Green Twitter: How Environmental Twitter Fails to Highlight Injustice
How well do environmental organizations use Twitter to combat environmental injustice?
The 2010s have seen social media giants, like Twitter, totally reshape the global cultural landscape. These cultural changes have had palpable effects on global politics. In particular, the social and political influence of Twitter, as illuminated by Donald Trump, has been studied to hypothesize how people think and what they value in a digital age. Much of this research focuses on individual users, but tweets from official (in this case, environmental) organizations can highlight which efforts these particular organizations support. This kind of public virtue-signaling is becoming increasingly important as organizations broaden their outreach to more diverse audiences.
With regard to environmental activism, a deep look at an organization’s (or governmental agency’s) Twitter profile can demonstrate how effectively activists of color have influenced the national or international environmental dialogue. Because environmental groups can have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of active Twitter followers, every tweet, retweet and reply magnifies overlooked environmental issues. Certain environmental organizations make environmental justice a central part of their respective missions, but how frequently (or infrequently) they tweet about these topics has the potential to transform their followers into informed advocates for environmental justice.
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Environmental Law in 5,000 Tweets
Modern environmental law in the United States is just over a century old. A legal field once dominated by state and local lawsuits currently features sizable environmental nonprofits specializing in federal litigation. Four of the largest (and most active) litigation-driven environmental nonprofits are Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Sierra Club. Not only have these organizations individually and collaboratively filed some of the largest lawsuits of the past decade, they also all boast fairly active Twitter presences. Collectively, these four organizations have over 1 million Twitter followers, meaning that every tweet can possibly generate hundreds of thousands of views.
These four groups have repeatedly expressed public support for initiatives that combat environmental racism. How often do they use Twitter to spread awareness about this work?
New study shows that people of color and low-income communities care about clean air and water more than the average middle-class white American. Will this bring more environmental voters to the ballot box? https://t.co/G7GbSEwCr6— EDF (@EnvDefenseFund) November 5, 2018
A cumulative analysis of the last 16,384 tweets from these organizations shows that topics related to issues of environmental racism or environmental injustice are only present in 148 of their tweets (including both retweets and replies). Of the 148 tweets, 56 of them came from Sierra Club and 47 from the NRDC.
Considering how frequently domestic environmental issues affect communities of color, it’s strange how infrequently these institutions are tweeting about environmental racism. This is even more striking because these nonprofits are often the first groups to file lawsuits in cases related to environmental injustice. The NRDC’s Interim President Mitchell Bernard even published a blog post explaining how important it is that environmentalists fight racism.
Why should environmentalists speak out against Trump’s attack on the congressional women of color? Because racism and xenophobia do violence to American values—and to values essential to environmentalism. Read more on that connection in my new blog: https://t.co/1Vtg6xdkLp— MitchNRDC (@MitchNRDC) August 2, 2019
Without looking at these organizations’ internal social media policies, it's difficult to diagnose why only around 1% of their tweets are about environmental racism. Looking at the tweet trends, however, it is possible to determine when (and why) these groups are discussing environmental injustice.
Examining this three-month period illustrates that there have been days when Twitter accounts have repeatedly tweeted about issues affecting frontline communities. September 13 and 20 and November 6 had the most Twitter mentions of environmental racism. On these days, over 80% of the tweets from these organizations came from Sierra Club. On September 13, Sierra Club was covering the Democratic Debate.
The candidates wanted to talk #climate & environmental justice, but the moderators didn't. Here's what we know post-#DemDebate:
Every candidate has committed to significant action to tackle the climate crisis while Trump is burying his head in the sand while the seas rise.— Sierra Club (@SierraClub) September 13, 2019
On September 20, its coverage was focused on the Youth Climate Strikes.
TODAY'S THE DAY! Join young people and adults around the world in striking for #environmental justice, Indigenous land, a #GreenNewDeal, protection of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and more. Join us on this historic day --> https://t.co/JbijdpFZ3M #StrikeWithUs pic.twitter.com/VNWQf7leQ7— Sierra Club (@SierraClub) September 20, 2019
Finally, on November 6, Sierra Club was bringing attention to the first anniversary of the Portland Clean Energy Fund.
