Greg Dennis: Social media and the climate movement

President Trump and his MAGA cult claim to hate social media.

Liberals worry that it’s stealing their privacy.

The El Paso mass murderer used it to spread lies he had read online about an “invasion” at our southern border.

Older folks say they’re baffled by “Tweeter” and use Facebook only so they can communicate with their grandchildren.

Social media has a bad reputation. And it’s getting worse.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to explain how his social media empire allowed Russian trolls to help swing the election to Trump. The president himself uses Twitter for anti-Semitic slurs and to tell American-born members of Congress to “go back where they came from.”

Like it or not, though, social media is here to say.

Yes, there’s a dark side. Extremists use social media to spread hatred. “Deep fake” videos can be manipulated to put false statements in a leader’s mouth. And if nothing else, social media can be a gigantic time suck.

But without social media it’s likely there would have been no Women’s March to repudiate Trump’s election. No worldwide climate movement.

Another thing: Social media democratizes political organizing. The Civil Right Movement had Dr. King. The Women’s Movement had Gloria Steinem. But today’s movements don’t need to rely on a charismatic leader. It’s a world of voices and leaders out there whether it’s to impeach the President, advocate for gun rights, defend the border or protect defenseless immigrants.

“Right now social media is on a computer platform, so it’s easier and more nimble,” ACLU volunteer Diane Berry said in an article on Govtech.com. “But there was social media before there was this thing called social media. There were telephone trees, letters and a lot more paper.”

Organizing against the Vietnam War, we used teach-ins and newspaper articles posted on bulletin boards. We stapled leaflets onto telephone poles and propped them under windshield wipers. Our media were paper and outrage.

There’s a long tradition of protest in America. “Since at least 1786, when Philadelphia printers went on strike for a $6 weekly wage, through Abolition, Prohibition, Vietnam, Occupy, and the Women’s March, America has boasted a robust tradition of community organizing,” Ben Maguire wrote in an article in the Kennedy School Review. “The practice of organizing reached its modern pinnacle in the Civil Rights Movement — a triumph not only of moral leadership but also of logistics, coordination and tactical effectiveness.”

Indeed, civil rights leaders established a bit of a textbook for the climate movement. If they could accomplish so much without social media, imagine what 350.org and other groups can do with the power of the internet.

The Occupy Movement learned from the Arab Spring’s use of social media. #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo movement launched on the same rocket fuel. Me Too started out as one woman’s tweet. As of mid-2018, BlackLivesMatter had been tweeted over 30 million times.

Of course there are limits to what social media can achieve.

Digital tools “can certainly help you mobilize a crowd,” David Karpf wrote in a 2016 study. “But (at least so far) it is less useful for organizing that crowd into a movement or converting that movement energy into long-term victories.”

An ongoing risk for organizers is that a Big Brother government entity can be on the same social media — and covertly monitor activists to impede perfectly legal political activity.

Another danger is slacktivism: the mistaken belief that if you “like” a particular post on Facebook, you have somehow achieved something politically. A Pew Research Center survey found 71 percent or respondents agreed that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.”

Nonetheless, many people in the climate movement use it regularly and to great effect.

Armed with Facebook, Twitter and an extensive email list, 350Vermont.org assembled over 300 people in April to join the Next Steps climate march from Middlebury to Montpelier. The same tools brought over a hundred people to a hearing on legislation to ban new gas pipelines in Vermont.

This month will see another push by climate groups in the form of the Global Climate Strike.

In our state a coalition of 350 Vermont, Extinction Rebellion, students, the local Climate Economy Action Network and many others is using the power of digital media to organize a week of actions. (See VermontClimateStrike.org for details.)

The climate strike was prompted by calls from the youth climate movement and Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who recently arrived in New York via solar sailboat.

Organizing dozens of events around Vermont has taken Facebook and Twitter, it’s true. But the real social media stars have been the lesser known platforms of Zoom and Slack.

Zoom allows multiple people to join meetings via phone, or via computer with or without video. If you’re trying to coalesce a group of people who share a common cause but don’t know each other, Zoom allows face-to-face contact without all the driving.

Slack’s collaboration software allows teams to organize without the onerousness of email chains. Rally leaders, for example, can use their own Slack channel while artists and writers use a related but separate channel.

Yes, it’s can be confusing. And we haven’t even touched on Reddit, Instagram and the thousands of political lists and comment chains that serve as virtual 24/7 town meetings.

It’s hard to go a single day without hearing about one Trump tweet or another. Our Facebook pages used to be filled with personal news from friends. Now they’re clogged with political messages.

The Pew survey found that fully half of Americans in the past year had participated in some form of political or socially minded activity online.

Some people might call that overwhelming. I call it democracy.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email” gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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