Social media and the power to transform Russia’s environmental movement

It would be difficult to argue against the centrality of social media in today’s modern, tech-oriented world. But how central is social media for the environmental movement?

Let me take you back to 1986. End of April 1986 to be precise. Together with my parents, I was standing on the stairs of our house, looking at ominously dark, fast-flying clouds and we were speculating whether these very clouds could be bringing radioactive dust from Chernobyl.

We knew nothing about the reality of the situation there; the very tone of the official Soviet media telling us it was “a minor problem” coupled with fantastic and often contradictory rumors, which convinced us that something really bad had happened. The first reliable piece of information came hours later from a “Voice of America” broadcast that managed to break through the Soviet jammers.

At any rate – we were lucky then. Lucky because the winds pushed radioactive clouds away from our region. Many people were far less lucky – I knew a girl who knew nothing about Chernobyl and happened to be walking under some rain in the region of Smolensk. The rain was full of radioactive dust. She died from cancer more than 10 years ago.

Fast forward to today.

Today, if you hear rumors of a nuclear power plant leakage, the immediate reaction would be to log into Twitter or Facebook and follow real time updates from eyewitnesses on the ground, sharing pictures, and possibly videos as well. Surely, it would save lots of lives while serving to mobilize public support to those who are affected by the disaster.

But the real question is whether social media could prevent the disaster itself.

Rather than simply relay real-time news in the aftermath, social media could serve as an important tool to draw attention to existing problems pre-empting a disaster before it happens – in this case the lack of safety in nuclear stations as a whole, and especially – RBMK-type reactors.

Now that we are living in the era of global climate and environment collapse we need all the power of social media to avoid the worst consequences. Clearly, the outcome depends not only on the discussions of climatologists, or the actions and campaigns undertaken by environmental NGOs – it depends on everybody.  And we still have to learn how to use social media – both to prevent the worst scenarios, and to mitigate its consequences.

According to the polls, in 2013, about 24% of Russians mentioned the Internet as one of the main sources of news for them – a sharp rise if compared with 13% in 2010. More and more people are about to turn away from “big media”. Unsurprising seeing that such media have increasingly become tools for state propaganda containing less and less trustful information.

But not all web newcomers are eager to adopt environmental values. Unfortunately lacking environmental awareness is both a symptom and a source of environmental crises. The web audience is merely a representation of the whole society as it is. The peculiarity of the modern crisis  (unlike a somewhat isolated event like Chernobyl) is that dangerous changes are often gradual, thus in facing disastrous events such as forest fires, floods or droughts we often see only a piece of the puzzle and not the whole picture.

During the time of Chernobyl we were still not completely aware of the consequence from exposure to radiation, it took years to come to understand the true extent and reach of the damage. In today’s world environmentalists can provide, and share within minutes, scientific information serving to explain what is going on around us; but the question is: how can they be heard?

Too often social media is akin to a place where a large group of people is found speaking at the same time – your voice just gets lost in the ocean of voices. Or, even worse, you have a man with a loudspeaker nearby, hired to advertise something by a commercial company or by a government. Today, professional agencies specialized in Internet promotion are flourishing, and usually the values they promote have nothing in common with environmentalism. Nowadays, for example, we can see their work in the coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis in social media.

Fortunately, though there is a way to make the crowd hear you in the midst of this technological jungle.

If you have enough supporters then the only thing you need is to chant in unison. Many of us still need to learn that it is not enough to simply put your post onto the web – once posted, you need support from the movement in disseminating the information – everywhere.  Mutual support is the most efficient way for environmental activists and grassroots groups to get heard.

And, of course, we should not be too optimistic about the freedom on the Web. Looks like Soviet-style jammers have not disappeared since 1986  – they are now on the Web too. Today, Russian authorities prepared a package of draconian laws allowing them to block any independent source on the Internet. Opposition resources like o have already met their fate. Little doubt, environmental resources will follow soon. Of course, there are simple and efficient ways to bypass the “jamming” – but again, we need to get most of the users familiar with the ways to do this.

So, maybe the main task for Russian environmentalists today is to learn how to work with social media – and teach all our colleagues. We have a great challenge – but we also have great means to resolve it.



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