Are boots on the ground better than words in cyberspace? 

Activism may be enhanced by using social media platforms for awareness campaigns, virtual petitioning and fund-raising, but when it comes to the environment, it’s ‘boots on the ground’ that count.

It’s no big news to hear about the affordances that social media has offered the world of political and social activism. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011/12 and more recently, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations the hashtag #metoo campaign, are oft-cited examples of how social media is transforming the socio-political landscape on scales rarely seen before. However, can the same be said for environmental activism? Are the affordances offered by social media making strong headways in the world of environmental protection?

Let’s head over to Lancashire, north-west England, where hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is better known, has commenced following the overturning of the local council’s rejection of a fracking site by the Communities minister on the well-trodden grounds of jobs and economic growth, and the other standard energy argument of less reliance on imports.

For the unaware, hydraulic fracturing is the practice of injecting high-pressure ‘fracking fluids’ into bores to create and open up cracks in underground rock to allow trapped shale gasses to flow out. It is a water intensive process that uses often undisclosed (on commercially sensitive information grounds) fracturing agents.

Sounds harmless enough until you weigh in the risk that the fracking process may open up cracks not just to the trapped methane, but to the groundwater table, rendering it subject to contamination from both methane and fracking fluids.  Commerical operators claim that the distance between shale gas reserves and the groundwater table are too large to imply any significant risk in England. But have a look at the docufilm ‘Gasland’ if you want to see people lighting up previously drinkable water coming straight out the kitchen faucets in the USA where fracking is more entrenched.

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Some 30% of public water supply in England comes from groundwater and if it isn’t coming out your kitchen tap, it’s being used for farming and agriculture, so its not just a local problem once it gets in the food chain. This, of course, is before we consider the problems of methane gas leakages – a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than CO2; seismic tremors induced by fracking; and surface contamination through spillage and disposal of fracking fluids in evaporation ponds. So perhaps it is unsurprising that activists with “Reclaim the Power” have blockaded the Lancashire site, some locking themselves to scaffolds in scenes reminiscent of the Dale Farm eviction of travellers in 2011, or Swampy’s tunnelling exploits to prevent the extension of a trunk road in England’s southwest in 1999.

These are all examples of direct action. And whilst hashtag campaigns and social media permit online activism to translate directly to specific, related focal points, such as Tahrir (or Martyr’s) Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring, or the various financial districts of the Occupy Movement, many are not site-specific. Furthermore, ‘slacktivism’ means campaigns in the digital era arguably encourage people to express themselves through a digital thumbs-up or a share instead of their physical presence at threatened site.

Does environmental activism share these characteristics? To an extent, yes. Campaigns can induce some to don their boots and paint placards. But climate change is such a big issue in scope, scale and complexity that most people feel so overwhelmed that a bit of slacktivism seems the best antidote in order to ease the conscience – like and share in the hope that someone better positioned will do something about it. Furthermore, the atmosphere provides no focal point as it is all around us, so activism must use proxy symbols for political effect, such as Climate Conference Summits. Local environmentalism however, is usually related to a very specific place – a forest, a mine site, a planned road, or in this case, a fracking site with very local and immediate impacts. Arguably, it is this element that better suits environmental activism to a ‘boots on the ground approach’.

There are other reasons, however, why environmental activists may prefer direct action rather than online and social-media campaigns, and why ICT may be working against rather than for the environment. Firstly, whilst social media can be seen as a boon for groups trying to recruit to their cause, this also makes them a target mechanism for infiltration. This could be viewed as a good thing in terms of weeding out terrorist recruitment organisations, but a bad thing for those with more legitimate causes. Environmental activist groups are a principle target for police infiltration under the pretence that the direct action they will engage in is presumed to be illegal. Former Chair of the UK Green Party, Jenny Jones, has herself been placed under surveillance as a “domestic extremist”. Writing in the Guardian, she notes how environmentalists and social justice campaigners are subject to undercover policing that has an orientation of “counter terrorism” towards what she sees as legitimate protest activities. In this case, she argues it is objectionable that senior officers use large quantities of taxpayer money to “defend the corporate interests of a fracking firm. Or…choose to target anti-fracking campaigners with the resources given to them to defend us from terrorists”. This ‘political policing’ is nothing new, but has gone on for decades, she continues,…

“The only difference with modern policing is the extent to which they can use electronic surveillance and data collection to potentially intrude on the private lives of missions, rather than thousands.”

