this situation, the ones who are going to live out the results of our climate action or inaction, TikTok is not separate from the real world. And in their real world, millions of young people are watching a polar bear struggle to hold on to rapidly melting ice. They’re leaving crying-face emojis and talking about how scared they are. They’re sending 6.3 million letters to block oil exploration in the Arctic. They’re spending hours making a video about the Carbon Fee and Dividend program. They’re getting invited to chat live on Instagram with the White House’s deputy climate adviser. As Thomas so aptly puts it: “I think there's too much focus and criticism of children and teens using social media to build awareness for issues online and not enough focus on adults fixing the problem they caused.” Perhaps instead of me questioning whether this is a good use of their time, they should be asking me if writing this article is a good use of my time. I’ll be lucky if this article is read by 20,000 people. That’s just 7 percent of the people who viewed Louis Levante’s video.

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