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TikTok has opened doors for youth climate activists amid Covid-19. Will that last?

The video-sharing social network TikTok has allowed young people to communicate about the climate crisis in new ways, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has confined many to their homes. But the platform’s dominance by Global North activists raises questions about its accessibility and its efficacy post-pandemic.
The video-sharing social network TikTok has allowed young people to communicate about the climate crisis in new ways, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has confined many to their homes. But the platform’s dominance by Global North activists raises questions about its accessibility and its efficacy post-pandemic.

Mitzi Joelle Tan first plugged into TikTok two years ago for fun, not activism. But the more time the 23-year-old climate activist from the Philippines spent on the app, the more she realized its potential as an organizing tool. Soon enough, she was using it to educate her peers about the climate crisis and environmental justice. “I really see TikTok as a gateway drug to climate activism,” she said.

Especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has limited in-person action worldwide, Tan’s perspective captures what many young climate activists have discovered in the video-sharing social network: a unique medium through which to engage mostly fellow young people and raise calls for bold climate policy.

Yet many have also discovered that using the app this way comes with pitfalls. As TikTok has become increasingly popular for climate activism there remain key questions about its accessibility and real-world impact. Roughly 37% of the world’s population lacks internet access, cutting them off from TikTok entirely. And it’s unclear to what extent those accessing the app will take on the climate messaging beyond the screen.

“You will not reach everyone with a TikTok video, but you will reach a certain target audience,” said Thomas Schinko, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “It’s not the end of the story, but if it’s really helpful in raising awareness among a group of people who would otherwise not care about [climate change], then I think we have come a very long way by using this methodology.”

Tiktok's logo
The TikTok app loading on a mobile phone. Photo: Kon Karampelas. 2020. Pixabay.

TikTok as an introduction to climate change

Importantly for youth climate activists, TikTok breaks down barriers to creating dynamic and informative content. Anyone with the app can create a viral video—no expensive equipment or professional videography experience required.

“It’s great that, within 15 seconds, young people  are able to send a message that’s informative and able to result in you taking action afterwards,” said L. Vanessa Gruber, a researcher at the University of applied Arts, Vienna. She cited the videos of Henry Ferland (@traashboyyy) as a prime example. Ferland’s videos promote awareness about littering and encourage viewers to join the trash fight.

Above all, Guber said she appreciates that rather than requiring content creators to have expert knowledge prior to video-making, TikTok encourages ‘learning while doing.’ Users deepen their understanding of complex climate and environmental issues in the research process of video-making. The 60-second time limit on TikTok videos forces users to simplify their understanding to the key facts to share with viewers. 

“Of course, it’s dangerous to say in these 15 seconds you now know everything about climate change—that’s not possible,” said Gruber. “But it’s a good start to get in touch with this topic… and go on with your own research.”

Accessibility of climate activism

Though on one hand, it seems like anyone can successfully use TikTok, accessing the platform is a struggle for many people with limited internet access and cellular service.

“It’s never going to reach people without phones, who are the most impacted by the climate crisis,” said Tan. She added that TikTok’s reach was further limited by nationwide bans.

Those limits haven’t deterred organizers from the digital team of Fridays for Future, the global climate strike movement, however. 

Co-founder Iris Zhan said the team transcends such limits in part through its deliberately international make-up. Members’ geographic diversity gives the team inroads to far-reaching TikTok audiences, since TikTok’s algorithm accounts for users’ country or region in curating their video recommendations. 

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Bangladesh is under water and we need climate justice and action now! Video: FFF Digital

Going forward, Zhan said, the team is working on recruiting more activists from Africa, to create content. In addition, they aim to use the team’s funding to support expanding digital access for such activists.

Schinko pointed out that exporting TikTok videos to Facebook could help extend their reach to more off-the-grid countries. “If these videos don’t make it to Facebook, then you will have a divide. Some developing parts of the world might not be reached via TikTok content,” he said. “But as soon as these videos make it onto Facebook, I think you can have almost global reach,” Schinko added.

Moving activism forward

Fully unlocking TikTok’s potential for climate activists requires understanding what makes a TikTok video popular in the first place. TikTok’s lack of transparency makes that difficult, said Alaina Wood, a 24-year-old founder of the popular environmental-themed TikTok account EcoTok.

Wood said she wanted to learn more about TikTok’s algorithm, or how TikTok curates individual users’ video feeds. Alaina Wood also expressed curiosity about how its community guidelines are enforced.

Yet even as young climate activists yearn to better understand the app, many don’t plan to leave it anytime soon. As some countries prepare to return to “post-pandemic normalcy”, Schinko said the future of the app for climate activism was unclear.

Schinko added that he could imagine TikTok working in tandem with climate activists’ anticipated return to the streets.

Mitzi Joelle demands climate action
23-yer-old climate activist Mitzi Joelle Tan from the Phillippines marching for climate action. Photo: Angela De Castro

Gruber suggested that people could translate what they’ve learned making or watching TikTok videos this past year into concrete climate action.

“Everything you put online should be to raise awareness and empower people to go outside,” said Tan. According to Tan, digital and in-person activism should always represent “two sides of the same coin.” Post-pandemic, Tan plans to “organize where the youth are”—wherever that may be—on both sides.