Earth Day + Social Media: What is the Best Way to Effect Change?

April 22, 1970 – that’s when it all began.

After the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, the third largest oil spill in U.S. waters, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson realized he had the power to effect change. Inspired by students’ anti-war demonstrations of the day, he desired to combine that energy with a public consciousness about air and water pollution to positively change the national political agenda. After developing a national staff of 85 to promote this mission, Earth Day was created. In its first year, 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate their beliefs for environment sustainability. Twenty years later, Denis Hayes, the initial national coordinator, was asked to make Earth Day an international holiday and, that year, mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries. Still organized by Hayes today, Earth Day is now observed in 192 countries and is “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

Denis Hayes

(Photo of Denis Hayes, National Coordinator, in 1970)

Just like any other holiday or momentous national occasion, Earth Day has not been exempt from social media. As you read the following examples, take note in how different social media players, both in size and power, relate Earth Day in different. Each social media reaction has its own motivations and is attempting to achieve a different goal.

The First Family + Earth Day

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took to the web to address Earth Day and their political concerns for our planet and environment. In his weekly address (see below), President Obama addressed that this Wednesday is Earth Day and then stated that “there’s no greater threat to our planet than climate change. Climate change can no longer be denied or ignored.” He then continues to mention various health, national security, and weather risks – including that 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded. He included that this week he would be traveling to the Everglades to see how climate change and the rising sea level is affecting our economy.

Michelle, on the other hand, took this political issue and spinned it in a different, more social media-friendly way. Using #EarthDay and (see tweet below), the First Lady urged all citizens to go out and discover a national park. This is a part of the National Park Service Centennial initiative Michelle engages in as an Honorary Co-Chair. This initiative calls for everyone to find their park and, in turn, to create their own stories.

Google + Earth Day

Google, the number one search provider in the world, also contributed to the social aspect of this year’s Earth Day. As you all may know, Google utilizes their Google Doodles to enliven the Google homepage while celebrating “particular holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.” As you click on these doodles, various types of information appear for each subject matter. For example, if it were Albert Einstein’s birthday tomorrow, some information on his famous “E=MC^2” equation may appear. As I clicked on today’s Earth Day doodles, I expected some informative, yet navigable information to pop up. However, I was wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 10.23.43 PM

Google sent me to their “Earth Day: Which animal are you?” BuzzFeed-esque quiz. Yes, Google took the fun approach to today’s holiday rather than the informative. Before I continue, I should mention that beneath this quiz, they included various search results, including “In the news” Earth Day articles. As Obama stated, this holiday is meant to draw attention to climate change and the steps we need to take to cause positive environmental change. Being one, if not, the most daily-accessed site on the web, I expected Google to provide meaningful content on this issue. Do you think Google made the right move?

SM Users + Earth Day

I believe Social Media users today have the greatest potential and pull to spread information, especially for holidays like Earth Day. However, as I analyzed my own social media platforms today, especially on Instagram, I came to a conflict. Is it better for the public to discuss the actual environmental issues at stake or is the widespread “name-dropping” and non-informative exposure of Earth Day more important? As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, nearly one-half of the posted photos were related to Earth Day). While this was completely expected, I wondered if those who posted actually knew the history behind the holiday or started a conversation with their friends about the meaning of the movement? While I know that many of these posts help create a self-image, which is the goal for some social media users, is the lack of true, genuine support behind the holiday a negative thing? Do all of these posts create more knowledge of the holiday or do they corrupt the effectiveness of the Earth Day meaning? 

What Form of Social Media is Best for Earth Day?

In conclusion, I would just like to pose the question – What type of social media post is most beneficial for Earth Day, its meaning, and its goals?

Do you think that President Obama’s risk-acknowledging video is important to start a serious discussion on this issue?

Is Google’s lighthearted “What Animal Are You?” quiz sparking thoughts in one’s mind about this significant holiday?

Or is the large amount of public “Earth Day” posts, which are creating mass exposure, the best way to support this important international topic?

Like I said previously, I do not know the right answer to this question. However, all three have the potential to spark an interest or a debate. Which one do you think is the best – in terms of motivations? Is there a different way you think social media should be utilized?


  1. Nice post! I was also surprised by the amount of Earth Day related posts on social platforms I follow like Instagram, but it was disheartening to see how few of them actually provided valuable content. Even celebrities who, because of their vast amount of followers, have the best chance of effecting change seemed to be posting just as an afterthought. Obama’s message clearly shows that we could be in serious trouble if we keep neglecting our planet, so why weren’t more posts actually linking the message to a tangible cause? Posting a pretty picture or sending a viewer to a fun quiz (bad move Google, in my opinion) isn’t going to cause people to take action. If celebrity and company tweets, instagrams, etc. actually linked viewers to environmental information or organizations where they can donate to a cause Earth Day might mean more.

