What’s real anyway?
A few months ago, I was at a protest. So far, so unsurprising. And yet, despite all the conventional hallmarks (questionable food, not-quite-loud-enough megaphones, Socialist Worker placards), something was missing.
This sense of anti-climax unnerved me. Normally, protests are a rare time when my values and my body occupy the same space. If that sounds excruciatingly “spiritual”, that’s because it sort of is. For me, the best protest experiences offer a vivid sense of finally being in the right place at the right time. It’s a determined calm that comes when anger is condensed into something constructive, not shoved under piles of emails or drugged into silence by Netflix. Showing up physically, unarguably; literally putting my body in the way of wrong, may be the closest I come to understanding religious transcendence.
That is, until now. Because as I shouted and sang and waved my Liz Truss mask in the air (yep), I had an unshakeable feeling that the real thing was happening elsewhere. Whilst my fellow protestors and I dashed around with a phone, filming protestors’ ‘messages’ for the government, I realised that we weren’t listening at all – except to hunt, hungrily, for soundbites. As we took picture after picture, our smiles and dances began to feel performative, as if posed for an imagined audience. And hours later, as I skulked away from the protest and pulled out my phone to scroll through our image feed and relish the sight of my own face in The Big Issue, it finally came to me. The protest was taking place, not in the streets and squares around me, but in the device in my pocket.
“Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”. French philosopher Guy Debord wrote these words in 1967. But they feel eerily appropriate to our Insta-age. My protest wasn’t happening in the realm of shouts, dry sandwiches and face paint. It was happening in another space altogether, of clicks and retweets and angry ripostes in the comments section.
The protest was taking place, not in the streets and squares around me, but in the device in my pocket.
For me, this is increasingly common. I’ve spent whole afternoons at demonstrations, only to judge their merits from a five-minute scroll through Twitter. At protests themselves, I get jittery, desperate to check what “people” are saying about us – even when “people” are already here, in their thousands.
Has social media done to activism what dating apps have done to dating? Redefined it so absolutely that the ‘real thing’ now feels unsatisfying compared to that vivid, backlit realm where the options are infinite and the judgements absolute?
That feels too simple. Amidst the four virtual horsemen of fake news, mental health, data harvesting and polarisation, it’s tempting to throw the social media baby out with the bathwater. But, as with any system in its infancy, a better question is: what could it grow up to be? For every voice bemoaning social media’s ills, there is another one highlighting its virtues: its gift for making the global local, its democratisation of the journalistic process, its capacity for bridge-building and its unadulterated silliness.
Because, sometimes, social media works.
What is it good for?
The #MeToo movement, which began as a tweet back in 2017, raised £15 million in a single month to fund legal assistance for people who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or assault at work. It also led to over 260 accusations of sexual assault against high-profile figures between 2017 and 2020. Despite the many valid criticisms about #BlackLivesMatter, the movement sparked a global wave of protests, triggered a slate of police reforms and raised over $100 million for social justice charities. These campaigns haven’t solved the problems of racism or sexual harassment, but they have undeniably had an effect on them.
What’s more, the fossil fuel industry knows that digital campaigning works. That’s why it spends millions every year on social media to win hearts and eyeballs over to its warped logic. In one particularly devious case, natural gas trade groups paid Instagram influencers – many of them young female ‘foodies’ – to stress the benefits of cooking on a gas stove and thereby boost the fuel’s consumption. That might seem trivial, but not when on a massive scale. One study found that sixteen of the world’s biggest polluters placed more than 1,700 adverts on Facebook in 2021, adding up to around 150 million impressions. That’s a lot of gas.
So, following my instincts to offer the equal and opposite reaction to the fossil fuel industry, Raveller is taking on social media. What is it good for? (hint: not absolutely nothing). And how can we use it to bring about glorious revolution, without sacrificing our own sanity on a 280-character beacon? Read on…
Rule 1: Use it as a gateway drug, not a quick fix
Despite the trolls, the potential audience of billions and the non-negligible chance of waking up to find your tweet screenshotted in the Daily Mail, posting something on social media still feels less scary than sitting at a table with a friend and talking about it. That’s odd, when you think about it. But it’s also useful. Because it means social media can be a halfway house to your revolutionary destination. If you want to talk to your mum about your climate depression, sharing a meme on WhatsApp can cue you up. If you’d like your work colleagues to embrace slow travel, a pre-emptive LinkedIn repost might feel safer than speaking up in a meeting. This can help you find allies, give you a conversational entry point, and stop your audience being caught off-guard.
This works in small ways – sparking a conversation or a new workplace policy, perhaps – but in big ones too – like the #ThisFlag campaign in Zimbabwe. The campaign used the relative safety of social media to help people break the silence, share their discontent at the state of their country and act as a ‘foot in the door’ for civil disobedience. Online discontent escalated into offline strikes, protests and debates, until, in 2017, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s rule was ended.
