In this article, I want to lay out a way that Twitter can both follow a “free speech maximalist” philosophy while also having a very positive impact on not only climate change, but the future of the world in general. This article will focus on how it can affect climate change and the adoption of clean technologies (for obvious reasons), but much of what I’ll share here is more broadly applicable.
Climate Shadows vs. Carbon Footprints
I’ve mentioned this concept before in a few other articles, but to understand the positive effect Twitter could have on global climate, it’s important to think not in terms of Twitter’s carbon footprint, but the wider effects it could have. I got the idea from this article at Mic.
The best way to introduce this topic to a cleantech crowd would be to look at Elon Musk himself. Sure, he has an atrocious individual carbon footprint. He flies private jets. He launches methane-burning rockets. The enterprises he owns and/or manages are responsible for a lot of emissions. But, anybody who isn’t trying to score points against him has to recognize that Tesla has had a great positive contribution on the problem. Tesla’s EVs themselves replaced a lot of combustion engines, and solar+battery storage from the company has had a great impact. But, even beyond that, Tesla’s shadow extends into pushing entire industries in better directions.
Looking at the broader picture is what the concept of “climate shadows” is all about.
When it comes to Twitter, the possibilities for impact on climate are a lot bigger in the “shadow” than in the footprint. The carbon footprint of not only Twitter, but of the most popular Twitter accounts, has been studied. Elon Musk’s account, for example, is estimated to emit the equivalent of 1.8 round trip flights from New York to Paris (3.2 tons) annually. But, his account has also been used to promote Tesla, and could arguably be one of its main advertising and PR efforts (Tesla doesn’t advertise or have a PR department).
But, it would be a real “apples to oranges” comparison to compare the impacts of Elon Musk’s account (120M followers as of this writing) to Donald Trump’s account (assuming it was actively tweeting to its 88M followers). One of these accounts promotes electric cars and renewable energy, while the other guy (assuming he became active again) uses his fame to promote anti-EV conspiracy theories and political action against clean energy.
Looking at the big picture, it’s obvious that Twitter’s real impact on the climate is just about impossible to put into numbers and crunch the way Twitter’s carbon footprint would be. We’d have to look at the climate effects of every account (positive or negative), how much reach the account has, and then add it all up. Most of this just can’t be quantified to begin with.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t think about it. A qualitative analysis (looking at more than just numbers) would probably show that Twitter’s overall carbon shadow is going in a bad direction right now. Why? Because it’s suddenly popular with political conservatives, who had engaged with it less due to systematic suppression on the platform prior to Elon Musk buying it. With increased conservative use (doing things like Donald Trump would do on Twitter) and decreased use on the left (the people who usually care more about climate change and think it’s real), the overall climate impact has to be moving in a more negative direction.
Don’t Blame Conservative Republicans For This. Blame The Culture War.
That last paragraph probably sounded like I have a lot of disdain for conservatives. But, if you know me at all, you’d know that I’m not a liberal. While I disagree with a stereotypical conservative on issues like clean technology and LGBT rights, I’m also a gun owner and a “prepper,” and not a “Fudd.” As an independent and someone who doesn’t consistently side with liberals or conservatives, I don’t think this issue is something we can just be lazy about and throw it all in conservatives’ laps.
Just looking at who has solar panels on their roofs, EVs in their driveways, etc., makes it pretty clear that many people don’t fit the stereotype. A fiscally responsible person could buy an EV and/or solar just because it makes financial sense, regardless of politics. A “prepper” can be more prepared for disasters if they can make their own power at home and use it for transportation. E-bikes are increasingly used for hunting. Clean energy reduces dependence on foreign oil, too.
So, the idea that clean technology is only for liberals and that conservatives must drive a diesel brodozer and roll coal is silly and stupid if you really think about it.
But, on average, you’ll find that many people follow the political flock they identify with, and it’s getting dumber and dumber. It has even gotten to the point where certain foods and beverages are only for one side or the other. A vanilla latte from Starbucks is a great example (especially if you get it made with soy milk).
The problems with the Culture War would require a whole series of articles to adequately cover, but I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll send you to Wait But Why’s The Story Of Us series. It’s long, but it has great illustrations and is definitely worth your time if you care about the future of civilization.
This increasingly idiotic Culture War is holding CleanTech adoption back. Sure, many people buck trends and think for themselves on this, but many other people choose vehicles and their home power (and backup power) based on political and cultural considerations instead of what would work for their family or business best.
Stupid? Yes. But, the caveman in each of us knows there’s safety in numbers, and sticking with your tribe just feels safer. It’s human nature, but made even dumber by the negative effects of an increasingly fractured social, media, and social media environment.
But, if left unchecked, the Culture War could become a literal war (and in some ways, it’s already happening). But, we could stave off this outcome while saving the many other things we care about (like the environment).
Twitter Has The Potential To Disrupt The Culture War
It stands to reason that if social media could inflame our worst instincts and pit us against each other, it also has the potential ability to help bring people together and cut back on the drama and conflict. So, with the new ownership of Twitter, Elon Musk and his team of couch-sleeping crack programming commandos have a great opportunity to make a positive contribution here.
This article is already running a little long, so I won’t offer too many potential ways to do this. But, in general, getting people to actually talk to people they disagree with and do it in a civil way seems like an essential element to any fix here. To borrow terminology from Wait But Why, we need to be climbing the thinking ladder and moving away from echo chambers toward idea labs. Many other idea on what ails the “sick giant” of civilization can be found here.
New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.
Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.
You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 18, 2022
Suppressing divisive echo chamber political rhetoric doesn’t require that any tweets or accounts get deleted, but absolute freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get absolute freedom of reach. Deboosting mindless partisan Culture War rhetoric, accounts that promote echo chamber thinking, and incivility could go a long way toward making the “town square” work for us again. Just like the real old town square, people who can’t play nice generally end up with nobody to talk to.
Here’s a great example of the kind of content that shouldn’t be boosted or amplified in a social media environment that values civil debate and idea labs over hatred, partisan hackery, and echo chambers:
If you agree with Sen. Mitt Romney who just said that he will “absolutely not” support Donald Trump if he runs for president in 2024 because he’s “simply not a person” who should hold the “reigns of the government,” retweet and follow us!
— Occupy Democrats (@OccupyDemocrats) December 9, 2022
If you look at every tweet by that account, you’ll see the same tired formula. But, the caveman part of many people on the left eats it up. Want proof? The idiotic account has half a million followers! There’s also accounts like “Jo” (@JoJoFromJerz) that spit out nothing but left-wing politics all day from Political Disneyland (735k followers), CallToActivism (939k), and the “perpetually pissed” Brooklyn Dad Defiant (1.1M followers).
I don’t want to pick on the left, either. The right wing side of the Culture War has accounts like Libs of Tik Tok, Ben Shapiro, and Matt Walsh who are committed to the idea that their side of the Culture War is both always right and the only side worth engaging with (except to mock and “own the libs” of course). So, this is clearly not a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s something both sides do, and it’s always bad.
Should any of these people be banned from using Twitter? No! But, Twitter shouldn’t be spreading any of their toxic messages beyond the reach of the followerships they’ve earned if Elon Musk wants to claim he supports the benefits of free speech. The good of free speech mostly comes from civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas, and almost never comes from divisive ranting, tribalism, and hatred.
If Twitter promoted enlightening and uniting political content instead of divisive “mental candy,” the cultural divide that’s holding clean technology back from wider adoption would be weakened, and many other problems in society would be improved.
Featured image by Chris LeBoutillier, Twitter, and Jennifer Sensiba (Fair Use).
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