TikTok for Climate Change

Social Media Apps are an Underestimated Force for Change

Heather Kostick
Heather Kostick

Heather Kostick is a PhD Candidate at Drexel University and has over 10 years of experience in ecology and the environmental sciences.

Like many others during the start of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, I joined TikTok after a few months of hemming and hawing. I thought it was a children’s or teen’s app where they did dances or dumb trends (re: tide pod challenge), but not necessarily something to be taken seriously. As the algorithm got to know my interests, I saw videos on cats, recipes, canning, Tolkien, Game of Thrones, anti-racism, international issues, and a myriad of other topics. Of course, as an ecologist and someone who cares about scicomm, I also ended up on Biology and Ecology Tiktok where I saw folks sharing everything from “stop baiting deer with corn because it’s spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD)” to “here’s what your microbio prof thinks about XYZ”. Eventually this evolved into slightly more niche topics like environmentalism, ecology, and climate change. It has been the climate change piece of the videos in my algorithm that has captured my attention the most.

As with anything on the internet of a specific topic, in this case climate change, there are a ton of videos that range from cutesy, 10-ways-to-reduce-carbonfootprint to sharing active protests and ways to stay safe during protests. Something that I’ve found that I believe might be unique to TikTok is organizing against fossil fuel companies in ways that they don’t know how to deal with. I have seen various creators gather intel and share information on how to essentially bully these companies into changing policies or effectively stopping pipeline construction through political action and protest. The majority of these “clock app” climate activists also happen to be indigenous people.

Birdie Sam, otherwise known as @Showme_Yourmask on TikTok, is a T’lingit two-spirit creator who focuses on educating to arm regular people with knowledge and activism tactics in order to “bully the rich” in an effort to combat the hold the fossil fuel industries have on the world.  Birdie’s first viral videos were on learning about abuse tactics and how abusers weaponize the victim’s reactions against them. Something clicked and Birdie realized that oil companies were using the same abusive tactics to trigger public reactions and use that to their benefits.

Birdie Sam discussing fossil fuel divestment and politics on TikTok.
“Somehow abusive people make their way to positions of power within those [oil] companies, and it’s world-wide.” – Birdie Sam

Realizing what abusive tactics these companies and their executives were doing, Birdie knew it could be used to their advantage to fight against them. @ShowMe_YourMask is often targeted for “violating community guidelines” for telling the truth about the damage oil companies and their executives are doing to the environment. One particularly formidable opponent for Birdie has been Enbridge, North America’s largest natural gas utility, and Birdie makes sure that people know exactly how Enbridge’s actions impact the environment and the communities they operate in. In particular, Birdie and their mutuals on TikTok were directly responsible for bringing the Stop Line 3 protest news coverage to the forefront of the country’s mind when local police officers in Minnesota started to get rough with protestors (but only after Birdie bullied local news stations into covering the protests which featured many teenaged protestors

“Every time I got a community guidelines violation for telling the truth [that] is what triggered the “bully oil executives” because the truth is bullying them somehow” – Birdie Sam
Birdie Sam sharing one of her signature TikTok videos on how to “bully oil executives”.

As flautist and TikTok sensation Lizzo says in her music: truth hurts; and it clearly applies to the work that Birdie has been doing and encouraging her followers to do. Birdie’s followers seem to be a diverse mix of Gen Z, LGBTQ+ folks, indigenous people, and interestingly oil workers. Birdie ended up on the side of TikTok where oil workers reside, and found that through interacting with them that oil workers have a lot of the similar health and economic issues that coal miners do. Many oil workers want to leave the industry but find it financially impossible to do – they’re trapped by the company. Birdie started to share resources on renewable energy jobs and engaging with the community in order to help.

Birdie’s particular brand of activism is not alone on TikTok and can be seen in other accounts. Climate Change is not the only activism you’ll see on the app either – activists involved with the 2022 Iranian Revolution, Russians protesting against their own government for the war in Ukraine, and Indigenous people and survivors of Residential Schools of the U.S. calling for support and action on the upcoming Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) review by the Supreme Court in mid-November.

Although TikTok has grown into more than just a trendy teen app, it’s not the only social media app activists use. Fossil Free Penn is a student-led activist group on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and they are well-known for not just their traditional protest tactics (e.g., sit ins, encampments), but they also are known to utilize social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, to spread the word about their activism and share their message and goals to the public. While their TikTok account is not very active, a quick search on the app will lead you to coverage of their protests. They primarily use Instagram and Twitter to communicate their mission, events, information sessions, and updates to their supporters. Fossil Free Penn is currently focusing on three overarching goals from Penn:

  1. Commit $5-10 million and/or land to the purchase and preservation of the People’s Townhomes.
  2. Divest from fossil fuels.
  3. Pay PILOTS.

