Extinction Rebellion hopes to move climate activism online in wake of coronavirus

What do you do if you have a climate activist group whose basic strategy is to create a public spectacle but suddenly a dangerous virus is keeping everyone home? The plan for some of these groups, including Extinction Rebellion, is to move the activism online.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted climate activists to abandon public demonstrations, one of their most powerful tools for raising public awareness, and shift to online protests…

A coalition of climate movements had planned huge protests around commemorations for the 50th annual Earth Day in April. Those have now been canceled or moved online. One group, Earth Initiative and March for Science New York City, plans to live-stream speakers and performers at an online event.

Greta Thunberg has also moved her activism online in light of the virus:

But not everyone is convinced the online activism will have the same impact:

Some experts, however, said reaching world leaders and the general public would be more difficult now as the pandemic shuts down large parts of public life.

“What you’re going to end up doing is amplifying within an echo chamber, which is really different from what the movement wants,” said Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland whose research focuses on activism. Twitter hashtags, like #ClimateStrikeOnline and #DigitalClimateStrike, are far less visible than huge crowds in the streets, she said.

But Extinction Rebellion is trying to keep its supporters optimistic about online activism:

The group has promoted this guidance for supporters which includes advice like this once in-person gatherings are no longer allowed/recommended:

VIRTUAL PROTEST: Ask those who in normal times would have attended the protest to write a sign and take a photo of themselves (w friends and/or family). Organizers can print out all the photos and attach to cardboard to display publicly. For example, they could be laid out in front of a Chase bank or other target, possibly with a chalk outline of a person around it. Your group could also make a sign explaining that for public health reasons people are protesting at home…

SOCIAL MEDIA BARRAGE: people may have more time to be on a computer and post negative reviews of your target’s products. Organize a coordinated take-down of various publicly reviewed products and brands to apply pressure on your target.

I’m not convinced they are going to get the same level of public attention with this sort of thing, which happens online all the time, as they have been with stunts like digging up the lawn at Trinity College.

The whole energy behind Extinction Rebellion was the idea that the kind of climate extremism we routinely see online was entering the real world. Taking that activity back to digital space seems like a retreat. I suspect it won’t be as successful, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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