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How the Sunrise Movement built a viral climate campaign without Twitter ads

Twitter’s political ad ban probably won’t slow them down

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Protesters seen holding placards during the Sunrise Movement...
Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2017, a group of students and recent college graduates set out to make climate change the election issue in the 2020 presidential race. It was an ambitious goal considering climate change had garnered only about five minutes of discussion across all three presidential debates just a year prior. They called themselves the Sunrise Movement, and declared with a tweet and a meme that they would “redraw the political map.” 

The next year, Sunrise held a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office to call for what at the time had been a policy idea relegated to the fringes of environmentalism — something called a Green New Deal. Protesting alongside them was a legislative newcomer Sunrise had campaigned to put into office against great odds, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Photos and videos from that moment flooded climate Twitter, and since then Sunrise has succeeded in positioning the Green New Deal as a sort of progressive litmus test for Demcoratic presidential hopefuls. A year out from the big presidential election, major cable networks have hosted not one but two almost agonizingly long town halls devoted to climate change ahead of next year’s presidential election. 

Sunrise’s rise to political prominence has been punctuated with moments like that sit-in. They turn civil disobedience into viral social media campaigns that have ultimately led to actual political traction. Twitter is an important tool for the group and has been key to shaming elected officials and mobilizing young voters. And yet unlike candidates that they’ve campaigned for, they don’t rely on paid advertising on the platform. Twitter’s recent decision to ban political advertising has some worried it will lead to some kind of social media apocalypse or throw off groups championing action on climate change. But it probably won’t slow Sunrise down. 

They turn civil disobedience into viral social media campaigns

“We’ve been able to reach young people and mobilize them and have people recognize that as young people we do have an incredible amount of political power,” Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, digital media manager at Sunrise tells The Verge. “Our social media is the number one way that we reach new young people and bring them into the movement.”

Many political groups are still grappling with news that dropped last week that could upend the way they do their business online. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced — in what else, a tweet — that his company “made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” 

That decision was swiftly followed by concerns that it would give fossil fuel companies, whose ads wouldn’t necessarily be labeled as political content, the upper hand. “Twitter’s new policy gives oil and gas companies a leg up, and the folks who want to regulate those companies a kneecapping,” Zoya Teirstein writes for Grist. Elizabeth Warren retweeted a report from journalist Emily Atkin looking into how Exxon can bypass the political ad ban, which prompted Dorsey to comment that he is “taking this all into consideration.” Details on Twitter’s new policy will be made public on November 15th.

But its possible that the opposite could happen — yes, establishment organizations that are less social-media savvy, like climate-denying think tanks and fossil fuel industry groups, might be affected by the ban. But social movements like Sunrise could be left unfazed by the change. 

power through people

“There’s people power and there’s money power. The other side has power through money and we have power through people. If what you got is power through money then you spend lots and lots of money on advertising,” says Dave Karpf, associate director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Before academia, he was an environmental organizer for the green group Sierra Club. “Industry groups tend to rely more on paid reach than social movement organizations.”

The “people power” of groups like Sunrise translates to viral moments unassisted by paid reach on Twitter. Like in February, when the California Bay Area chapter of the group posted a video of children confronting Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ask her for her support of a resolution for a Green New Deal. That live stream garnered more than 99,000 views on Facebook and Feinstein’s recorded response led to unflattering headlines of her “rebuff[ing]” and “lecturing” the kids.

The organization’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are interspersed with memes and Tik Tok snippets that reflect a young, diverse audience. And like their proposed Green New Deal, it connects climate change to other hot election topics like migration.

“The thing that’s most interesting to me about Sunrise, is how radically differently they present themselves, relative to much of the rest of the climate movement, through who they are and through the methods that they use to contact people,” says Jon Ozaksut, digital director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “All of that is a way to model this idea to young people on the networks where they hang out that people like you care about this, people like you are taking action.”

Jimenez-Hudis says that the group has run ads on Facebook and Instagram, but not on Twitter. “It’s a capacity issue,” she says. “It’s just been me holding it, and it’s a lot for one person.” She’s run one test ad on Twitter, and might be interested in exploring that more one day — if they aren’t banned. Even though they won’t really be directly affected right now, she does have concerns.

“It’s not okay for Twitter to ban ads while corporations are free to spread this information unchecked,” Jimenez-Hudis says. “Having a viral moment is difficult, there’s so much luck involved. And so when you compare the power of a viral moment to the power of a corporation that is able to run political ads, the balance is still skewed.”

Ozaksut is also worried about how Twitter is framing climate change — with all its potential effects on the environment, economy, and public health and safety to name a few — as a “political” topic on Twitter. “It’s reductive to call climate change a political issue,” he says. “Extreme weather doesn’t care who you voted for, right, it doesn’t matter what your political opinions are.”