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From Greta Thunberg to Parkland: Young Activists and the Right-Wing Smear Industry

These attacks have become an industry supposedly rooted in a worldview that worships rights and individual freedoms, but, in actual fact, is rooted in a hatred of activism, principle, and dedication

Greta Thunberg speaks at an event with other climate activists on April 22, 2019 in London, England. Greta Thunberg sparked the global student climate protests after striking from her own school in her home country of Sweden. She is visiting London whilst the Extinction Rebellion protests continue and build in momentum. (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

I recently hit the age of 50, but let me tell you one thing I don’t think as I enter the second half-century of my life: that younger citizens around me are lazy, apathetic, entitled snowflakes, ensconced in cocoons of political correctness. Younger citizens—and, yes, they are citizens even though they can’t vote—must navigate a social universe of public-ness, information overload and surveillance unthinkable to those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet, pre-social media era. And, they must do this while dealing with all of the usual things that can make the pre-teen and teen years hard: school, family, friends, bullying, and status.

It is for this reason that there are few things as cynical, cowardly and fundamentally damaging to the long-term prospects for democracy than adults who smear and denigrate young citizens engaging in activism and civic engagement. We call kids lazy and disconnected. Yet, when those same kids dare to engage with the adult world, many grown-ups respond with arrogance and disdain. It is a dissonant message.

As a case in point, a report was spread recently in a number of European publications and on social media that the mother of the famous Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—who this week appears on the cover of TIME magazine—had claimed her daughter was able to "see” carbon dioxide. Predictably, this “claim” was used by opponents as evidence of 16-year old Greta’s cult-like status. The report, of course, was nonsense (yes, her mother said she could "see" carbon dioxide...but only in the sense that she could “see” the problem with carbon dioxide) rooted in a combination of bad translations, lazy journalism and a whirlpool of social media bullshit.

"We call kids lazy and disconnected. Yet, when those same kids dare to engage with the adult world, many grown-ups respond with arrogance and disdain. It is a dissonant message."

The story of Thunberg’s magic carbon vision followed on the heels of a far more vicious attack by British columnist Brendan O’Neill, who ridiculed Thunberg’s “monotone voice,” in addition to writing that she looked and sounded like a “cult member” and “millennial weirdo.” Given that Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s (an issue she freely discusses), the response to O’Neill’s characterization was swift and strong.

Yet, despite the defense of Thunberg, the message was sent loud and clear: dare to speak publicly on an issue like global warming, and you should be prepared to deal with the wrath of those who disagree. Not only will your youth and civic pride not save you from personal attacks, they will even be used against you. Good citizenship has become nothing more than a bitter punch line on Twitter.

Consider also the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 students and staff dead. In an effort to find purpose and direction in the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy, a number of Parkland students exercised their rights as citizens to speak out about the need for gun control. Rather than praise the students for their bravery and engagement, many conservative media outlets exploded with vitriol, accusing the students of being at best naïve pawns, and at worst paid “crisis actors” serving the interests of a liberal establishment intent on repealing the right to bear arms.

A central component of the smearing of young citizens such as Greta Thunberg and the Parkland survivors is social media. Those who spread lies about these teenagers know the dynamics of Twitter and Facebook: there is no untruth too ridiculous, and no suggestion too vulgar, that cannot get “traction.” It is no coincidence, for example, that both Greta Thunberg and the Parkland students were linked to one of the most prevalent right-wing social media accusations: being funded by the “Globalist” George Soros. The synergy effect was that the whole of these ingredients (naïve kids + ideologically loaded issue + anti-Semitic conspiracy theory + social media + biased mainstream media) was greater than the sum of the individual parts. It was fodder for the haters, and that was the point.

These attacks have become an industry supposedly rooted in a worldview that worships rights and individual freedoms, but, in actual fact, is rooted in a hatred of activism, principle and dedication. These three elements stand in stark contrast to the values and tactics of those who wish to smear Thunberg and her contemporaries: namely lies, obfuscation and denigration. What scares those who attack Thunberg and the Parkland survivors is not so much the message, but the poise, presence and visibility of young citizens unfazed by their older, jaded, cynical opponents. They are dangerous because they exist and persist.

Greta Thunberg and the Parkland students remind us that people under the age of 18 are more than just parental possessions or mini consumers. They are citizens with rights who deserve to be heard. Those who attempt to belittle or crush that burgeoning sense of citizenship do far more damage than they could possibly imagine.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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