Amazon fires expose the dangers of social media activism

As the summer came to a close, fires in the Amazon rainforest sparked an international outrage. Satellite images seemed to report that the forest, one of the world’s most important sources of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, was burning at an unprecedented rate. These fires were almost all caused by people, as part of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to speed up industrialization in the country.

While Brazil’s media was slow to report on the fires, which some accuse Brazil’s government of covering up and suppressing the incident, news of the alleged emergency exploded internationally on the internet overnight. Countless social media users, celebrities, and even politicians posted alarming photos of the fires with an urgent call to boycott Brazil and save the rainforest.

However, most of these photos were fake or misleading. As the New York Times and Forbes reported, everyone from Cristiano Ronaldo to the president of France were posting stock photos or images that were not from the actual rainforest fires. Many of the most shared posts also contain inaccurate and sensational captions.

This post shared by the soccer player to his 80 million Twitter followers contains an image of a different forest in 2013 (New York Times). According to National Geographic, the caption is also inaccurate.

The same trending photos, hashtags, and captions were reposted thousands of times, especially among young people. Nearly every member of The Pirates’ Hook staff heard about the Amazon fires through their friends reposting on social media.

Clearly, social media activism is a powerful tool, especially among young soon-to-be voters, and should not be discounted. Despite some misinformation, it allowed people to spread awareness about an urgent issue that the country’s press failed to report on. It succeeded in attracting the attention of influential people like the G7 group, who discussed funding relief efforts in their annual meeting late August. However, in its current form, it also encourages sensationalism and allows misinformation to be spread.

When used properly, social media activism is informational, attention-grabbing, and inspires action. Earlier in the summer, it was used effectively to spread important information regarding ICE raids around the country and how to both stay safe and advocate for change. On the other hand, the #SaveTheTurtles movement created social taboo around plastic straws, but missed its mark in addressing the bigger issue of climate change.

Social media is the most important source of information for most of the world, but the nature of the platform encourages easily-consumed, pretty, sensational content. Critics may be quick to dismiss it as a tool for change, but it clearly shows what the masses, especially young people, care most about. If people are more mindful about the content they post, it may prove to be a solid platform for activism. Links to charity organizations, instructions on how to contact local representatives, and accurate information are all examples of strategies social media activists can use to become credible forces of change.

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