When street action is dangerous or illegal, online action can build momentum for offline protest. It can also act as a kind of virtual commitment device. As individuals, we strive to maintain a consistent self-image (“I am x type of person”). People who have publicly signalled their allegiance to a cause are more likely to follow through with their behaviour.
But beware. Posting a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag might compel you into offline antiracist organising, but it might also satiate your appetite for activism. The #ThisFlag campaign worked because there was a clearly defined route from online to offline. However, without the ensuing general strike, the hashtag campaign alone may not have had the same effect. For a campaign seeking to bring down a repressive government, online discontent is rarely enough: we need to consciously shape pathways that drive that online momentum into offline battlegrounds.
Rule 2: Hypocrisy looks bad on everyone
What if, however, social media is your battleground: the place where the fight is best waged and won? In my own experience, corporate social media accounts can be such a place.
Like individuals, brands are desperate to maintain a consistent image. Nothing is more terrifying to a corporate social media feed than a post that doesn’t fit – whether that’s an orange square in a purple-themed Instagram grid, or a pro-Trump post on a left-leaning Twitter feed. Activists have used this distaste for disparity to genius ends. In 2021, the ‘Gender Pay Gap Bot’ was launched with one purpose. Each time a company tweeted phrases related to International Women’s Day, the bot would retweet their post alongside the median gender pay gap at that company. When Lloyds bank posts smugly about gender diversity in the workplace and the bot responds with the (publicly available) statistic that female employees’ median hourly pay is 34.2% lower than men’s, things get embarrassing quickly.
I have experience of this, too. In 2022 I joined a campaign group targeting “sustainable” brands who banked with Barclays: one of Europe’s largest fossil fuel funders. Our first target? Bloom and Wild. Cutesy flower company bankrolling climate chaos was not a good look – and they knew it. It only took a couple of tweets from the Fossil Free London account, including a video of a bunch of flowers dripping with oil, for Bloom and Wild to mysteriously disappear from Barclays’ corporate customer page. #SorryNotSorry.
Rule 3: Connect, don’t shout into the void
Climate activism can be lonely. Many report finding allies or co-conspirators online when it is tough to do so in the non-virtual world. I am one such person. My introduction to activist circles came about through enthusiastic googling, worming my way into the right WhatsApp groups and stumbling across posts from friends of friends on Facebook. Social media opens up that illustrious two degrees of separation: people close enough to us that they aren’t exactly strangers, but sufficiently far away to help you see outside the narrow confines of your immediate friendship group. It sits somewhere between a phone call with your sister (too narrow) and the national news (too broad-brush).
“MAKE FRIENDS IN THE COMMENTS” wrote Mikaela Loach (climate justice activist, gen z influencer and author) to her 150,000 Instagram followers last year. They did. Every continent was represented in the flood of responses. People scheduled real-life meet-ups, shared personal stories and united to launch new schemes.
Contrast that, for example, with the seemingly endless Twitter spats, ‘mythbusting’ threads and angry ripostes that often characterise online climate discourse. There are good reasons to engage in this kind of digital duelling – to win over passive spectators, for example, or just encourage them to consider an issue. Yet genuinely winning an online ‘debate’ is as elusive as it is appealing. ‘Mythbusting’ attempts, too, generally serve only to expose more people to false claims, and make these claims seem more familiar (and therefore more believable).
It’s a personal choice, but mine is to use social media for friendship rather than fighting. Anger can be motivating, but too often I find it leads to its less-enlivening bedfellow, despair. I’ve also come to believe that my anger is better directed at the puppet-masters behind these platforms than at some bored, lonely teenager on his laptop in Milton Keynes.
Genuinely winning an online ‘debate’ is as elusive as it is appealing
Rule 4: Share your story
The other reason I choose not to engage in Twitter debates is the most important. It’s this: facts don’t motivate people much. Having statistics at your fingertips may wow your friends, but stories are more likely to make them act.
And it’s here that social media comes into its own. Because for all its self-centredness and inaccuracy, a social media profile is ultimately a story – about the kind of person you are and what you value. Ideas shared on social media are never without context. They are inherently personal, local and coming from somebody you are likely to know and care about. Climate communicators have spent years studying ‘trusted messengers’, and they invariably conclude that we trust the people who are most like us.
So if the idea doesn’t make you cringe, you could try using social media for what it does best: storytelling. If you’d like to borrow a structure for this, try the Talking Climate Handbook. And if you want examples, Mikaela Loach has your back here too. Instead of airbrushed perfection, the safety of a screen might allow us to show the chinks in our armour, how afraid we all are, and what might be done about it. It might even – through building our courage, our connections, our campaigning pathways – be part of the solution.