Like, subscribe, save the world: YouTubers embrace climate activism, but experts question reach and motive

As established YouTubers and content creators pivot to address more about serious issues like politics and climate change, some experts worry whether increased visibility really does lead to increased benefit.

There has been a swell of climate change-inspired videos on TikTok and campaigns on YouTube

Jimmy Donaldson, better known by his username MrBeast on YouTube, recently started an online campaign to plant 20 million trees. As more content creators pivot to address climate change and political issues, some experts are worried their involvement isn't as useful as it would initially seem. (Jimmy Donaldson/YouTube)

After the location of the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference moved from Chile to Madrid, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made a Twitter plea for a near-zero-emission lift back to Europe.

The 16-year-old received offers from sailors, ocean racers and even the president of the Canary Islands Parliament. But she chose sailing vloggers Elayna Carausu and Riley Whitelum — known for their YouTube channel Sailing La Vagabonde — to make it back across the pond for the conference.

Carausu and Whitelum hadn't been planning on the trip before Thunberg's request, they later told CNN. Now, along with recording and sharing their trip online, the couple are offering fans the ability to follow their progress with Thunberg in real time on their website, all while they promote their adventure through other social media pages.

More and more content creators like Carausu and Whitelum are pivoting to climate issues and other political causes in their videos, campaigns and international stunts. But some experts believe the wider reach influencers bring to the table doesn't necessarily lead to greater positive effect on the issues they address. 

The couple's decision comes on the heels of other similar stunts and campaigns, all born on — or grown significantly through — social media. There has been a swell of climate change-inspired videos on TikTok — many tied to the hashtag #GlobalWarning, in which users showcase what the world could look like as the planet warms — and recently, a YouTube fundraiser to plant 20 million trees around the globe has gained international attention.

That campaign called Team Trees has so far raised over $15 million US, with donations pouring in from high-profile figures like Elon Musk, Swedish YouTuber Felix (PewDieDie) Kjellberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. It was originally started to celebrate YouTuber Jimmy (MrBeast) Donaldson gaining 20 million followers for his account. 

To filmmaker and Carleton University student Samphe Ballamingie, 20, those actions make perfect sense. Largely inspired by the social media activism led by Thunberg, she recently took to YouTube to make her own online impact, crafting a video for the YouTube-based Mobile Film Festival.

Partnered with the United Nations and backed by YouTube Creators for Change — the platform's initiative for partnering with creators around the globe who deal with difficult issues and foster a positive impact on the world — the festival has been running for 15 years, and this year received entries from a record 91 countries.

The festival is only one example of these large partnerships — others include the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies partnering with TikTok earlier this year, and the Arbor Day Foundation's partnership with Donaldson to create the Team Trees fundraiser. 

Ballamingie believes that these initiatives aren't only useful, they're necessary.

"I think if you have a platform that can reach people, I think it's your duty to use it for change," Ballamingie said. "It's a privilege to have that voice and to have all those eyes on you."

The effectiveness of online activism

Still, not everyone is convinced about the effectiveness of such initiatives. While the benefit of activist-led efforts — where those who are already involved in campaigns simply turn to social media as a tool for their activism — is difficult to deny, there's more to the story than that. When established content creators simply pivot to climate change content, their motives can be suspect, and the outcomes even more so.

"With Fridays For Future and Greta [Thunberg], people are feeling really motivated and inspired — that their voice counts for something," said Jennifer Whyte, an online engagement specialist with Oceana Canada, whose own digital campaign helped end the shark fin trade in the country.

"The counter to that … is some of the messages are just being [muddied]. Everyone's yelling about everything, so to hit the individuals who are the key decision-makers, it sometimes can be very difficult to break through the noise."

Jennifer Whyte, online engagement and content specialist with Oceana Canada, says that not all online campaigns are made equal. Without adequate planning, large viewership doesn't necessarily translate into big, beneficial outcomes. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

Having a clear message that focuses on "what change we actually want," Whyte said, is vital for seeing real positive outcomes. While social media influencers can bring massive audiences to important issues, if they aren't knowledgeable about what specific goals they want to achieve — or if they're simply seeking to exploit popular trends for views — they can actually hurt the causes they claim to champion, she said.

"Big reach doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to have impact," Whyte said.

It's a common critique of what some call performative or shallow attempts to leverage big issues for clicks. YouTube's Creators For Change program was criticized for its small budget; when founded in 2016, the initiative was given $1 million — increased to $5 million in 2018 after some of its members said it was "disheartening" that streamers who don't focus on positivity and change made far more than them — which The Verge news site reported was an exceedingly small amount for a company valued at $75 billion. 

Donaldson was also criticized for his Team Trees initiative, as some complained the $20 million he was asking for could be spent on far more beneficial things than planting trees. Tree planting initiatives — while beneficial — are also notorious for being ineffective if not planted in the right locations, or if planted too quickly and without sufficient planning.

"The question of the degree to which viewing any media in fact can be linked to actual effects — this remains a million dollar question for scholars of media communications," Megan Boler, a University of Toronto professor and researcher in media and digital activism, told CBC News in an email. 

Boler said that, as it stands, a "majority of YouTube videos are forms of disinformation," and stressed the importance of content that portrays issues, such as climate change, in an honest and accurate way. At the same time, she said, such "greenwashing" campaigns — in which organizations blur the line between advertising, activism and promotion of social and political causes — have been a problem for decades and has only worsened in recent years. 

We are beyond any age of innocence when it comes to the ways media is now used and abused for an infinite number of hidden, subversive, selfish or greed-based intentions.- Megan Boler, University of Toronto professor

"It's no longer possible to identify or distinguish the intentions behind any media production," Boler wrote, referring to the increasing number of such videos.

"We are beyond any age of innocence when it comes to the ways media is now used and abused for an infinite number of hidden, subversive, selfish or greed-based intentions."


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver