We all know young people have a handle on the Internet like no other demographic. My generation grew up playing computer games, had PC literacy classes in elementary school, and secretly hijacked the internet for music pirating before we were teens. We have an intuitive sense of the web – its uses, its limitations, and its future.
The nation's young people are now harnessing that power for climate action, and we're beating coal's dirty PR in ways that have industry front groups shaking.
The coal industry's American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has poured millions of dollars into online advertising to convince Americans that "clean coal" is the solution to global warming, and it's planning a $20 million online push this year. But type "clean coal" into Google, and up pop progressive climate blogs, spoofs and news articles.
In my own search for "clean coal," eight out of the top 10 organic results were web sites that completely debunked the idea – only Wikipedia and an AP news article held both "sides" up. Not a single site in the top 10 was a pro-clean-coal industry page. Industry front group have had to buy their way onto Google's front page, thanks in large part to young bloggers.
Richard Graves, the founder and director of Fired Up Media, explained how Google-savvy climate bloggers are using organic links and traffic to beat the coal industry.
By taking advantage of the complex algorithms that make up Google's PageRank system, climate bloggers are able to get their web sites, terms and content "ranked" very high on Google's search importance scale. Using strategically coordinated phrases, tags and headlines, they create self-replicating cycles of online references, which Google picks up as traffic. This boosts the "importance" of those phrases, tags, headlines and corresponding sites.
The more young people digg and cite each other, the more powerful their online presence grows. They use internal list serves to share information and maintain unity, and Twitter and instant messaging applications send alerts down with fiber-optic speed and a tree-phone's urgency.
The bloggers' method is not only overwhelmingly effective – it's free. They have figured out how to get their information proliferated on the net without paying a cent, and now handily counter-act dirty coal PR. Perhaps necessity (i.e. not having gigantic PR budgets), has been the mother of invention in this case.
Young folks aren't shy about meeting with their older, more established peers in the game either. A core group of youth anti-coal communicators frequently meets with the Glover Park Group – Al Gore's communications consultants – and Kevin Grandia of DeSmog Blog. When digital communication gurus unite across generational lines, they're fairly unstoppable.
Some of the most persuasive online activism goes after Colbert Report fans and that section of web surfers who aren't going to spend all day reading climate blogs and self-educating on dirty coal – viral videos.
The Reality Campaign has been all over this tactic. Reality, which is dedicated to fighting the myth of clean coal, released its first popular commercial in December featuring an engineer for a "clean coal facility" that looked more like a tumbleweed desert.
Now, the Coen Brothers, of "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" fame, have joined Reality's message with a biting TV commercial that has been circulating nonstop on the web, getting over 200,000 views since its debut one month ago.
My personal favorite anti-coal fake commercial was produced by sketch comedy group Free Love Forum. It plays exactly like a typical greenwashing commercial for an oil company, complete with a Hummer/American flag shot.
All joking aside, though, coal activists have realized the power of the media for education and political leverage, and they're pouring millions of dollars in to use it full hilt.
For the more academic activist, look to CoalSwarm, the one-stop-shop wiki for all the dirt you need on coal. Coal Swarm is an effort to create transparent, group-source information about the coal industry: tracking plant announcements, political maneuvers, lawsuits and more. As one supporter explained: "It's putting information once the province of lobbyists into local activist's hands."
The Sierra Club Coal Campaign is responsible for some great online innovation as well, most notably Google-Mapping proposed coal plant sites to help engage the public in fighting them. ILoveMountains.org created a similar tool for viewing mountaintop removal sites, making the devastating impact of coal crystal clear to the public.
Youth media guru Richard Graves sums up the impact this way:
"Citizen journalism and new media are allowing people to see the true costs of coal, the destruction of our mountains and the impoverishment of our communities. This is building the political will to end our reliance on coal faster than industry, politicians, and the traditional media ever anticipated."