Secondly, it would be naive to think that social media is only used by those with a social purpose in mind to propagate their message. Commercial outfits such as Cuadrilla – the fracking company at the centre of the controversy – and their endorsers, Energy Minister Claire Perry and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, are not only well versed in the uses of both mainstream and social media, but have communications and PR teams charged with doing just that. Like any tussle, it is a case of measure and counter-measure. And advocates of the environment are usually the poorer resourced.

Thirdly, media production is now in the hands of anyone with a social media account and a decent wifi signal. Facts are not a criteria to posting; credibility and credulity seem secondary to impact and sensationalism. How can you know that what you read on social media is legitimate? Where does scientific opinion fit in amongst all the ‘noise’ of alternative voices, especially when we tailor our social media feeds to tell us only what we want to hear or already agree with, confirming our predisposed biases? Didn’t the Cambridge Analytica scandal remind us that our opinions can be bought and sold without us even realising? How do we keep our critical faculties, well… critical? I often wonder whether climate skepticism would have persisted so long if social media was not around to fan its flames.

It’s so easy, and tempting, to see only the positive side of social media for activism in development and environmental matter. We often focus on the affordance, and forget the hindrance. Whilst the Arab Spring was a liberator from single-party rule in Tunisia and Libya, in Syria a descent into civil war. Whilst social media brings people together, it also compromises privacy. Whilst it grants us access to abundant information, it also surrounds us with distractions and ’fake news’. At the same time, social media is Informer, entertainer, and organiser, yet confirmation-biaser, advertiser and slacktivizer. Is it invaluable for democracy, or is it Big Brother watching everything you do? Ultimately, it will be up to us and how we use it that will decide.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for a great post! There were many points I had not considered before, and it was great to focus on a different perspective then regularly seen. Your final comment, “Ultimately, it will be up to us and how we use it that will decide”, sparked a few questions for me.

    Is it really us as individuals who decide? How much power do we really have in this decision? How much responsibility do governments have in protecting our privacy? What about the social media creators? And if we say it is up to government and corporations to protect our privacy- are we also handing over our democracy?

    • Hi Rachel.

      Thanks for you comments. There’s two aspects to this. Firstly, taking your point on whether it is up to us ‘as individuals’ to decide, then yes, I think the responsibility lies with the social-media user to digest information they receive through curated channels (curated by both the user as well as the social-media platform owner) critically. The power IS with the individual to decide to don the boots and get down the picket line, or write a letter to their MP. But clicking like seems so much easier…. It is with the individual when it comes to exposing oneself to challenging points of view in order to critically analyse the ones we already hold. But subscribing only to the ones that confirm what you already believe (or more dangerously, the ones we want to believe) is so much more comforting. And when it comes to privacy, it is up to the individual again to be careful about what information they divulge, to who, about what, and when. Sure, governments and social media owners have certain responsibilities about data privacy, which is why most Western countries have some form of Data Protection Act operational. However, that hasn’t stopped data breaches, subversive means for gaining ‘consent’ to use (‘sell’) personal data, misuse of acquired data (aka Cambridge Analytica scandal) or even state-sponsored spying aka Snowden’s revelations.

      Secondly, when I wrote that last line I was thinking more about ‘us’ as a society, more than as individuals. If we collectively decide that a certain social media platform was putting profits ahead of client security, then we would dump it for something more privacy and society-focused. The problem with social networking is it is very monopoly-oriented by nature. Everyone needs to be hooked to the same network for it to function effectively. If the safest, most useful, informative, advert-free social media platform became operational tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter UNLESS everyone migrated to it. And in that sense, it is up to us to decide how we use it.

  2. Jeremy Charles Brooks

    Thanks for a great article!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and not knowing much about fracking myself beforehand, I was able to still appreciate the post due to the informative and well presented information in the beginning.
    You brought up some new and valid points, in particular i liked the way that you show the reader that ICTs are not always the friend of the advocate, rather due to the immense PR ‘factories’ behind such companies it is sometimes impossible to compete, due to their large resources with these companies.
    It is true what you say “Facts are not a criteria to posting; credibility and credulity seem secondary to impact and sensationalism.” and that in itself puts us in dangerous times where readers are ‘malinformed’ and simply believing what they hear because they hear it enough.