#SaveTheAmazon: Can Hashtag Activism Help Save the Planet?

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#SaveTheAmazon: Can Hashtag Activism Help Save the Planet?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Even if you’re sitting all the way across the world, it seems there’s no getting away from the wildfires blazing in the Amazon rainforest. It took three weeks for the ongoing crisis in Brazil to gain global attention, but now that the spotlight is fixed on the fires, social media is flooded with top-trending hashtags like #PrayForTheAmazon. Devastated swathes of dead, leafless trees, and animals with charred fur feature prominently in circulating photos, as do pleas to Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro to address the disaster. 

Climate change activists are not the only ones raising the red flag. The common man is doing the talking along with world leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted calling for strong environmental protections, and the Brazil “emergency” in particular, to be a top priority at this year’s G7 summit, which is currently being held in France. But Bolsonaro wasn’t pleased, replying on Twitter that Macron should not exploit Brazil’s internal affairs for political gain. He also claimed that the photo shared by Macron, of a cloud of smoke rising up from the trees, is fake, with scores of Brazilians backing their president and defending their country. 

Bolsanaro is not entirely in the wrong. The photo shared by Macron is one of many fakes that are being peddled as representations of the wildfire, and most of these viral images are from previous Amazon fires. The problem of loggers, miners, and ranchers burning the rainforest is extreme this year, but not a new phenomenon. Many pictures being shared by celebrities and social media influencers are not of the Amazon at all.

The Amazon fires are yet another climate crisis that put to rest the idea of social media as an easy way to express solidarity, without making any material difference.

And yet, these tragic images, despite being fake, have provoked a swell of heartbreak and outrage for the rainforest. Because of the buzz surrounding the viral pictures, even Bolsanaro has had to bow to massive public pressure. He has walked back his blustering denial, calling in the military to help quash the fires, and has promised to take a firm stance on environmental crimes. Whether Bolsanaro will actually reverse his ecologically unfriendly policies remains to be seen, but his acknowledgement of the problem is already a step forward.

The Amazon fires are yet another climate crisis that put to rest the idea of social media as an easy way to express solidarity, without making any material difference. Besides Bolsanaro’s turnaround, donations have been pouring in from around the world to help firefighters and NGOs on the ground, including $100k worth of Bitcoin that was blocked by Bitpay. News of other wildfires raging simultaneously in Turkey, Russia, and several EU nations has garnered attention. And the magnitude of the crisis is leading more and more people to take climate change seriously. 

On one hand, it makes sense that a problem that unites us all requires the billions-strong community on social media to rally for solutions. Twitter and Facebook have no borders, and neither do the impacts of the Amazon fires, or the disappearing glaciers of Iceland. But social media also helps to democratise the issue by bridging the gap between complicated environmental science and the layperson. It’s this research that disproves the convenient narrative of climate change deniers, and scientists have been trying to raise the alarm for decades with limited success. As well as galvanising large groups of people, social media can act as a translator tool. As this Medium article points out, the release of nature documentary Blue Planet II, which focuses on the dangers of marine plastic waste, led to a massive spike in online conversations about saving the oceans. Remote data from research papers became a story that everyone could understand, care about, and share. 

#PrayForAmazonia

Even if each hashtag and viral video is insignificant compared to the vastness of our shared planet, it took billions of us together to create the climate crisis.

MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

One climate activist who understands the power of social media is Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old Swede has gone viral for her no-nonsense speeches to world leaders on the perils of global warming, and for starting the Friday school strike movement, amplifying the voices of children who have much more to lose in the climate fight than our ageing policymakers. She is currently on a carbon-neutral transatlantic boating tour to raise awareness about rising sea levels. “I don’t want your hope,” said a decisive Thunberg at Davos this year, having travelled 32 hours by train to be there. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day… I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

It’s the same language echoed by Macron is his tweet about the wildfires, where he appeals to save “our burning house”. For those of us who aren’t world leaders or activists and don’t need any more convincing about the reality of climate change, social media campaigns like Thunberg’s or #PrayfortheAmazon allow us to contribute in our own small way to a discussion that feels overwhelming. Even if each hashtag and viral video is insignificant compared to the vastness of our shared planet, it took billions of us together to create the climate crisis. Now, it might be that same collective power that pushes us back from the precipice, or at least gives the Amazon a snowball’s chance in a wildfire.

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