BRAZIL OIL SPILL: Hashtag Activism

By Ravneet Kahlon.

Social Media to Social Impact…

Social media has been hailed a revolution in activism. With its far-reaching platform, it engages with people from all walks of life and unites people from opposite ends of the world. It encourages public scrutiny and transparent governance as well as improving civic participation and engagement throughout the globe across a wide variety of issues.

Unlike social media, traditional media has faced criticism for its lack of variety over what it chooses to cover, particularly with issues such as climate change and environmental disasters. However, in recent years, the phenomenon of internet activism has helped combat the detrimental effects that the lack of media coverage can have on environmental issues.

The significance of media coverage is clearly reflected in the recent case of the Amazon fires. The widespread coverage across social media prompted an increase in both mainstream media coverage and governmental engagement with the issue. According to Nigel Sizer, through “the help of social media”, fundraisers were able to get the “money out to people in the field”, following Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s refusal to use aid money given by the G7 countries to stop the fires. Sizer goes on to suggest that in contrast to traditional media, social media allows for a wider range of topics to be explored and shared in a manner in which traditional media cannot replicate.

The power of social media in the 21st century cannot be undermined; it has proven to be a catalyst for social change. However, it is important to ask whether we can rely on internet activism as a sole motivator for change and to what extent internet activism can effectively promote long-term and sustainable changes?


The main critique for online activism is reflected in the term ‘Slacktivism.’ This term criticises ‘feel good’ or superficial activism that promises little effort or commitment to the cause and therefore does not result in an effective long-term solution.

The nature of social media revolves around real-time trends and instantaneous communication, leaving some to suggest that it is very fickle. This leads to some criticisms such that issues are often forgotten or dropped before they are fully resolved. Meaning that although the initial wave of support helps in addressing the problem at face value, often the lack of follow-through results in a lack of policy or long-term changes being put in place.

The limitations of social media can also be seen through criticisms over its limited effectiveness in comparison to mainstream media. Comparisons have been drawn over the Notre-Dame fire and the Amazon fires. Many expressed their dissatisfaction over the immediacy of aid and support for the Notre-Dame fire in comparison to the delayed response to the Amazon. This could be attributed to the lack of immediate mainstream media coverage and the fact that social media only reaches one particular demographic of society, unlike traditional media.

We can use Brazil as a worked example in seeing how online activism has helped, or hindered, the situation they are currently facing.

The Spill in Brazil

Currently, the largest oil spill in Brazilian history has blighted approximately 1,300 miles of the northeastern shoreline. Despite the spill being detected in early September, it has failed to garner much attention or response from the media or the government.

There has been no clarification over the perpetrator or the origin of the spill. Experts have, however, commented on the magnitude of the spill and are sceptical of suggestions that the spill may be naturally occurring. Limited action has been taken by the government other than confirming the oil was not of Brazilian origin.

This overall lack of clarity and action being taken by the Brazilian government is particularly surprising considering the harsh criticisms Bolsonaro faced over the Amazon fires and has led to dissatisfaction across local and international platforms.


Due to this lack of urgency and resources being put in to stop or help prevent damage caused by the spill, citizens have relied on social media and online platforms to bring awareness to the issue. One example is when a northeastern Brazilian football club, Bahia, wore oil-stained football jerseys to a match. This, alongside shocking images of oil-stained beaches and wildlife, has begun to spread online and has led to an outpour of public support and activism.

Currently, over $57,000 has been raised for local volunteers and initiatives to get resources and equipment to tackle the current problems. However, some have suggested this is enabling the government to depend on online activism and public donation, instead of encouraging more governmental action. This is detrimental as enabling less action by policymakers and government officials are blocking the main avenue in creating long-lasting and sustainable changes.

Additionally, the public scrutiny the Brazilian government is facing because of online activism is forcing them into action and making them consider the points and suggestions made online. For instance, Vice President Mourão recently announced the deployment of 5000 additional troops to the beaches of Brazil in order to give “more visibility” to the government’s response to the spill.

This has also led to increased transparency throughout the government, which, as Thomas Leschine highlights, could also mean that through this social amplification, governments are more likely to consider positive reforms and standard check implementations in the affected industries. Although online activism has not definitively resulted in the implementation of policy change, it does significantly increase the likelihood of change occurring.

Despite claims that social media only revolves around online presence, it can also be seen that through online activism, local people who are affected by the problem are empowered by people across the globe to act. Whether this is through educating people on ways to clean up the beaches and protect wildlife or by providing funding for the correct resources to be able to collect the oil, online activism has significantly increased physical participation in Brazil. For example, since the spill, the number of volunteer groups in the region has grown with thousands from across the 187 affected areas joining to make a difference.

Unarguably, engagement and participation by citizens across the world have been drastically transformed by social media, and it is at the forefront of tackling the issues in Brazil. Although internet activism has been an integral tool in tackling the problems faced, there is still concern over government action – or the lack thereof. Despite encouraging the presence of online and physical action, social media can fall short in creating definite long-term changes, particularly without the action of governments and policymakers. Nevertheless, online activism should still be acknowledged and encouraged for its role in promoting and enabling change outside of sole reliance on the government and traditional media.

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