words by daphne Chouliaraki Milner
The news that TikTok is doubling down on climate misinformation comes just as Twitter’s position as a reputable social media platform reaches a new low. Atmos speaks with climate activists on what the future of online advocacy holds for their cause.
It was about time that TikTok made a positive headline—after countless negative press.
Over the past year, the social media giant has faced repeated claims of data privacy violations, facilitating dangerous challenges, and promoting harmful content. In February 2019, the app was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting personal information from children. Six months later, the United States military banned the app, citing concerns over national security risks. Despite its popularity, the app’s negative publicity has raised questions about its future.
The tide turned last week (even if momentarily) when, in the leadup to Earth Day, the social media giant said it would be clamping down on climate misinformation. It outlined a new set of guidelines, including the removal of climate misinformation and new search features that prioritize science-backed claims, aimed at promoting authoritative sources and discouraging the spread of climate-related falsehoods. In a statement, TikTok said the move would “empower accurate climate discussions” and “reduce harmful misinformation.”
The announcement is a welcome piece of news. As one of the most widely-used social media platforms with over a billion users, the impact of TikTok’s move to tackle climate misinformation cannot be overstated. But just as TikTok shows signs of doubling down on its commitment to promoting science-backed information, the reputation of another social media giant—Twitter—is unraveling.
“It is bizarre to see a platform that has for many years been described as a platform that upholds democracies be suddenly torn apart by this one man from the U.S. who is choosing to spend his billions of dollars to toxify it,” said climate activist Dominika Lasota, who is active with Fridays for Future movement in Poland, referencing business magnate Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in October 2022. “We have been using Twitter to push governments to tax the rich; We have been using Twitter to campaign for governing bodies to phase out fossil fuels. And now we have to campaign for the platform itself to be brought to a safe and just place.”
Indeed, the latest in a string of controversies saw Twitter users last week lose their blue ticks—badges of verification designed to stop fake accounts and the spread of misinformation—overnight, a move that impacted prominent voices in the climate space like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate among many others. Under Musk’s leadership, blue ticks can be bought for $8 per month despite concerns that accounts can more easily impersonate influential individuals and organizations in order to spread falsehoods. (Twitter has since reinstated blue ticks for a handful of celebrities with over one million followers.)
In the last few months, the platform has also come under fire for its failure to curb hate speech and misinformation, adequately protect user data, and consistently enforce content moderation policies. And this continued deregulation of Twitter is a setback for climate activists and organizers everywhere. Having seen firsthand Twitter’s role in democratizing the dissemination of news and information from the frontlines, many activists now feel they have lost a crucial tool in spreading messages of social and environmental justice to promote their cause.
“We have been using Twitter to push governments to tax the rich and phase out fossil fuels. And now we have to campaign for the platform itself to be brought to a safe and just place.”
“Twitter helped me stay up to date about what was going on during the 2014 Ferguson uprisings and largely influenced me to get involved with the racial justice movement [in the first place],” said Intersectional Environmentalist founder Leah Thomas when asked what role Twitter has played in her activism work. “Since then, I’ve been able to find protests, learn about emerging movements, and breaking stories from Twitter. It’s been a tool for people to simply share their thoughts, where their thoughts weren’t content and it wasn’t about images, videos or design. It doesn’t feel the same.”
The sentiment of loss is echoed by Baltimore-based artist and climate justice organizer Nadia Nazar, who cofounded the youth climate organization Zero Hour. “Social media was the way for us to connect with people, and reach out to people; to let them know that our [youth climate march] is happening, which they can get involved in; to let people know that Zero Hour is a movement we’re starting,” said Nazar. “Much of the support we got was through Twitter, especially from influential people like Samuel L. Jackson and Chadwick Boseman. It’s been so important to us that its implosion will be monumental.”
The deregulation of Twitter is seeing real-life consequences. Climate misinformation has proliferated since Musk’s takeover. Take the automated response to typing climate into Twitter’s search bar as an example: the recommended search is not climate crisis, but rather climate scam. The extent—and the reach—of the deception is dangerous, running counter to efforts by advocates calling for climate action and threatening public support for policies geared towards reversing global warming.
It’s why some activists are looking for alternatives across multiple platforms. Given its explicit commitment to tackling misinformation, TikTok is a clear frontrunner in this race. But skeptics are already questioning the possible success rate of its policy changes—after all, in 2022, as much as 20% of TikTok videos contained misinformation. And so, niche platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky are gaining a new-found popularity.
“I think Instagram and Meta platforms have largely been able to adapt to social changes, so I’ll stay present on Instagram and start sharing more candid thoughts via stories like I did on Twitter,” said Thomas. “I’ve also heard of something called Project Mushroom that I joined and am waiting to see how it grows.”
As social media become more and more fragmented and decentralized, the new challenge for activists and experts will inevitably also be to experiment with new styles of communication as they are forced to adapt to new platforms and audiences.
“It’ll be interesting to see how people transfer their Twitter or TikTok personas onto other platforms,” said Kristy Drutman, who is a public speaker, consultant, media producer, and founder of Brown Girl Green, an online platform about climate change that includes training and workshops, informative videos, and a green jobs board. “We’ll probably see more scientists try to create their own newsletters or listservs or forums to keep the conversations going. People adapt—that’s one thing we can count on.”