Recently I’ve been looking into divestment, or convincing institutions to stop investing money in specific companies, since it’s the new buzzword in the environmental movement. While buzzwords have always existed, what caught my attention about this one is the wide range of media attention it received in a short time. The same day I read about the work NYU Divestment was doing I also read about the huge victory scored by University of Washington Divestment , two campuses on opposite ends of the country, but whose news I received the same day.
This observation might seem dull given that the internet and social media sites have been around for years now, but in placing this kind of communication in context of the history of the green movement, it’s revolutionary! Activists today can use hashtags, @tweets, emails, facebook groups, etc. to rally support for an issue and create a community of like-minded people within minutes. What once might have taken months can be done in moments and connecting allies, such as the two different divestment groups, can be as seamless as a video chat rather than fundraising a trip across the country.
Activism on social media platforms certainly has its negatives as well, namely slacktivism and armchair activism or people believing that retweeting or commenting is enough work on an issue. But rather than harp on this subject I want to speak to the strengths for environmentalism through social media. A prime example is #TribesAgainstCoal: a coalition of tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest came together to address growing concerns with coal companies and specifically coal exports, treaty agreements, and environmental concerns. I’ve never lived or even visited the Pacific Northwest, but because I saw the hashtag and followed along with Sierra Club’s live tweet account I was able to make myself aware of what was happening in that area of the country. Social Media took a regional issue and put it onto a national, and even international, platform.
Furthermore, tribal land represents a significant area of the Digital Divide in America. The Digital Divide is a term for sections of the country that have no broadband connection at home and lack access to communication technologies such as phone service and the internet. A 2013 article from the Navajo Times reports:
“Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population lives in households with access to broadband services and two-thirds of the population subscribes to these services. Less than 10 percent of American Indians living on tribal land have similar access to the Internet, the FCC reports.”
In sharing these tweets and generating a hashtag the Sierra Club and other organizations are helping to spread this story to whole new audience.
Instead of decrying Social Media as turning people into lazy activists, perhaps it’s time to re-imagine how to use the technology as a more efficient tool. The reality is that much America’s environmental damage is done in areas of the country that are still unconnected and no one can tweet from a wilderness area that is being turned into a lumber camp. At least not yet. The next wave of environmental journalism will have to use social media to give these distant locations and disconnected communities a voice on the global page and spread awareness to slacktivists and activists alike.