  2. Super interesting post! As you mentioned in your blog, I was one of those social media users that was familiar with the holiday, yet had no clue what the origins or history of it was. With earth day being the largest non-secular holiday celebrated, I’m surprised I didn’t see more climate change messages on my social networks. I think that with the devastating rate that climate change is growing, holidays dedicated to the environment are more important than ever. But at the same time, I find myself siding with your argument about the lack of genuine support for the cause. It seemed like people were just posting photos because it was the trendy or fun thing to do and they didn’t actually foster a meaningful environmental message behind their posts. At the same time, I think awareness was heightened and even though the message was hollow, it was probably better than nothing. Again really interesting post. Curious as well to hear other people’s thoughts on the subject.

  3. It’s interesting because I was talking with my best friend today about this very topic. She is a geologist and informs me about the issues of climate change, the ways to limit CO2 emissions, and other important topics that often get brushed over on Earth Day. Today we even took part in an Earth Day cleanup of Charles River, which, not too long ago, was extremely polluted, and now is swimmable. But these are the problems that face the Earth. Though Michelle Obama is right in pushing people to experience their local parks in order to gain an appreciation for nature, it’s equally, if not, more important, to recognize the extremely dangerous problems facing each and every person in the world (in a variety of ways) as a result of our impact on the environment. I would love to see an Earth Day social media campaign about recycling or an everyday person’s explanation and interaction with climate change. Until then, you are right, social media is not giving its message the magnitude it needs.

  4. tcbcmba2015 · ·

    What’s concerning about the way Social Media covers Earth Day is the overall lack of impact it has on effecting lasting change. President Obama says in the video that 2014 was the warmest on record. American presidents have been saying that for many years now. We’ve yet to bring the trend of rising temps anywhere into a range of sustainable control. It seems that posts about Earth Day are either too general or too macro. It might be helpful to make pointed, actionable posts that could be done habitually, rather than a one-time thing. While cleaning your local park is wonderful – it would be more impactful to encourage people to bike or walk to the corner store when they need milk instead of driving. It’s the consistency of sustainable actions that needed, and I’m not sure SM has really helped enough in impressing that need.

  5. Awesome post. You bring up sound points. To answer your question, I would say that we need a combination of acknowledging serious environmental issues, while catching fire with Earth Day hashtags. The hashtags fuel the fire, but people need to be more informed. What might work are challenges to revoke change on that one day or ,as @tcbcmba2015 astutely notes, to do something more sustainable. An easy way to get a challenge started is to set the example. It may be worth enlisting the help of a few celebrities to do just that. Looking forward to more positive action being taken due to social media.

  6. I love this post, Jackson! What an important topic to discuss and be educated on. I was so pleasantly surprised to have my news feed flooded with pictures and posts from people who were promoting Earth Day and it’s extremely relevant importance. Personally, I think social media users were the most effective at not only promoting the holiday, but also spreading awareness. Although I appreciate the Obama’s efforts and think they both did awesome things, people who do not support their politics may not take the video/tweet to heart. Google also did a great thing, but I didn’t feel as though it really educated anyone on the planet. Social media users, however, posted a variety of pictures from beautiful places all around the globe, while making it known that those places are currently at extreme risk. Overall though, all three forms of social media interaction were beneficial. Great post!

  7. I’m thrilled to hear that Earth Day is the largest secular holiday in the world. I grew up in a town very dedicated to recycling and relatively environmentally aware and I’ve noticed a definite decrease in the amount of recycling at BC, even though we are part of a generally well-educated and informed community. I think that the trouble with SM efforts on Earth Day is the fact that such efforts are somewhat nominally restricted to, well, a day. I really like @tcbcmba2015‘s comment about needing to encourage sustainable behaviors, and I think the only way to do that would be to have a consistent and recurring celebration of Earth Day. (i.e. something like the first Monday of every month is Earth Day…with different months focusing on releasing new and categorized content/information/media about environmental awareness and actions?) I think, in the future, I would prefer the content of Earth Day postings to reach a greater maturity than the oft-posted nature pictures. I’ve always understood the day to be a great motivator to go out into the community and do clean-up projects (something extra to already-sustainable lifestyle choices), much like @lipchin discussed doing. If people used the media element on social platforms to really share these experiences (share a video of you and some friends cleaning up the park) supplemented by postings of others dispersing information in more user-friendly ways (more infographics, perhaps?) there could actually be social involvement around actively participating in the true spirit of the day. Thanks for the post and the thoughtful questions, Jackson!

  8. Thanks so much for including the history of Earth Day in this post, Jackson! I honestly did not know much about the origin of the holiday or that it was started by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. I’m impressed by the magnitude to which the Holiday has grown- going from 20million Americans in the first year to being in 192 countries today. Also… largest secular holiday? That’s awesome!

    To attempt to answer your question, it’s hard to determine which is the best in terms of its motivations. I honestly think that the quiz on Google may have done the most good because it draws users to a page in which there is information about Earth day below. I know from personal experience that I was directed to the quiz by a friend who asked me which animal I was and as a result of being directed I ended up learning a little bit more about Earth Day. I hadn’t seen President Obama’s video nor did I see Michelle Obama’s tweet. This is just going based off of my own experience but I think Google did a good job.

%d bloggers like this: