The kids aren’t just all right — they’re scrambling the brains of their political enemies.
Last Friday, millions of people, many of them children and teenagers, took to the streets during the Global Climate Strike, a protest inspired by Fridays for Future, the international youth effort started by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The protesters’ call for broad action to combat global warming was powerful, as was the message sent by their numbers: Dynamic, frustrated young people are instilling in the climate movement a new urgency.
Online, the climate kids’ impact can be measured in a different way — by how they’re short-circuiting the right-wing media ecosystem that’s partly responsible for the spread of climate skepticism. Since Friday’s strike, pro-Trump media and conservative cable news pundits have devoted significant resources to turning the children of the climate movement into Public Enemy No. 1.
Over the weekend, Alan Jones, an Australian broadcaster for Sky News, delivered a monologue calling the climate-striking youth “selfish, badly educated, virtue-signaling little turds.” Mr. Jones finished by reading a letter arguing that children concerned about climate change should “wake up, grow up and shut up until you’re sure of the facts before protesting.” The rant echoed other criticisms of the protest from the right. “I wish I could inject that letter into my veins,” a blogger for the conservative site RedState wrote.
Ms. Thunberg has been the primary target of this vitriol. On Saturday, the pro-Trump media figure Dinesh D’Souza likened Ms. Thunberg to models in Nazi propaganda. Videos of her speeches have been edited to replace her voice with Adolf Hitler’s. On Fox News on Monday evening, the Daily Wire pundit Michael Knowles called Ms. Thunberg — who is open about being on the autism spectrum — “a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents.” (Fox News issued an apology and called the comment “disgraceful.”)
A few hours later, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham likened her to children from the horror film “Children of the Corn.” A Breitbart contributor wrote that she deserved “a spanking or a psychological intervention.” And she’s attracted the ire of President Trump on Twitter — a jab with which Ms. Thunberg had some fun.
To be clear: battling Fox News and subtweeting the president are hardly the youth climate movement’s main goal. Still, it’s a notable case study in the limits of the right’s ability to wage an information war across the media.
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Much like the Parkland students, who proved to be a formidable opposition to the pro-Trump media apparatus that accused them of being crisis actors, Ms. Thunberg and the climate kids seem immune to the usual tactics of right-wing media. As newcomers, they’re mostly impervious to the right’s tool of personal attacks. They don’t have the baggage of voting records or deep financial ties to political organizations.
This doesn’t mean their enemies aren’t trying — this week, a pro-Trump blog feebly attempted to tie Ms. Thunberg to the billionaire George Soros, who has been the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Online, far-right trolls are mounting an effort to harass the young women of the climate movement. Some of the onslaught is believed to be inauthentic — 5,000 tweets by suspected bots have mentioned Ms. Thunberg, according to BuzzFeed News. Similarly, toxic pro-Trump communities have zeroed in on teenage climate protesters. As of this writing, three of the top 25 posts from Reddit’s The_Donald forum in the last week were direct attacks on Ms. Thunberg. And yet, the usual smears don’t seem to stick.
Growing up online doesn’t hurt either. In 2018, I wrote that a strength of the Parkland students was being “effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.” The activists of the climate youth movement are no different — they’re battle-hardened by the internet and they’ve found a way to turn online organizing into mobilization on the streets.
Perhaps most important is their instinctive understanding of attention and how to wield it as both a weapon and a tool. They understand how to attract attention: Their protests feature meme-able signs to capture interest across social media. Their events — from global strikes to sit-ins in the House speaker’s hallway — are tailored to garner media coverage. They also know how to spot enemies looking to divert attention and to ignore or dismiss them.
Simply put, they don’t seem to care what adults, skeptics, deniers and crusty politicians think of them. And they waste very little of their time, energy and focus work-shopping their message or bulletproofing it against criticism. They simply pay their enemies no attention. They’re participating in the culture wars while also managing to float above the fray.
None in the movement embody this like Ms. Thunberg, who suffers no fools in her unsparing and blunt statements to diplomats and members of Congress alike. Some of this may be the result of age, what Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic describes as the “unique moral position of being a teenager,” in which “she can see the world through an ‘adult’ moral lens” but “unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state.”
She does not allow her message — that the youth of the world have been betrayed by past generations’ inaction on climate change — to be co-opted by fawning lawmakers, and she dismisses their praise for her as a tragic role reversal that forces her to be the adult in a room of well-dressed children. And she seems keenly aware that her rivals’ critiques are merely efforts to divert her attention. “It seems they will cross every possible line to avert the focus, since they are so desperate not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis,” she wrote of her “haters” on Twitter on Wednesday.
The usual tactics of the right-wing media break down in the face of this type of resolve. While outrage campaigns intended to work the refs and appeal to fears of appearing partisan may work with lawmakers or companies in Silicon Valley, the youth climate movement appears wholly unmoved. While the levers for climate progress proposed by solutions like a Green New Deal are undoubtedly political, the broader movement’s desire — an inhabitable earth for all — is far from partisan. The stakes, as the movement sees it, are too high to focus attention on the trolls. And the pressure, from conservative pundits and Breitbart contributors, doesn’t just get dismissed, it goes unnoticed.
Faced with a political enemy that pays it no attention, the right is palpably frustrated. They argue that children have become, as a headline on an essay by Commentary’s Noah Rothman put it, “Child Soldiers in the Culture wars,” are insulated against criticism because of their age and innocence. “How do you respond to statements like that?” the Fox News host Tucker Carlson said recently of Ms. Thunberg’s forthright speeches. “The truth is you can’t respond. And of course, that’s the point.”
But as the past week shows, the right is perfectly willing to attack the children. Instead, the problem is that, as Mr. Carlson seems to realize, there’s just not a very resonant counter message for a youth movement to protect the planet. Polling also suggests that there’s an increasingly shrinking pool of conservative listeners for it, with a majority of Republicans under age 45 now identifying as concerned about climate change. And so it feels increasingly likely that, when it comes to climate, the right-wing media, which is skewed toward an aging Republican audience, may simply be obsolete.
In other words, it’s not that the right can’t attack the climate kids because of their age. Rather, it’s that because of their age, the right’s attacks feel especially feeble.
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