Can social media truly be used as a catalyst for environmental protection?

They say there are two certainties in life, death and taxes. However, if I was made to nominate a third certainty I would probably suggest it would be me, grasping at my phone on the nightstand before I even open my eyes, upon waking up. It truly has been ingrained in me, much like software installed into a computer. So as I prop myself up on my bed head I usually scan Reddit for a good 20 minutes. Most mornings it’s just the average feed, a picture of a cute cat looking bemused( that usual has 100,000 upvotes), or a quaint shower thought like, “due to coin flips, George Washington still makes decisions to this day”. On this particular morning, I found myself intrigued about this post from r/pics. The picture(see below) itself was a before and after shot of a beach, once filthy with trash but now, thanks to the handy work of a few environmentally conscious people it is back to being pristine.

Here’s my contribution to #trashtag. My (large) family and I cleaned up this beach we camped near over the summer!

I went down the #trashtag rabbit hole, discovering hundreds of identical posts ranging from a man cleaning up non-biodegradable plastic tree guards in Scotland. To a group of young women in Nepal cleaning up a staggering amount of rubbish. The trashtag challenge had seeped into the big three social media platforms, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Soon enough traditional media had caught wind of this viral sensation and began to pen articles, fleshing out the 5 w’s of this organic movement.  After I viewed a number of these posts I began to ruminate about why this particular viral challenge had picked up so much steam in a matter of days.

The conclusion I drew was that, for the most part, people truly do want to aid environmental protection of our planet.  However, the task of environmental protection is such a large scale, complex issue that the average person seems powerless in the face of such a daunting problem. The general public would much rather bolt their doors shut, and pray that the non-biodegradable, plastic teethed monster stays as far away as possible, presumably tucked away deep in the sewers, or at the bottom of the ocean. But how long with this monster remain hidden? According to the Government Office for Science in the UK, “plastic in the ocean is projected to treble between 2015 and 2025”(, 2018, pp.11).

So returning to my original conclusion as to why this challenge got so much engagement, is that these environmentally conscious people saw social media as a perfect medium to project their message. The message being, “hey, look how I’m helping, I’m just doing my part to help”. All of a sudden, these latent eco-friendly people are being inspired and empowered by a very attainable and achievable task, cleaning up their neighbourhoods. With a couple hours of hard work and a few selfies, someone can join the viral movement, and receive self and social gratification.  The instantaneous nature of social media platforms allows this to grow rapidly, but can social media truly be used as a catalyst for environmental protection?

Han, McCabe, Wang, and Chong (2018) discuss the idea of social norms, and how these norms inform our behaviours. Within their study of how user-generated content in social media can encourage pro-environmental behaviour in tourism, Han et al., (2018) came to the conclusion that. “Environmental awareness and environmental responsibility are antecedent to pro-environmental social norms. This indicates that people with more understanding about the consequences of their behaviour in regard to the environment and who feel more responsibility for their behaviour, tend to link their pro-environmental behavioural intention with social sanctions or approvals”( Han et al., 2018, pp.609).  This stance aligns itself with the idea that content on social media can itself can become a social benchmark, altering social norms, and encouraging people to adapt their behaviour. Trash tag is evidence of this notion, which makes a claim for social media being a catalyst for environmental protection.

On the other hand, Karpus (2018) discusses the possible limitations of social media by introducing the idea of “microactivism”, “ where instead of having the small amount of people who care immensely to do a lot, one convinces a large amount of people who barely care to contribute in some small way”( Karpus, 2018 pp.104). Karpus (2018) further demonstrates how the instantaneous nature of social media can be a hindrance for environmental protection. “If social media and live streaming enabled the Standing Rock Sioux to amplify their protest for clean water, its speed and ceaseless flow also allowed the world to forget about them”( Karpus, 2018 pp.120). Both points made by Karpus have merit when observing trash tag. Despite the initial engagement, will awareness decrease once posts are less frequent? Is it truly impactful if one million people make a post, wash their hands of it and move on to the next trend or challenge?

Ultimately, I will need to research both sides of the debate further to determine to what degree, can social media truly be used as a catalyst for environmental protection?.







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