By Bram Büscher, author of The Truth about Nature: Environmentalism in the Era of Post-Truth Politics and Platform Capitalism

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Environmental organizations have become fully dependent on social media platforms. This is not just getting in the way of meaningfully tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. It will make them worse and more complicated. It is time for environmentalists to rethink digital media and start organizing counterpower.

When I started doing research on the relation between environmentalism and digital platforms around 2010, I conducted several interviews to see how environmental organisations were starting to use new social media. A pattern emerged across these interviews. I would ask questions about social media and people would give me a somewhat puzzled response. More than once I was referred to a junior officer or an intern, who would eagerly answer my questions, happy that someone showed interest. They told me that social media was not always taken very seriously by senior leadership but also that this was changing.

A few years later, it had changed indeed, drastically. Now all environmental organisations had professional social media officers. Some even had whole social media departments. In less than two years, social media had overtaken most other media tools and become central to environmental communication. Most environmentalists were excited about the possibilities. Some were even lyrical. South African conservationist Dex Kotze, for example, believed that building a digital conservation movement could be the holy grail for wildlife environmentalists were looking for.

I did notice caution as well. Digital media staff at environmental organisations told me that they were worried about overburdening followers with information. Others were worried about the strong attachments people developed to individual animals online. This was in stark contrast to how they saw their job as science-based and hence ‘not sentimentally or emotionally driven.’ Some were outright critical, with one stating matter-of-factly that Facebook’s “business model has a tendency to destroy the feeling of intimacy people are looking for.” He wondered how long this could last. Many grumbled about having to be online 24/7.

All this was before 2015. Since then, many of us have increasingly realized the downsides of digital media platforms and the Orwellian surveillance economy they have built. Environmental organisations are no different. Yet they are in a specific double bind that leads them to continue to underestimate the dangers of Big Tech. For one, their key constituencies, including many young people, are all on digital media. Thus, say my respondents, they have no choice but to embrace the platforms. Moreover, many staff at environmental organisations have ecology or biology backgrounds, which often – not always – leads them to think of technology as something positive. But by far the most important factor in their underestimation of Big Tech is that environmental organisations simply have bigger things on their mind. As expressed by David Attenborough recently, they are concerned with the truth about nature and have long concluded that the environmental crisis is so bad that humanity faces an existential crisis. Communicating this grave truth is the main priority.

The net result is that environmental organisations have gone fully digital, embracing not just social media but all the digital tools that platforms have to offer. The largest environmental organisation in the world, the Nature Conservancy, even appointed a ‘Chief Technology Officer’ in 2018, Ms. Sherri Hammons. She writes: “we know that we can get bigger, faster and smarter with our solutions—what if action for our planet could move at the pace of Silicon Valley? Technology has extraordinary potential to play a key role in this sort of acceleration.”

In a nutshell and despite occasional caution, environmental organisations have jumped on board the Big Tech train and are riding it ever more enthusiastically. But is this a sustainable strategy? Will it help environmental organisations tackle the environmental crisis and communicate the truth about nature?

The short answer is ‘no.’ As I argue in my new book, The Truth About Nature: Environmentalism in the Era of Post-Truth Politics and Platform Capitalism, it will in fact make things worse and even more complicated. 

Besides the rapidly increasing ecological impacts related to digital rubbish and unsustainable energy use, I am more concerned with the power structure behind Big Tech. Two elements of this power structure are particularly important.

First, Big Tech and the platform or surveillance capitalist model they promote stimulates post-truth, which is not conducive for communicating the truth about nature. Post-truth, as I have come to define it, is not a modern form of lying or bullshit. It is also not, as the Oxford Dictionary would have it, that ‘people respond more to feelings and beliefs than to facts.’ More ominously, it is an expression of power. It is the power of algorithms and the platforms they enable, and their tendency to respond to trends and scandal more than nuance and context. Post-truth also relates to the ability of the powerful to flood these platforms with contrasting, ‘alternative’ forms of information to confuse people and feed their online bubbles.

Second, Big Tech has greatly expanded and intensified global capitalism, which is responsible for the environmental crises we are in. The unintended effect of communicating the truth about nature on digital platforms is to stimulate an unsustainable global economy rather than transform it.

Environmental organisations need to urgently rethink their engagement with digital media platforms. While it is may be unrealistic to expect them to disengage altogether, there are important things they can do. These organizations can join the chorus of those who argue for the democratization of Big Tech, and support the creation of alternative platforms to build counter-power. These include alternative, post-growth conservation paradigms, like convivial conservation, but also alternative technology platforms, like the growing platform cooperatives that aim to build a cooperative digital economy.

These and other alternatives are still in their early days and would benefit tremendously from the boost that large environmental organizations could give them. In the short-term, a pivot to alternatives might lead to less exposure and outreach possibilities for these same organizations. But that seems a small price to pay compared to the damage digital platforms are doing to both the planet and the “truth” about nature.