On the morning of August 25, 11-year-old Lilly Platt tweeted a video clip of a Brazilian Amazon tribe speaking out against deforestation. Awareness of the Amazon wildfires was already at a fever pitch, and the tweet exploded. Then, within an hour, a swarm of troll accounts started flooding her mentions with porn.
Shortly after the attack, her mom, Eleanor Platt, made an online plea for help: “Dear Friends of Lilly, this is Lillys mum she is being targeted by revolting trolls who are spamming her feed with pornography. There is only so much i can do to block this. Please if you see these posts report them.” Over the course of the day, some of Lilly’s nearly 10,000 followers did just that.
Young girls like Lilly, who has been striking in her hometown of Utrecht, Netherlands, every Friday for the last year, are overwhelmingly leading a growing global movement to draw attention to the climate crisis. They spurred an estimated 4 million people across seven continents to walk out of work and school on September 20 — and they are getting attacked for it. They have faced a barrage of daily insults, seemingly coordinated attacks (like the one that targeted Lilly), creepy DMs, doxing, hacked accounts, and death threats. This is the new normal for young climate leaders online, according to BuzzFeed News interviews with nearly a dozen of the kids and their parents.
Personal attacks have always been a part of the climate denial playbook, even as fossil fuel companies secretly funded campaigns and researchers to question the scientific consensus on climate change. The most famous incident, 2009’s Climategate, involved scientists getting their emails hacked and then facing death threats. And as the politics of climate change begins to mirror the broader dark trends of global politics, weaponized social media — in the form of intimidation, memes, and disinformation — has emerged as the dominant vehicle for climate denial.
But the rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible — and especially vulnerable — target: kids.
The clearest example of this is what's happening today with climate activism’s biggest star, Greta Thunberg.
The 16-year-old Swedish crusader single-handedly launched the climate strike movement last year and has become the biggest target for attacks on climate activism online. Climate science deniers, right-wing media pundits, and politicians are the most high-profile figures fixating on everything from her braided hair to her Asperger’s to the motivation behind her strikes.
On August 14, as Greta set sail across the Atlantic for a packed trip involving multiple strikes, testimonies to Congress, and the United Nations climate summit in New York, former UK Independence Party funder Arron Banks tweeted that “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.” Shortly after Greta’s arrival in the US, Maxime Bernier, a Canadian politician associated with extreme far-right groups, wrote: “She should be denounced and attacked.” A viral tweet from conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza after the global climate strike hit at another recurring theme: comparing Greta to children in Nazi propaganda. On Monday, a Fox News guest called her “mentally ill,” a jab at her Asperger’s diagnosis, prompting the outlet to issue an apology. Shortly after the UN summit, President Donald Trump tweeted sarcastically, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
Meanwhile, upward of 5,000 tweets by suspected bots have mentioned Greta, according to an analysis by Bot Sentinel provided to BuzzFeed News.
But it’s not just Greta. Other young girls in the movement are facing a flood of online abuse. It’s less clear where those attacks are coming from, but they involve a mix of regular accounts, trolls, and bots. While the youngest activists are often shielded from this, due to constant monitoring of their social media by their parents, there’s no filter for many of the teens. Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old climate activist in Seattle, described how it felt experiencing a recent Twitter swarm: “You start getting so much anxiety.”
With platforms like Twitter and Instagram sometimes slow to respond or prevent the abuse, other advocates in the climate community are also stepping in to aggressively report and call out accounts that are targeting the kids. To flag problematic profiles, they sometimes use hashtags like #CreepyDeniers, #ClimateBrawl, and #TeamMuskOx, named after the musk ox species that forms a circle around vulnerable members of its herd.
“The ugly truth is that these girls are subject to the deepest darkest evil side of social media on a daily basis,” Bethany Edwards, mom of 8-year-old climate activist Havana Chapman-Edwards, told BuzzFeed News in an email. Havana, who is black, has gotten racist messages, death threats, and was contacted by one man who the family later discovered was a registered sex offender.
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University said she adds someone to her Twitter block list “on average at least once a day, if not more.” For Hayhoe, as the voices of the climate teens grow louder, there is increasingly a target pointed squarely on their backs.
“They will attack anyone who is perceived as being effective,” she said. “The more effective we are, the greater the attacks.”
Greta first went on strike alone.
“If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal? To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal,” Greta said in her TEDx Talk in Stockholm in November 2018.
Greta began striking solo last August, when she was 15, skipping school on Fridays to stand in front of the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm and hand out flyers calling attention to the climate crisis. She didn’t have the support of her parents, according to one of her Facebook posts, and one way she got her message out was through the press and social media. Every week, she posted a picture of herself striking on Instagram.
Greta’s following on Instagram quickly grew. Her first strike post, on August 20, got more than 19,000 likes. A post on March 15, the day of the first global strike, got about 264,000 likes. On Monday, she shared a clip of her powerful UN speech that has so far gotten 3.7 million likes.
About a dozen kids striking for the first time in Washington, DC, and New York City in recent weeks told BuzzFeed News they were inspired to do so because of Greta; for some, her TED Talk or Instagram page was even their introduction to the urgency of climate change.
Lilly was among the first kids to join Greta’s movement. When she started her own weekly strikes in Utrecht last September, Greta noticed. She shared a video from Lilly’s Instagram telling the world, “One thing I wanted to mention is: We only have one planet, and that is planet Earth. And if we mess up this planet, we have no second chances,” and urging everyone to strike for the climate. A month later, the two girls met and striked together.
