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#BoycottUnited: does social media activism actually work?

What happens after #DeleteUber, #BoycottUnited, and #DumpKelloggs stop trending?

Over the last day, hundreds of thousands of people have decided they will never fly with United Airlines again. At least, that’s what you’d think if you believed that every user of the trending hashtag #boycottunited is true to their word. After a video emerged of United staff violently removing a passenger from a flight yesterday, the airline has faced a huge social media backlash, with hashtags such as #boycottunited and #dontflyunited soaring across the web.  

It would be safe to assume, therefore, that the airline is now a-less-polite-word-for doomed. The company’s stock has fallen 3.7 per cent, which in real terms means a loss of $830m. Bad news, right? In all honesty, it remains to be seen.

Social media boycotts are incredibly popular – but they have varied success. If you can cast your mind back to an entire five days ago, you will remember that Twitter users were invited to #boycottPepsi after its tone-deaf advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Though the company’s stock soared initially, it plummeted after Pepsi pulled its advert, a decision that was directly fuelled by social media outrage.

Yet it would be naïve to assume that Pepsi’s sales will suffer long term. Remember in 2014 when everyone boycotted Amazon because of an online petition? Of course you don’t. By their very nature, social media boycotts are immediate and ephemeral. To work, boycotts need to last.

The Trump Era has inspried numerous boycotts. But to what effect? The delay on quarterly sales reports makes it difficult to see whether last year’s backlash against New Balance, when a company boss seemed to endorse the controversial US President-elect, damaged the company. Twitter users set fire to their shoes and sales in New York decreased 25 per cent after the company seemingly backed Trump, yet in just a few days, mentions of the brand on Twitter became favourable again. In the past, brands have even deliberately orchestrated outrage in order to drum up publicity.

What about #DeleteUber, though? That must have been a success? Though 200,000 people deleted the app after it continued to serve airports during Trump’s “Muslim ban”, polls later revealed this was only a 5 per cent dip in popularity with the American public.

But is a dip in sales the ultimate aim of a boycott? Uber’s CEO stepped down from President Trump’s advisory board after the outrage, arguably making the hashtag a success. Even if sales aren’t actually affected, a trending hashtag can make a company feel very fire-emoji under the collar. Arguably, this means future decisions will be more carefully scrutinised, and hey presto, we have a better world for everyone.

Except nothing is that simple in our divided world. If Trump supporters decide to boycott Starbucks because it is hiring refugees, then Trump haters will #DrinkStarbucksToFightBigotry. While you and I boycott Uber and #DontFlyUnited, American conservatives boycott Budweiser and #DumpKelloggs. In a social media world where absolutely everyone has a voice, how do brands figure out who to listen to? If they listen to the loudest voices, it’s the right-wing boycotts that actually come out top, with negative social media mentions of Kelloggs (who pulled their adverts from right-wing site Brietbart) lasting longer than those for New Balance.

And is capitalistic wokeness really what we want? We want brands and companies to align with our own beliefs, until they do it in an incredibly lame way, à la Jenner and Pepsi. It is now apparent that many companies are trying to use social responsibility to boost sales, but this is widely seen as inauthentic and sort of gross. What, then, would a successful boycott look like? Surely not the number of little green Retweets pinging into your notifications tab?

Yet even though social media outrage isn’t always entirely altruistic, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Many criticise “slactivism” or “hashtag activism” for being lazy, but it is clearly an incredibly important and immediate way to register your anger. Change can never be as immediate as a Retweet, but that doesn’t render the Retweet worthless.   

United’s decision to violently pull a passenger off its flight will hopefully have long-term repercussions for the brand. The act was so viscerally disgusting that many passionately want the airline to suffer and its policies to change. Because of its stranglehold over some US airports, passengers may not desert it en masse. But what has happened – 762,000 negative mentions of the brand on social media – is hopefully permanently burned on the back of a CEO’s eyeballs.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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