It’s been one year since the Portland Clean Energy Fund made history as the first initiative created and led by communities of color to fund climate justice and jobs in the United States.
Help us celebrate this incredible effort with @PDXCleanEnergy! https://t.co/gkAI0VlayQ— Sierra Club (@SierraClub) November 6, 2019
Featuring the Portland Clean Energy Fund (an initiative focused on making sustainable lifestyles accessible to low-income people of color) is an important example of how Twitter can be used to highlight lesser-known environmental enterprises. Increasing awareness of these projects can encourage the broader marginalized community to advocate for and implement structures that produce healthier communities.
When Animal Cruelty Forgets that People Also Matter
In the popular imagination, animal cruelty is often seen as an issue totally separate from environmental discrimination. In reality, animal cruelty and environmental racism are intimately linked. This connection should lead animal cruelty groups, like the Nature Conservancy and PETA, to publicly defend the environmental interests of communities of color. However, a Twitter analysis of over 10,000 tweets from the Nature Conservancy and PETA shows that only one tweet discussed environmental racism.
Many chains do not charge extra for vegan milk. The surcharge is unfair to customers who oppose animal abuse and it punishes people who are lactose intolerant (most of whom are people of color) as well as anyone who chooses vegan milk in order to reduce methane-gas emissions.— PETA (@peta) November 16, 2019
What is interesting about this tweet is the important issue that lies at the intersection of animal cruelty, environmental racism and food insecurity. As PETA and the Nature Conservancy have over 2 million combined followers, more tweets like this one could make animal cruelty advocacy more racially inclusive. This inclusivity could increase the number of people invested in protecting wildlife.
Who checks the government when it refuses to check itself?
If you assumed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not the most prolific tweeter, you would be right. From February 9, 2016, through November 28, 2019, the EPA has tweeted 3,342 times. Over this duration, there have been 19 mentions of environmental injustice by the EPA’s official Twitter account. The most fascinating insight, however, comes from examining the relative frequency in mentions under the Obama and Trump administrations, respectively.
During the 11-month analysis window of Obama’s EPA, there were 13 mentions of environmental injustice. In comparison, Trump’s EPA mentioned environmental racism or injustice six times over a nearly three-year span. Beyond the frequency of mentions, there is also a topical shift in the tweets coming out of the EPA under both administrations.
Obama’s EPA tweeted more frequently to honor the work of Americans of color, as they enhanced environmental justice.
Hazel Johnson, an environmental justice pioneer had vision, voice, and foresight. https://t.co/aYCE08whBj #WomensHistoryMonth— U.S. EPA (@EPA) March 24, 2016
Acting Administrator Wheeler welcoming environmental justice leaders via video at a public meeting in Boston: https://t.co/qhWZWow53O pic.twitter.com/4xCA5TJSqh— U.S. EPA (@EPA) August 16, 2018
While only 38 of the 3,278 tweets analyzed from Green America address environmental racism, the tweets that do often provide a check on the Trump administration’s environmental deregulation. For example, a late 2018 tweet from the EPA announced that it was providing environmental justice grants for frontline communities.
We just announced the availability of $1.5 million to help up to 50 community-based organizations in their efforts to address local environmental justice issues. https://t.co/vGP2u86d22— U.S. EPA (@EPA) November 28, 2018
.@EPA ordered to freeze grants & contracts incl. for environmental justice and pollution prevention https://t.co/3R987NtZC6 via @EcoWatch pic.twitter.com/1m5eowxVsS— Green America (@GreenAmerica) January 24, 2017
The frequency with which an organization tweets about environmental discrimination is no indication of how comprehensive its work to combat issues might be. Nevertheless, Twitter and social media in general are powerful tools for spreading useful information that may generate the necessary support for positive work already being done. In a “fake news” era, it is even more imperative to promote overlooked issues and their corresponding solutions. It can be argued that Twitter has been co-opted as a tool to propagate misinformation, but that’s only true if problem-solvers refuse to use it as a resource to educate and engage.