While the global youth climate strikes have garnered much attention by education researchers, less attention has been paid to anti-pipeline activism as a form of climate action and public education. Land-based movements like resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) see significant climate action by publics resisting fossil fuel development, even as they also speak out against colonial land use and assert Indigenous sovereignty over the land. As with #Fridays4Future, social media is inherent to anti-pipeline resistance, as online publics form around hashtags like #stoptmx on Instagram as they document pipeline construction, share updates from blockades along the pipeline route, and distribute click-throughs critiquing the insurers that support fossil fuel investments.
Considering the various tools available on social media platforms like Instagram – including hashtagging to promote content, video and photo sharing, location tagging, text, and emojis – the opportunities for public creativity and education are profound. At the same time, social media provides significant tensions to anti-fossil fuel activists through not only its data gathering, surveillant, and behavior-shaping capacities, but also its complicity in climate crisis. Despite popular metaphors of “virtual life” and “the cloud,” social media relies upon significant amounts of planet-harming energy to power devices and store data.
Social media public pedagogy
Public pedagogy draws attention to the educational processes that function in the cultural realm, particularly engaging with how cultural expressions like Instagram posts shape key discourses, agencies, and relations. Attentive to dominant formations, such as fossil fuel cultures, petro-capitalism, or colonial exploitation of the land, public pedagogy is highly critical of culture, while also looking for spaces of resistance and creativity. The concept of public pedagogy is therefore helpful for exploring the possibilities and tensions of social media for informal anti-fossil fuel and climate education online.
Looking at Instagrammed expression surrounding the Trans Mountain pipeline using the Big Data available through the platform, we can see how publics take up climate change in relation to anti-pipeline resistance, including through hashtags, imagery, emojis, and the text of their posts. The creativity – and limits – of Instagram’s anti-pipeline public pedagogy can help us understand how social media interacts in informal climate education and how publics understand climate change and fossil fuels, with implications for formal education.
What does anti-pipeline public pedagogy have to say about climate change?
While there are many ways of examining Instagram’s public pedagogy, one key method of examining it is through the hashtag. Hashtags are used strategically by users to network their posts according to the issues and topics of concern. Looking at the hashtags used in conjunction with #stoptmx between 2018 and 2020, we can see that climate change is a hot topic among those concerned with the Trans Mountain controversy, but perspectives on climate issues are far from homogenous. Instead, climate discussions on Instagram separate into themes focused on climate action to end reliance on fossil fuels, climate justice, and pro-pipeline activism in favor of oil extraction.
Figure 1. Co-hashtag graph of posts associated with #stoptmx
Figure 2. Co-hashtag graph of posts associated with #stoptmx
In this Image: An example of “climate action” imagery to end oil
In this Image: An example of “climate justice” imagery to address climate change and Indigenous rights
In this Image: Examples of branded pro-oil posts
The largest group of anti-pipeline climate activism focuses on #conservation, #sustainability, and #environment. Largely oriented towards green energy transition, these users tag #energy, #fossilfuels, #renewableenergy, #nonewfossilfuels, #makingoilhistory, and #endoil. Since energy is typically related to economic and political issues, while climate is discussed in relation to scientific studies and international climate policy, linking climate and energy is crucial not only to promoting understanding the causes of climate heating but also to unlocking people’s agency to address climate issues.
Indeed, raising awareness is not enough for this energy-oriented group, who use hashtags like #activist, #activism, #movements, and #peoplepower, to promote public action to demand energy transition. Hashtags like #actonclimate, #actnow, #endoil, #makingoilhistory, #makehistory, and #savetheplanet all motivate people to do something now, showing how Instagram can host an action-oriented public pedagogy. We can see the influence of advocacy campaigns, such as The Guardian’s #keepitintheground, showing how larger media institutions can influence Instagram’s public pedagogy. Despite these calls for change, this group rarely references the social, cultural, and political components of fossil fuel culture, including how Indigenous peoples are often displaced for pipelines, as well as the social complications of energy transition.
By contrast, a group of users oriented around climate justice is more focused on the political, cultural, social, and economic elements of climate change. While fossil fuels remain a focus, this time climate change is connected to #indigenousrights, #genocide, and #ecocide, as well as basic needs such as #air, #soil, #water, and #food. Here, we can see how climate change causes and impacts relate with other issues.
Also action-oriented, climate justice advocates express a number of imperatives for change: #banpipelines and #stopfossilfuelsubsidies. Hashtags also promote action through policy changes to address climate change, including a national #greennewdealcanada or #greennewdeal, as well as international policies at #cop25 and decisions by #worldleaders. Rather than focusing narrowly on climate change as an issue of fossil fuel emissions only, climate justice pedagogy speaks to the need to address climate change along with accompanying injustices.
A small group of users hijacks #stoptmx to promote a pro-oil agenda. Expressly nationalist and colonial, this group uses hashtags like #morecanada, #canadianenergy, #ilovecanadianenergy, #theworldneedsmorecanada, and #canadianoil. Many of the pro-oil posts use statistics and quotes from politicians, Indigenous leaders, and economists to substantiate nationalist pro-oil messages touting the economic benefits of the pipeline directly for Canadians. Promoting the Canadian oil as “ethical” in comparison with nations framed as violent and dictatorial, these posts also promote protectionism and independence of the industry from the United States.
Tagged #canadaaction, for a pro-oil organization, pro-oil posts use profuse numbers of hashtags and streamlined campaign framing to gain visibility – with the potential influence of bots in “liking” and therefore promoting posts in Instagram algorithms. Pro-oil Instagram users therefore use #stoptmx to embed pro-pipeline pedagogy within the anti-pipeline public pedagogy, though there is no imperative for engagement or productive dialogue among diverse positions.
Social media pedagogies and justice
A broader study of public pedagogy on Instagram reveals the complex intermingling of user and platform agency in a pedagogy that interacts not only with colonial and capitalist processes but also platform cultures, economies, and tools.
Whether in formal schools or sites of activist learning, social media public pedagogies can inform the ways we educate about the violences of extraction and climate change towards anti-colonial environmental justice, rather than relying on hierarchically-developed or universalized curriculum developed by the very colonial authorities addressed by pipeline-resistors and broader anti-colonial movements. As an example, in places where climate education may be overly infused by scientific and technical education, or may appropriate Indigenous knowledge for climate solutionism that maintains the status quo, climate education that draws on social media pedagogies may instead work to legitimize Indigenous knowledges and decision-making, undermine white supremacy, and recognize that the ecological is not a realm separate from human life.
The spread of mis- and disinformation by pro-oil campaigners that boost Canada’s industry by positioning others as violent and dictatorial shows the need for education that fosters critical digital literacy. Even further, education might act to support the governing of existing platforms or the development of alternatives, preferentially favoring platforms and media systems that are not driven by corporate models but instead by community aims, towards education for anti-colonial resistance, democracy, and solidarity.
About the Author
Dr. Carrie Karsgaard is an Assistant Professor at Cape Breton University working in Education for Sustainability, Creativity, and Innovation. Her research focuses on social, epistemic, and climate justice in formal and non-formal education, including social media. She may be reached at Carrie_Karsgaard(at)cbu.ca.