TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app, is a virtual hot spot for frivolity and fun, bubbling over with memes, pranks, and elaborate choreography. But what if the platform could be used for a deadly serious purpose, as a tool to galvanize a generation to stop the existential threat of global warming?
With 1 billion users, many of whom spend hours a day on the app, TikTok has unparalleled potential to educate people around the world about climate change and enlist their help in cutting carbon emissions, some climate activists believe.
“Understanding the climate crisis isn’t a privilege, it’s a right,” said Abbie Richards, a 25-year-old Bostonian who posts as @tofology, and has racked up millions of views of her TikTok videos on climate change. The platform, she said, is a “really powerful means of communication.”
But unleashing its potential requires mastering TikTok’s algorithms to make the urgent stand out from the indulgent and inspire political action.
Richards, who holds an environmental science degree and is pursuing a master’s in climate studies, is a cofounder of EcoTok, a group of 17 scientists, meteorologists, and conservationists who are brainstorming and testing ideas for educational climate content that viewers want to both watch and share.
“So much climate communication is the same thing over and over again: alarmism, alarmism, alarmism,” Richards said. Too much of that can discourage people from wanting to actually do anything, she said.
While their approaches vary, the climate creators tend to lean into the aspects of the app that are designed to encourage virality, posting short videos that rely heavily on music and captions to get a message across and are made to be remixed, shared, and reacted to.
In her posts, Richards tends toward green screen dance moves, in-depth explainers that debunk conspiracy theories, and in one recent post, pitching climate jokes to actor and climate activist Rainn Wilson. Her calls to abolish golf have gone viral. (“I just think it’s a racist, sexist, environmentally destructive sport for capitalists,” Richards deadpans.)
This week, EcoTok member Alaina Wood, posting as @thegarbagequeen, shared a roundup of Good Climate News nuggets and pithy updates from the UN Conference of Parties (COP26) conference in Glasgow. Doria Brown, who posts as @earthstewardess, paired a dance challenge video with facts about methane emissions. And Henry Ferland, a Bostonian who as @traashboyyy is attempting to pick up half a million pieces of trash around the world, asked his followers to sign a petition urging Congress to declare a climate emergency.
One of the most viral climate change posts is a ukulele ditty by a TikTok user named @willow.sky that’s been viewed nearly 7 million times: “We’re killing the earth and that’s really fun. No one believes us because we are young,” the singer croons into the camera.
For all of its videos of dancing babies and entertaining cockatoos, TikTok can be a highly effective tool for spreading information. Research group Reach3 recently found that three-quarters of survey respondents age 13-24 said TikTok has helped them learn about social justice and politics and stay up to date on the news.
“TikTok has emerged as a catalyst for Gen Z to share their political views,” Reach3 said, and its users are far more likely to engage in political activities because of the app, talk to others about their views, and attend rallies on issues they care about. Over a quarter of TikTok users said they attended a Black Lives Matter protest, while only 13 percent of nonusers did.
In one of the more high-profile political actions on TikTok, some of its users teamed up with fans of K-pop music during the 2020 election to send in thousands of fake RSVPs for a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. But instead of a packed arena, a sea of empty seats greeted Donald Trump at his arrival.
That kind of show-stopping moment hasn’t happened yet on climate change.
EcoTokkers are paying close attention to how the platform is changing, and trying to adapt their styles accordingly. TikTok lifted some restrictions around political content last year, and Richards said climate-related material is now trending away from quick memes toward longer explainer videos.
Isaias Hernandez, 25, an EcoTok member who posts as @queerbrownvegan and holds an environmental studies degree from University of California Berkeley, believes it’s important for “ecocommunicators” who understand the science of climate change to engage on social media platforms, using the same language and cultural references that Gen Z does.
He often piggybacks his climate videos on popular memes and music mashups going viral on the app, but also films direct, minute-long mini-lessons on greenwashing and environmental injustice. This past week, he’s been posting from Glasgow. “What we really want to do is to get people more involved, and start asking those hard questions,” he said.
He also addresses issues such as climate anxiety, which, in a global study released last month, was found to be creating “profound psychological distress” among young people. Three-quarters of the 10,000 respondents ages 16-25 said they felt that the “future is frightening.”
“I think that a lot of people, especially younger generations, who follow our platforms are very emotional,” Hernandez said.
Keyon Rostamnezhad, a Northeastern graduate, flew from Boston to the COP26 conference in Glasgow last week as a UN Foundation Global Goals climate ambassador. He has a TikTok account, but he’s only just started posting videos himself, and has been gathering interviews he plans to post from the foundation’s TikTok account. He hopes the posts will be a window into world leaders’ decisions, but he’s not sure if he can make the intricacies of climate policy translate on TikTok.
“I don’t see climate-related videos being prevalent enough,” he said. “Sustainability-based solutions, they don’t really break out. And I don’t think they’re built to break out.” It’s the more extreme, doom and gloom stuff that he sees getting picked up and spread by TikTok’s algorithms. “When it does break through, it’s alarmist.”
And whether TikTok viewers will not just watch, but take political action, remains to be seen. Krista Chan, a senior at Belmont High School and member of the school’s climate action club, says her peers embrace climate slogans on social media. But she’s not sure if they’re willing to work for pro-climate campaigns or make personal sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions.
“It’s something to do to be trendy,” she said. “You could just say, ‘I carry a metal straw. I’m saving the world.’ ”
That’s the challenge with social media as a platform for political activism, said Nir Eisikovits, a political philosopher and ethicist who runs the University of Massachusetts Boston Applied Ethics Center. Even if climate activists do go viral on TikTok, he said, it may provide their viewers with a false sense that watching along is enough.
“There’s the risk that this gives people a pass from other kinds of more engaged activism,” he said. “At some point — not to be dramatic — you have to go tie yourself to a fence, or stop using one form of energy or another, or organize a boycott.”
Moreover, disinformation about the climate crisis has also infiltrated the platform, and is competing with facts.
In a recent report, research group Logically found that amid the surge of false narratives that have emerged out of the pandemic, inaccurate information about climate change — that its effects are proof of a Christian apocalypse, for example — is being incorporated into conspiracy theories and antivaccine propaganda.
“Climate change misinformation has evolved away from denialism into a complex set of narratives, the most prominent being skepticism about the necessity and cost of political action and doomerism about what can be done,” Logically wrote.
Richards, the EcoTok cofounder who also works at Media Matters for America researching disinformation, is frustrated that content creators don’t have much financial backing to support their work. It can take weeks to research a video, she said, and several hours to record and edit a post. TikTok has established a creator fund for its most high-profile users, and a marketplace where content gurus can collaborate with brands. But so far, there’s no nonprofit or foundation that’s stepped up to fund climate education on the app.
“Funding when it comes to social media climate communications are so undervalued,” Richards said. “If you have a following, you are still viewed for your market power over your political power or your educational power.”
“You have to sell soap,” she said, “when really what we just want is to provide climate education.”