But as Greta’s popularity boomed, so did the backlash. Early in Greta’s demonstrations, she was attacked, and Lilly defended her. Then the hordes came after Lilly. Greta came to her defense, tweeting on November 11, 2018: “She stood up for me and now she gets lots of hate from ‘brave’ anonymous trolls. Please follow and support her.”
Since then, the attacks have piled up. Lilly has repeatedly received anti-Semetic, threatening, and hateful messages on Twitter; links to porn on Instagram; and she even was the victim of a hack that resulted in her whole family having to get new phones, according to Eleanor Platt, who oversees all of Lilly’s social media.
In late November, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for “more learning in schools, and less activism,” and Lilly criticized him online. Within days of the Australian press picking up her comments, Lilly's and her family’s phones were all hacked, Platt said.
Afterward, Platt spoke with a climate scientist who helped her adopt a more secure social media routine. Now the family never logs on to Twitter through the phone app, for example, instead connecting online through a more secure virtual private network, or VPN. Platt also constantly scans Lilly’s social media followers, checking for suspicious accounts constantly.
“Every day, you have to do it. Every morning. Every evening,” Platt said.
Platt also scans any direct messages to Lilly and all her notifications for any problematic material that might need handling in the form of blocking, reporting, or muting accounts — all before Lilly sees anything.
This intense micromanaging of accounts is a necessity for Lilly to even use platforms like Twitter, which doesn’t allow users who are under 13 years old, and it's a safety precaution, her mom said. In response to the criticism that Lilly and the other little kids are “puppets” voicing their parents’ political beliefs, Platt said: “Since the hacking I had to help do things in a different way,” adding that, “no way” is she writing the tweets or forcing Lilly to do this activism.
Eight-year-old Havana's parents take a similar approach. “It’s not *if* there will be problems waiting for us every time we go on social media; it’s how many,” Bethany Edwards told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Our daily reality due to the harassment, pornography spam, and creepy men trying to ‘support’ her message is that Havana is not allowed on her Twitter or Instagram before my husband and I sweep it clean.”
For Edwards and Platt, another key piece of protecting their kids is talking among each other. The parents constantly share tips, such as how to log on to Twitter through a VPN, and flag shady accounts to one another.
“The one good thing about the group of young girls is that their relationships have bonded us as parents to relentlessly protecting our girls together,” Bethany said in an email. “We have to stick together because more than likely, the same men are in their DMs as well.”
For the teenage activists, their parents do less of the work to shield them from attacks online.
Some of them choose to still have their parents involved. Thirteen-year-old Haven Coleman from Denver and 14-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor from New York City are old enough to have their own Twitter accounts, but still share the passwords to those accounts with their moms. If Coleman receives a creepy direct message, she told BuzzFeed News, either she or her mom will block or report the account, depending on who gets to it first.
Seventeen-year-old Jamie Margolin, the founder of the activist group Zero Hour, does her own social media.
Jamie, who is Jewish, gay, and Latina, told BuzzFeed News she is constantly brushing off sexist and disparaging remarks from people she describes as climate deniers online.
But what happened on the evening of Tuesday, August 20, was different. At 7:27 p.m., she tweeted: “On behalf of all white people, I’m sorry. We really do be out here colonizing and destroying things and it’s not a hot girl summer 😒....” In response to the tweet, which she has since deleted, she was inundated by hundreds of offensive, hateful responses, including anti-Semitic slurs, dirty jokes, and more.
“Some of them were very threatening. Some of them were like ‘Where is your synagogue?’” Jamie said. She shared screenshots of some of the comments with BuzzFeed News; most of those accounts are now suspended, and the tweets have been taken down.
One of the scariest things to happen, she said, is how these attacks started combing through the internet for more information about her: digging up old tweets, lifting pictures from Facebook, finding old interviews, and looking up the origins of her last name.
“More and more and more and more kept coming in, and it started to get scarier as they started to dig through my old stuff,” Jamie said. She turned to her adult mentors — including Natalie Mebane, US policy director of the environmental group 350.org, and Mary Heglar, the director of publications for the Natural Resources Defense Council — for help.
In a WhatsApp group chat, Jamie, her mentors, and others discussed how everyone could each “personally flag the tweets from different users and report them,” Mebane said, “so that it can be a group effort.” They have collectively reported dozens and dozens of accounts.
“You do want to bring [the problematic accounts and tweets] to the attention of Twitter because they are likely posting things like this in other places,” Mebane said.
After more than an hour of blocking, reporting, and muting accounts on Twitter, Jamie deleted Twitter from her phone and took a break from the internet. Weeks later, she still thinks about it.
“It isn’t stopping me from being a public activist and public figure,” Jamie said, “but every time I’m about to tweet something, I get paranoid about what people are going to say, what people are going to think of me, how can this be misinterpreted. And then I realize anyone can find anything wrong all the time, so I might as well just post what I think and what I know.”
In a sign that the threats, online and in person, are ramping up against the activists, Jamie mentioned how Zero Hour had a problem with a stalker that resulted in the group hiring armed security for a youth training summit in Miami in July.
The main threat, Mebane clarified, was made against a celebrity supporter, but there was concern about the danger extending to the young activists. “That was the first time a serious threat was made,” Mebane said.
In another case of escalating safety concerns, Haven, who has been striking on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver, has had recent intimidating encounters. One man passed by her going up the stairs only to come back down, go up to her, and tell her that her striking was “stupid.” Another man wearing a MAGA hat kept taking pictures of her from across the street. Haven’s mom had been chaperoning on her strikes, but after the recent incidents, her dad will start accompanying her too.
Haven’s advice for other kids looking to strike safely is twofold: “Always have your cellphone on you, like, no matter what” and “Please don’t strike alone.” ●