Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg displays moral courage addressing climate change at the United Nations. She used social media to spread her views. Trolls used it against her, targeting her Asperger’s diagnosis. Yet she persists with a powerful, provocative message.
Some say her Asperger’s diagnosis allows her to speak boldly. Some say it’s just plain courage, with a message delivered at the right time and place through the proper platform. In any case, Greta Thunberg’s use of social media has become the digital megaphone that inspires thousands. Thunberg uses Internet in the manner that many of us envisioned around the time of her birth: bringing to the world a global message of proactive change.
In 2004, the Pew Research Center surveyed experts in “The Future of the Internet I“ about how the worldwide access would be used in the current day. Some of the predictions were spot on, including major cyber attacks on the grid, Internet integrated seamlessly into physical environs, and increased levels of government surveillance.
Here’s one of the fails. The majority of experts believed that more information would lead to higher levels of social awareness rather than political bias.
Just 32% of these experts agreed that people would use the internet to support their political biases and filter out information that disagrees with their views. Half the respondents disagreed with or disputed that prediction.
Thunberg’s rise as an environmental icon has to do with interpersonal as well as digital protests. Her personal narrative began in 2018 when she left school to protest outside the Swedish parliament, demanding that politicians act to sustain the environment. She was photographed, blogged and tweeted about on social media, inspiring students in her own country and Europe to participate in similar protests.
Now she has taken her message to the United States, a country that has withdrawn from participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.
Thunberg’s courage also includes ignoring repeated attacks on her person. CNN reported that President Trump mocked her after her UN speech, tweeting: “”She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
Internet trolls target her Asperger’s condition in coordinated political and personal attempts to undermine her message.
While typical teens might have yielded to such attacks, Thunberg responded with indifference and insight:
“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning! I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances -being different is a superpower.”
Interpersonal Divide often discusses the biases and banalities of social media. However, the book also documents teens who have used social media as Thunberg does, to engage and teach. Here’s an excerpt:
In 2016, the 12-year-old singer-songwriter Grace Vanderwaal learned how to play the ukulele by watching YouTube videos and went on to win a million dollars on the competitive talent show “America’s Got Talent.” Online content also has advanced careers of budding scientists. In 2015, 17-year-old Olivia Hallisey helped solve a refrigeration issue in Africa associated with portable diagnostic tests for Ebola by reading online about a silk fiber derivative that keeps proteins stable without requiring cooling temperatures.
Whether arts or sciences, Internet can inspire innovation and trigger social change. It also has the power to create overnight global icons with powerful messages, as in the case of Thunberg.
As Interpersonal Divide also notes, however, “there is one critical component that can cultivate astute use of online resources, and that is parental, peer and teacher guidance on how to access information from reliable sources and avoid dangers from untrustworthy ones.”
Thunberg’s message is empowered by reliable sources on climate change, informing everyone about the need to take action to repair and sustain the environment.