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Going viral

BY Lyle Stewart Oct 25, 2019

I’ve never had a social media post go viral before. However, a photo I took of the Montreal climate march on September 27 went around the world a few times. After Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who participated in the Montreal march, tweeted my photo, it showed up pretty much everywhere – more than 6,000 shares on Facebook (after my well-connected friend Sharon Hyman reposted it), then there were 14,000 retweets, and more than 90,000 shares on Reddit.

Perhaps I should have put a faint stamp reading “by Lyle Stewart” on the photo. In this day of non-existent copyright on the internet, it doesn’t matter. And it really doesn’t. What matters more is that the idea spread by the photo circulated widely.

That this 16-year-old teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome could spark a worldwide movement to fight climate change – with millions marching in cities around the world, including 500,000 in Montreal – is a wonder to behold, and to celebrate.

Why then, I wonder, do some people feel the need to denigrate a deeply necessary effort to fight for the earth’s survival? It depresses me to see the ugly, repetitive comments left on social media posts documenting this movement. Often, they are very personal, and full of disgusting lies about this one girl.

Other messages are very obviously drummed up by professional groups that operate on the web to sow division and doubt. Some of these showed in the comments on my original Facebook post, most by members of my own family, unfortunately.

Among them:

  • Can’t wait to see the garbage left behind after everyone’s gone home!
  • And the carbon footprint to achieve this assembly?
  • I bet you use airplanes, autos and petroleum-derived products.
  • What did the park look like after the rally dispersed?

These are pretty mild, to be sure. I don’t want to repeat the worst ones. My point is, that the same messages appear on almost every post, tweet or share of messages that promote reducing our use of fossil fuels.

Is it an accident? I don’t think so. Researchers are finding that there are message factories drumming up these themes that then get repeated by bots, groups and individuals under their influence around the world. It’s too bad that some people aren’t more capable of thinking for themselves.

I’d like to spare a few words for Robie Nicholls, the brother of Nation editor-in-chief Will Nicholls, who passed away September 29 after a battle with cancer. I didn’t know Robie that well personally; I’d only met him a handful of times.

But for close to 20 years, I’ve looked at a piece of his spirit almost every day. As a gift, Will commissioned his brother to make me the most beautiful dreamcatcher I have ever seen. I treasure this piece of art, and it is a part of my life.

I know that Robie had some tough times in his life, and like all of us, didn’t always respond well to the challenges that life presents us. But that is only part of the story. I look at my dreamcatcher and I see a beautiful spirit. And it is that spirit I will remember of this man.

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Lyle Stewart has been working as a journalist for over 30 years. He believes that information is the ultimate check on the abuse of power and that independent media outlets such as the Nation are crucial to democratic governance.