Ten Commandments of social media for climate activists

My first taste of online activism came in the form of 2009′s Iranian presidential election: I retweeted the crap out of the #iranelection stream, attended solidarity rallies in my hometown and watched a social media-driven revolution captivate the world.

Since then I’ve live-tweeted and meme’d many climate-related events and campaigns, but after participating in Adopt a Negotiator‘s #ClimateTracker training series I realized I’ve still got a lot to learn about online activism.

Thankfully, a lot of this is common sense; it just helps to be reminded of it every now and then. Here are ten tips and best practices for climate advocates, as summarized from AaN’s Social Media for Change series.

Thou shalt not be a hipster about it.

Let’s face it: as narcissistic and vapid as social media can be, it’s the channel most people today use to communicate with the rest of the world. Those who choose not to use social media, whether because they think they’re too cool for it or they’re just not into lifecasting, are missing out on major opportunities to engage politicians, journalists and the global digital audience.

So humble yourself a bit and make an honest effort to connect with folks online.Grist’s David Roberts suggests if you want to talk about climate change, pull up a barstool: people will be more willing to hear you out if they can relate to you as a person, not just a climate hawk.

Thou shalt balance lifecasting and climate reporting.

On that note, find a happy medium between your personal and climate-related updates. Roberts says in another article that his posts are a mix of “substantive climate and random movie links, serious observations and crude jokes … and, yes, pictures of my meals.”

In short: keep it real. “If you can build a tribe online through engagement on other topics, those people will be more open to [your thoughts on] climate change,” Roberts advises.

Thou shalt avoid canned messaging.

I know, I know: with 140 characters, it’s easy to feel like sometimes all you have space to say is “help – please RT!” But don’t – this tone borders on marketing and sounds insincere. Framing the issue like this also reduces its importance to something trivial and, thus, dismissable.

Instead, tell people why they should look at your post/link/content. What did you find interesting? Why might they also find it interesting? Remember, this isn’t just about getting ‘likes’ and tons of followers – it’s about making connections and building a movement.

Thou shalt be strategic.

Using social media can be like stapling a flier to a telephone pole: in theory everyone will see it, but in reality everyone might ignore it. Fortunately, plenty of research has already been done to help you reach your audience more effectively.

Here’s an infographic AaN shared on the strengths and weaknesses of ten social media outlets. This PDF is a short guide to social media for climate campaigning.

Thou shalt focus on narratives of everyday people rising up.

Our lives are grounded in storytelling; it’s how we make sense of the world and ourselves. Because most climate-related news is depressing and apocalyptic by default, activists need to show folks that another world is possible – and many are already making it happen.

This New York Times piece features Wael Ghonim, a self-described “real-life introvert, online extrovert” from Egypt who started a Facebook page that “helped ignite an uprising that led to the … dissolution of the ruling National Democratic Party.”

“An accidental activist, Ghonim tapped into a shared frustration that became immediately evident online. … What bubbled up online inevitably spilled onto the streets … In turn, Ghonim — who was arrested during the height of the protests — reluctantly became one of the leading voices of the Arab Spring.”

The piece highlights the power of the individual narrative to, quite literally, spark a revolution. Ghonim’s story showed the transformation of an apolitical citizen to prominent activist. He was just an ordinary citizen, devastated by conflict and motivated to seek justice.

Thou shalt frame messaging to “have everyone join forces.”

Ghonim’s feature highlighted how the Arab Spring combined the concerns of all types of groups: “workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies.”

Remember when Occupy first started and all those nurses, airline workers and other groups turned out en masse to the protests? That’s because the “We Are the 99%” messaging pitted pretty much everyone everyone – workers, students, homeowners and, yes, environmentalists – against the evil, greedy 1%.

So do that, but with the climate narrative. Get labor unions in on renewable energy campaigns, reach out to low-income communities near coal plants and fracking sites. Our social media messaging needs to be as diverse and interconnected as the issues we cover.

Thou shalt engage, but know when to engage.

Roberts’s Twitter stream was frequently filled with, um, colorful conversations on climate and economic issues. His advice? Know the difference between a discussion and an argument. Don’t be too sensitive, but “don’t let yourself be tormented for show.”

Remember: make an honest effort to connect with folks.

If thou means it, thou shalt meme it.

Joe Solomon from the Energy Action Coalition shared this tip with us during a #climatetracker webinar. Basically: if you’ve got something you want a lot of people to see, turn it into a meme.

Thou shalt “be a steady, helpful presence, not a cheerleader [n]or a hag.”

There are a lot of powerful people on Twitter and other social media outlets, with many celebrities, journalists and politicians engaging directly with their followers.

So set yourself apart from the crowd by “answering their questions, sharing information or links they might not have, and pointing them in new directions,” Roberts says. Who knows? Developing an online connection with an influential figure might pay off big time in a future campaign…

Thou shalt move others beyond spectator activism.

Sure, getting millions of e-petition signatures is an admirable feat – but when it comes to shaping policies and decisions, it’s not enough. Online efforts must be backed up by real-life actions.

Ask your audience to do more than just like and share: help them become organizers. Elected officials can’t dodge the issue when people are out in the streets, talking to the media and building public pressure, online and offline.

Remind them of the power of an individual. All it takes is one person to spark a global conversation; with the proper utilization of online and offline activism, we can change the world.

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One response to “Ten Commandments of social media for climate activists

  1. Hey,

    I just wanted to let you know that my blog has moved from nowandnowandnow.wordpress.com to kaitmauro.com/category/blog — :) have so much fun in my city for Powershift!!

    – Kait

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