Can YouTube save us from climate change?

New media has rapidly become the mechanism by which information is spread quickly in many walks of life from alerting the public to local traffic incidents, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and celebrity deaths. The likes of Twitter and Facebook have become the first responders to almost every event the world over as well as creating the means by which to bring about political change through activist and rebel groups in the Middle East and elsewhere, for instance.

Tina Askanius of Lund University, Sweden and Julie Uldam of Richmond the American International University in London, explain that one area in which new media could become rather powerful is in activism against the causes of climate change. They explain that in protesting against climate change, online video, available via popular social sites such as YouTube, has become key to articulating the message that the underlying causes of climate change are systemic and political and to connect the solutions to addressing the issues of capitalist production and unfettered consumption of resources.

Writing in the International Journal of Electronic Governance, the researchers explain how the radical wing of the Global Justice Movement (GJM), for instance, utilised video activism to gets its message across during the 15th UN Climate Conference, COP15. The effort was, they suggest, reminiscent of successful alternative media activity that led to mobilisation of large-scale protests around previous World Trade Organization and G8 counter-summits. It also presaged the more recent rallying efforts of revolutionary citizens in nations of the Middle East, such as Egypy, Iran and Libya.

The team specifically focused on the activist network “Never Trust a Cop” (NTAC) , which tried to make use of YouTube to mobilise for protests during the COP15 summit. Their research suggests that the use of new media to help
activists provide rallying information and the call to action in contrast to widely held hopes for social media may play only a minor role in terms of mobilisation for political protests, but that they play an important role in motivating political engagement beyond large-scale protest events, partly through broadcast media’s take-up of spectacular posts in social media.

“One of our main points is that [the study] case (NTAC’s War on Capitalism video) in most ways failed as a mobilisation video – but that it nonetheless served an important role in putting climate change on the anti-capitalist agenda beyond the COP15 protests. One of the ways it did so was by generating critique from the anti-capitalist movement’s ‘enemies’ through traditional mass media coverage – something alternative social media often don’t generate,” Uldam told Sciencebase.

The advent of large-scale hacker networks, such as “Anonymous” and others, which use private, encrypted Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and the development of alternative social media sites not under the purview of corporate concerns such as Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, means that much activism is also occurring well below the internet radar of the authorities.

Historically, new media technologies have been greeted as ground-breaking tools for a revitalisation of the public sphere, the internet being no exception, the team asserts. But, while the grassroots and non-profit sector was previously relegated to the remote margins of the internet, online social media now offers activism the very real possibility of accessing mainstream public spheres. Given the distributed nature and robustness of any network and the generic lack of controlling hierarchy one might imagine that new life is now being breathed into the world of activism across many spheres, including climate change.

Research Blogging IconTina Askanius, & Julie Uldam (2011). Online social media for radical politics: climate change activism on YouTube Int. J. Electronic Governance, 4 (1/2), 69-84