TikTok Is The New Haven For Climate Change Influencers
Usually, cat videos and short dance interludes go viral on TikTok. But now young eco-influencers are also reaching millions of people with their videos on climate and environmental issues. Aspiring eco-influencers may also click here to build their own following on TikTok.
“Climate change is not real.” Carissa Cabrera found this saying in the comments on her TikTok profile. Her answer: A video about the severe flooding very close to her home in Hawaii in March of this year.
In it, you can see a river overflowing its banks and motorists trying to maneuver their vehicles through the masses of water. Cabrera responds to these pictures off-screen: “This is not global warming. This is not climate change. Let’s just say what it really is: a climate crisis.” This ten-second video has already been viewed more than 300,000 times.
Cabrera is a marine biologist and regularly posts videos on EcoTok. This is a channel of the video-sharing platform TikTok, on which several young influencers regularly publish their posts on environmental and climate topics. It’s about CO2 emissions, food waste, biodiversity, and recycling.
The EcoTok channel was launched in July 2020. The initiator was the high school student Alex Silva. Until then, he had mainly posted videos under the name “ecofreako” in which he shows his attempts to lead a life with as little waste as possible. Via Instagram, he finally invited other influencers to participate in the EcoTok channel.
Eco-videos that go viral
The group has now grown to 16 members. They are students, scientists, environmental educators, and civil servants. For its environmental campaigns, the Group has already worked with TED Countdown, an initiative to promote climate action, and Bill Gates Ventures’ venture capital firm.
Like most videos on TikTok, EcoToker’s short movies are spiced up with catchy sounds, dances, and colorful font overlays. The goal: the widest possible reach for their green messages.
But they’re not the only environmental activists on TikTok. Other young influencers also reach millions of people with their posts. The hashtags “climate change” for climate change and “sustainable” for sustainable have more than one billion views worldwide.
In the past, Cabrere lectured in classrooms in front of just thirty people on the subject of protecting the oceans. With TikTok, on the other hand, it reaches many more people. The app has been downloaded more than two billion times worldwide, mainly by Generation Z, i.e. teenagers and young people up to about their early 20s.
The marine biologist posts her videos under the name “carissaandclimate”. If an entry is liked, it is liked by the users. This has already been the case with her posts more than a million times.
“TikTok as a learning space”
“TikTok isn’t just a social media app. TikTok is also a learning space. Generation Z wants to get information and tools at their fingertips, and it’s all packaged in an entertaining way,” says Cabrera. She also works with The Conservationist Collective, a small company that initiates media and education campaigns to advance ocean conservation.
The biologist’s videos mostly revolve around her specialty: the oceans. They are usually just 30 seconds long. In the first three seconds, she reveals what it’s all about. This increases the chances that their video will be liked by the viewers and recommended on the net. So the video goes viral.
“You have to pick out a very specific aspect and make something out of it that has what it takes to go viral,” she says. “Most of what goes viral on TikTok is comedy stories or dances. Of course, I have to think about how to make science entertaining for everyone.” Cabrera wants to produce videos whose content is quickly memorized, which you want to watch again and again and share with others. Their goal is to get people to act.
But not everyone believes that TikTok videos really have an impact on real-life trading. Sophie Moore is 18 years old and a high school student from California. She is also on TikTok. She is committed to the environment and social justice but does not believe that TikTok is the right place for climate activism.
“I think most people use TikTok as meaningless entertainment to just switch off after school,” she says. “TikTok is more of a passive way to get involved in the climate movement. I mix my stories around the climate with my other TikTok content, it’s easy to find, you can quickly click “like” and then just keep browsing through the feeds.”
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How to Turn TikTok Videos into Action
And yet there are some indications that TikTok can certainly influence people’s political actions. In June 2020, hundreds of teenage TikTok users reported that they had tried to sabotage a rally of then-US President Donald Trump.
According to their own statements, they had obtained tickets but had no intention of appearing at the rally. On the net, they encouraged other users to do the same. So Trump has stood in front of almost empty ranks. In Indonesia, young people used the app to protest against the relaxation of workers’ rights in favor of companies. Numerous people then took to the streets. And after the murder of the American George Floyd, the number of #BlackLivesMatter videos on TikTok skyrocketed.
Sander van der Linden is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge in England. He is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, a journal that deals with the interrelationships of humans and their social, natural, and virtual environment. In his opinion, viral social media campaigns can lead to concrete actions if they contain the following three key elements: they exert “social influence” by literally challenging other people to participate, they support a moral cause, and they trigger emotions.
Doubts about the sustainability of TikTok effects
But the effects are often short-lived. This is shown by his research on this topic. In 2014, for example, the topic of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” only went through the media for a relatively short time. The “Challenge” was intended to draw attention to the nerve disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and to raise funds for research into the disease. The participants poured a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads and then named someone who should donate it to them within a day.
But through the campaign, “the annual funds for research worldwide could be increased by 187 percent” – as the ALS Association, which launched the fundraising campaign, writes on its website.
He is not aware of any investigations, according to Van der Linden, which specifically dealt with the topic of climate videos on TikTok. But his social media research has found that it is difficult to gain long-term momentum behind the climate movement. “Most people don’t see climate change as a moral issue, they don’t have strong emotions on the subject,” he adds.
It is possible that the climate videos on TikTok only created a “Thunberg effect,” according to Van der Linden. In this way, he and his colleagues at Yale University describe the phenomenon that people who have sympathy for the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg are more likely to believe that joint action advances the fight against climate change.
Cabrera sees it differently. TikTok is a platform to participate. It enables users to redistribute a video, comment on it or integrate it into their own TikTok story with little effort. The biologist says that her users contact her and report what they are doing – for example, that they signed petitions or changed their habits.
But it’s not just about personal responsibility but also about an exchange, says the biologist. “We want people to understand that the responsibility for climate protection should not lie solely with the individual and that we must hold those responsible to account.”
Fight against misinformation on the Internet
Social psychologist Van der Linden adds that misinformation about climate change on the Internet can have enormous consequences. Climate change is an important and existential threat. “And if you mislead people, it could have incredible consequences.”
This misinformation is widespread on the Internet, from renewable energies to the scientific consensus on climate change. “They really cover the whole range. That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with,” says Van der Linden.
Cabrera and the EcoTok team are aware of this. Each of their videos is shared with the whole group before publication. The members then give feedback. Not all climate content on TikTok is subject to such checks.
However, users can inform themselves about false information among themselves. If a TikTok video “seems far-fetched” to her, according to high school student Moore, check the comments to see if other users have already recognized the content as fake.
Often, climate activism on TikTok contains disastrous messages. In many cases, the increasingly scarce time that remains to stop a climate catastrophe is addressed. EcoTok avoids such “doomsday” content. But here, too, the posts make the urgency of the crisis clear.
That’s why Cabrera’s TikToks usually also contain a simple task. In one video, for example, she suggests “replacing three things in the bathroom” to reduce plastic. “We need everyone as environmentalists,” she said. “People need to be inspired and motivated. Coercion is not the way to go. However, it is also not easy, after all, we are dealing here with a climate emergency. So we don’t have much time left.”