September 9, 2019
By Paul Herrera
Someday in the future, we may remember December 14, 2018 as the day that an unknown 15-year-old climate change activist from Sweden stepped onto the international stage and commanded it, awakening the conscience of citizens across the world and demanding action from its leaders. Greta Thunberg’s speech at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference started her on her path toward becoming a world-renowned activist and a powerful influencer on climate change. As of May 2019, about 1.5M students in 125 countries have participated in the school strikes that she started.
The impact she has made on the global stage in such a short time made us wonder about her influence on social media (specifically Twitter) and how it has changed over the past year, as well as the audience talking about Greta and climate change.
”You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) December 14, 2018
Her activism on climate change began with a school strike in August 2018, when she sat in front of the Swedish parliament for three weeks to protest the lack of action on the climate crisis. One month later, she decided to keep striking only on Fridays, and started to include #FridaysForFuture in her Tweets. Greta also founded the organization Fridays For Future on August 20, 2018 to support these efforts.
Her initial efforts did not gain a significant amount of traction on social media; from the start of the school strikes in August 2018 to December 1st, 2018, she generated only 4K mentions on Twitter. However, everything changed after her December 14th speech at the UN. From that day onward, Greta has triggered more than 483K mentions on Twitter (as of August 11, 2019).
Her December speech was not the only one to generate considerable attention. Her speeches at the UK Parliament in April and at the French Parliament in July together accounted for 20.1% of Greta’s overall mentions on Twitter, to date (98.3K mentions).
The event that generated the greatest attention, however, was the Global Climate School Strikes on March 15. Students all over the world joined in protests in major cities. The date also marked the first nationwide strikes by US students for climate change. Conversations around this event and Greta accounted for 12.9% of her overall mentions (63.2K).
There were many overarching trends among the conversations about Greta and climate change on social media. The majority of those mentions were charged in sentiment; nearly half were negative (49%) and a quarter were positive. Most negative mentions were not directed toward Greta Thunberg herself, but toward the actors and institutions that were perceived to be perpetuating climate change. The topics that were most prominent among the mentions were the role of “Youth in the Movement”, “Greta’s Leadership”, the “Role of Government” and the “Climate Change Threat”.
The role of “Youth in the Movement” against global warming was one of the most-discussed topics (32% of mentions). Most of these conversations were positive (41%), as users praised students for their participation in the strikes and their push for reform. Many remarked that students were fighting for their future and were serving as a positive influence on older generations.
A considerable share of conversations about Greta and climate change on social media were about her image as a leader (14%). This topic was the greatest driver of positive sentiment among the conversations. Most users praised her strength and determination and cited her as a source of inspiration.
In 14% of conversations related to Greta and climate change, users debated whether climate change was a real threat or the result of excessive alarmism. Some users claimed that there was no need to reduce carbon emissions or pursue other reforms, downplaying the effects of the climate crisis. Users critical of Greta questioned the extent to which she is informed on climate change, citing her age and developmental disorder (Asperger’s) as factors that limit her knowledge of the topic. This was one of the greatest drivers of negative sentiment among the discussions.
Some conversations around Greta and climate change centered on the “Role of Government” and companies in the crisis (11% of mentions). In these posts, users criticized them for actions they argued contributed to or caused the crisis, and their inaction in responding to it. This theme was associated with the greatest negative sentiment, which was directed almost entirely at the governments and companies, themselves. In positive commentary, many users expressed their admiration for Greta, stating that she has accomplished more than many politicians.
Despite the support among social media conversations from students and young people participating in the movement, few of the users engaging in the discussion were particularly young. Analysis of the users mentioning Greta revealed that only 1.4% of them were 17 and under, and the majority, 70%, were 35 years and older. So, while students are active participants in the movement offline, they are not as well-represented among the discussions online.
In terms of the location of the users discussing these topics, while Greta’s climate change movement first began in Sweden, the U.K. is where most users discussing these topics on Twitter were located (16.6%); it is also where the most users employing the hashtag #FridaysForFuture were located (21%).
This is unsurprising when taking into account that Great Britain is among the top countries in terms of the number of student strikes that have taken place, globally, according to the “Fridays For Future” official website (Great Britain ranks 5th of 159 participating countries, accounting for 6.4% of 9.6K total strikes, as of August 30, 2019).
This is further supported by a June 2019 YouGov poll which revealed that public concern for the environment soared in the U.K., likely fueled by Greta’s activism and the mass protests staged in London by Extinction Rebellion, an international movement against environmental collapse.
Greta Thunberg has made an unquestionable impact during her short time on the world stage, and nowhere is that more apparent than on social media. And yet, on social media, our research found that her influence appears to have been greatest not among her peers (fellow students), but among older users.
This data runs counter to what are likely common assumptions that her social media audience would be more reflective of the younger support base that participates in thousands of her school strikes held around the world. And this is made all the more interesting considering our other findings, that most people talking about Greta and climate change focused on “Youth in the Movement” and the impact of the students participating in the strikes.
Our work demonstrates the importance of social media research in uncovering the truth behind assumptions and identifying trends and topics among the data. This information can then be harnessed in a myriad of ways, including developing strategies and changing the narrative.