Fossil Free Penn points out that Penn is only one of two ivy league universities who have not divested from fossil fuels, and is the only school of the great eight to not pay PILOTS. The student activists that make up Fossil Free Penn have been actively protesting and aiming, as they see it, to hold Penn accountable since 2014. To gain more of their perspective, I spoke to two Penn undergraduates involved with Fossil Free Penn: junior Katie Francis and freshman Eliana Atienza. We discussed how the Fossil Free Penn movement benefits from social media and the community of these individuals who truly believe Penn can be better and a leader in climate and community justice.

Both Katie and Eliana became involved with Fossil Free Penn thanks to their friends. For Katie it was a friend inviting her to the encampment in Spring 2022 that was her initial introduction to the movement. Similarly, Eliana was invited to a Fossil Free Penn training the same night she was invited to become involved with the recent encampment that ended on October 22. Both students feel that social media is an important resource for the movement in sharing news and ways to get involved, but it is the in-person actions that help the movement gain traction, and it’s the community of people that allow this movement to keep its momentum.

“Number one priority is people’s safety [when it comes to social media]. [Fossil Free Penn] hasn’t used social media as a tactic to get attention from Penn. The actions themselves are what puts pressure on Penn and that’s what gets the media coverage… which puts a lot of pressure on Penn.” – Katie Francis
“Social media can be very empowering and finding a community online that believes in what you are investing your time and effort and energy into is inspiring beyond words. But apps like sidechat [show] it can get really disheartening… there are two very contrasting parts to what it [social media] can do and what it has been doing.” – Eliana Atienza

Fossil Free Penn focuses its energy on not letting the backlash show on social media, but it’s clear that it exists. In addition to the potential administrative discipline students face for getting involved, the online vitriol and reactions from non-actors at protests remain a reality for these student protestors. Whether you search Fossil Free Penn on Instagram, Twitter, or Tiktok, you will see a mix of support and opposition for the movement. There’s a striking video on TikTok of the Homecoming football protest where a Yale parent is ripping a banner away from Fossil Free Penn protestors despite being asked by security to stop. In the same beat, you can see videos on others sharing the work the protestors are doing and why one might want to support their movement. Penn alumni from a variety of class years have also reached out to Fossil Free Penn to make sure they know they have support from past Quakers.

A Yale fan can be seen getting into a tug-of-war with Fossil Free Penn protestors at the recent Penn Homecoming football game.

Despite the heated debate that Fossil Free Penn can spark both in-person and online, one thing that must be noted is the unrelenting optimism of these student protestors. Although Katie and Eliana don’t speak for all students involved with Fossil Free Penn, but it is clear that this community has a common belief: that Penn can do better, and they believe that Penn can really be a leader in the community and beyond.

“We have hope that Penn can be a force for good and we’re working to do that. I would encourage everyone else to find that hope that the world can get better and to get involved in any capacity.” – Katie Francis
“People ask ‘why do you protest Penn, you’re a student?’ People who protest don’t do it out of hate for the institution, it’s out of a motivation to see Penn properly embody their goals. Penn can be a leader in climate justice and community justice. They have the brains and the funds to do so muich good for the community… they can set the precedent for so much positive change.” – Eliana Atienza

One thing is clear, social media is a key component of communication and education in activism. Instagram is an app that started out as a photo sharing app and after 13 years has evolved into more with users being able to post videos, reels, go on live video streaming, and shop. Instagram’s format allows users to share posts and information efficiently and makes it easy for activists to share meeting information, recruit volunteers, and raise awareness – as Fossil Free Penn has been able to do. TikTok may be one of the younger social media apps at six years old; and it may be contributing to our ever-shortening attention spans, but with over 1 billion active users its power cannot be denied. What started as a dancing and trend app for Gen-Z has grown into something more. With the help of the isolation brought on by the pandemic which forced TikTok to welcome millions of new users on the app, TikTok seems to be dominating in the arena of a place for the everyperson to share their message and educate the masses. Whether it’s bullying oil executives or sharing real-time protests to the app, it looks like TikTok is a force to be reckoned with for science communication and people should pay attention.