Talking sustainability on TikTok: how ‘eco-influencers’ communicate

Joachim Allgaier profileJoachim Allgaier, Professor for Communication and Digital Society at Fulda University (Germany), co-authored an academic paper on environmental communication on TikTok. The study found that the rapidly growing social media platform could have the potential to deal with sustainability issues in short and punchy videos without neglecting the complexity of the topics. He spoke to the ESMH about what this could mean for young people and media, sustainability issues and wider questions on digital transparency.

What is sustainability communication?

Joachim Allgaier: Sustainability is about the future, how we deal with our resources and environment. The important ethical question is what will be left for the generations that come afterwards who don’t have a voice yet – transgenerational justice is at the core of sustainability. That covers issues like clean water, food, the climate, tackling poverty, and we see on social media lots of people are very concerned about these topics. We were especially interested in ‘eco-influencers’, collectives of people, activists, scientists communicating on environmental topics, that we grouped under sustainability communication.

Why were you interested in TikTok specifically?

Joachim Allgaier: The target audience of TikTok is younger than other social media channels and we wanted to look into how the sustainability communication addresses young people: is it emotive? Is it serious? Scientific? Effective? There was also the question of who is perceived as being responsible for sustainability: the consumer, the government or industry?

Then, TikTok has an innovative format: it is very brief, visual and vernacular. It is also strongly community based, with special functions that can be used to respond to other people’s content. It is quite an under researched platform so far and has shown rapid growth.

Young people are set to be the most affected by the climate crisis (and other environmental issues) and “eco-anxiety” has been identified as a real concern they have. There is often an emphasis on personal responsibility for environmental issues, but what does your study find about how TikTok users are communicating on this?

Joachim Allgaier: In our particular sample, we found that the majority still communicated about individual responsibility. This could be a response to anxiety, saying that there are small things you can do by changing your behaviour, and then informing and convincing others. Then, around 36% of the videos were about the broader responsibility of governments or the need for system change, reflecting more complicated relationships and societal aspects of sustainability.

For me, this was surprising. In comparison, on YouTube where videos normally cover things like sustainability life hacks, only a small portion are taking things on a systemic level because it’s too complicated to explain. I would have expected TikTok’s format would also mean this, but more than a third of videos in our sample addressed things at a systemic level.

Young people have been taking part in global protests that have evolved in the last few years, with social media facilitating common discourse, practices, tactics and messages across the world tackling a perceived injustice or inequality. Do you think TikTok has potential to be a part of this?

Joachim Allgaier: Absolutely, TikTok could be helpful. Imagine you do something like gluing yourself to something in a museum or throwing soup on a painting. You immediately release the video, and you know that your community will take it up and the content will be modified. This might be a bold statement, but it could then be immortalised, it can be turned into a meme and then it can live on through many variations. It can travel very fast around the world. I think that for environmental movements, TikTok provides useful options. They could tailor something that makes a perfect combination, something visual or with audio tracks and music, things that will live, spread and grow.

What does the study tell us on how young people might be consuming information and communicating in different ways from conventional media or other social media platforms?

Joachim Allgaier: Many of my students are in their early twenties and my impression is that they are savvy in using this kind of technology and producing content. But recent studies have shown they are increasingly confused about the value of information, of what is good journalism, not necessarily just on environmental topics but also on such as nutrition.

If you have a chef, a food blogger or nutrition scientists, and these people contradict each other, who do you follow? Maybe the person closest to your community or age, or who has a more appealing self-presentation or cooler videos. This kind of problem can be translated to all kinds of issues on science communication. What appears to be the casual user does seem to be more valued than an institution or industry representative, as it is difficult for these kinds of actors to appear credible on TikTok.

YouTube is immensely popular as an information source, but it is much harder to search for something on TikTok, as you are totally dependent on the algorithm and as a user it is not transparent why something comes up. You might get a dance routine, then maybe a joke, then a short informative video. It is chaotic and I think this is intended, which is why it is so fresh but that has its downside in making it of limited quality as an information tool.

Climate change is often the target of false information. Is this also the case on TikTok?

Joachim Allgaier: This is difficult to address, because we have limited information on TikTok’s algorithms. On YouTube, disinformation is also difficult to categorise, but I can see that those spreading it are imitating science communicators and journalists, pretending to be experts. On TikTok, because it is so viral and vernacular, the role of expertise may not matter so much. Everybody can put on a white coat and dance to a tune, maybe with formulas in the background to convey information and they might even refer to scientific papers. Then, the next person might take that video and turn it upside down, mimicking it or making fun of it. For someone like me who is trying to study this, it is difficult to investigate.

YouTube calls this “borderline content”, where it is hard to distinguish if something is straightforward disinformation, somewhat incorrect misinformation or something in between. On TikTok, you don’t even know what format it is. So, yes, there is disinformation on TikTok, but it is less clear.

Why is transparency an issue on these kinds of platforms?

Joachim Allgaier: There is the question of monetisation. On YouTube, it is quite clear they make money with advertisements. But how do successful people on TikTok make money? What is their motivation and how does the platform incentivise them to make more content? On YouTube creators can be sponsored by the company but on TikTok it is much less transparent.

This is problematic. For example, if someone claims on YouTube that climate change is not caused by human activities, their video cannot be monetised. Some platforms do this, like YouTube and Pinterest, but others like Instagram and TikTok do not have these rules. It will be interesting in light of the Digital Services Acts package whether there will be policies about these issues and if they are enforced.

Another serious problem is that there are dark platforms that collects people banned from other platforms, presenting themselves as voices of free speech. One such platform called Odyssey mines cryptocurrency, which is an incentive to post videos no matter what, there are no rules. If someone produces lots of disinformation on climate change or vaccinations, they can reach a lot of people. So even if other platforms enforce the rules, others could still find dark spots.

Useful links:
Climate anxiety and young people
Science for children: shaping the future by expanding young minds

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