How Alex Haraus used TikTok to organize the largest environmental action in American history (updated)

Alex Haraus/YouTube

By: Syris Valentine

Two-and-a-half years ago, Alex Haraus never imagined he’d use TikTok. He thought the platform was just kids dancing and doing bad lip syncs. But by the end of 2020, he decided to invent a niche for himself on the platform—outdoor adventuring as a hook for conservation content—and used it to make history. With his high-energy outdoorsman brand as the spark, a fire swept across TikTok in January 2021, and ignited the single largest letter-writing campaign for the environment in American history.

In three weeks, a diverse coalition of lawyers, filmmakers, scientists, conservationists, Indigenous activists, and Haraus himself used every means available to encourage others to send in public comments to prevent oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Haraus helmed the TikTok side of the campaign, engaging viewers with a range of videos and calling them to action by sharing footage of the refuge, creating hilarious stitches, and posting updates about the number of letters sent. Content poured onto the platform, from Scotland to South America to all across the United States. Across Haraus’ own videos, over 6 million people saw content related to the Arctic Refuge, and he estimated at least 94 million people saw content other TikTokers created.

By the time the campaign ended on Jan. 6, 2021, 6.3 million people sent in letters. All that was left was to wait and see what happened next. Regardless of the outcome, Haraus knew he’d finally found a way he could help protect the planet. This was the work he’d dreamed of doing for years, and he almost seemed to stumble into it.

Like a lot of his fellow Zillennials, Haraus, 24, learned about the climate crisis in a high school science class. But while some of his peers felt depressed and dejected by the data, Haraus got motivated. He decided to pursue a career where he could raise awareness and encourage action for the planet. He set his sights on turning into the only example he had at the time: a National Geographic photojournalist.

He got his hands on a camera as soon as he could, and after high school, he studied environmental studies at DePaul University in Chicago, his hometown, to learn more about climate change. It wasn’t easy for him to practice nature photography while living in a city, taking classes full-time, and working in pizza shops and, eventually, at the Chicago Field Museum to put himself through school, so he took advantage of what was around him. He captured cityscapes and portraits of people on the street, posting edited versions to Instagram with microblog captions to practice writing.

Back then, he wasn’t worried about impact. “I was just thinking about how to tell a story with words and through a frame,” he said.

His focus shifted after spending several summers working on conservation projects like bear sanctuaries and building trails. These projects not only helped him tell environmental narratives and fill his portfolio with nature photos, but, most importantly, they showed him what impact looked like. When he graduated in 2019, he didn’t imagine becoming a full-time creator, despite growing his profile on Instagram for five years. He wanted to work at an environmental nonprofit, so he moved to Colorado with a friend and started job hunting.

Then, the pandemic hit.

Haraus got laid off. Everyone stopped hiring, and there he was—a thousand miles from home with no clear trail to follow. So, he did what any experienced outdoorsman would do: He blazed his own.

Haraus threw what he described as “a Hail Mary pass.” He spent all of his savings and every cent of his unemployment check to put a down payment on a Subaru Outback. Then, he launched a Patreon (which brought him just enough income to make his monthly car payment), converted the back of the Subaru into a space he could live out of, and started living the #RoadLife while making content full-time for Instagram and doing freelance photography as well as web design on the side.

“In August 2020, I’d been on the road for a few months when I started talking about the Arctic Refuge on Instagram because it was in the news,” he said. Trump was trying to open it up for drilling. “I thought it was something that everyone could care about because it didn’t make sense from an economic angle, a social angle, or an environmental angle,” he added.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers 1.5 million acres along Alaska’s north coast. This area is so vital that the Gwich’in—the people indigenous to the region—call it “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” No other name could better capture its importance. The coastal plain within the refuge is a place where species the world over, including birds from all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica, migrate to breed and birth their young.

“You’ve probably seen birds in your neighborhood who were born in the Arctic Refuge,” Haraus said in a toolkit he put together for people who want to save the Sacred Place.

Despite its essential nature, the United States decided to open up the land for oil and gas leases. On Jan. 6, 2021, the same day the letter-writing campaign opposing oil-exploration permits ended, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold the leases without Gwich’in approval—a violation of their UN-recognized rights to free prior and informed consent. Despite every single American bank refusing to finance the project, the BLM sold the leases. The decision was what Haraus called “a middle finger” to Indigenous people, anyone that cared about the economy, his entire generation, and, ultimately, to every species on Earth.

Knowing this was bound to happen, a team of filmmakers, who referred to their collective as “Protect the Arctic,” created an eponymous documentary to motivate people to defend the Sacred Place. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced them to cancel all of their planned film showings, leaving them saddled with hard drives full of moving footage and no way to share it.

Enter, Alex Haraus.

Haraus didn’t know about Protect the Arctic’s predicament. He only knew he wanted to act. Thinking about what to do next as he wandered the road from campsite to campsite, Haraus said he talked to his friend and fellow creator, Taylor Rae. She mentioned how a TikTok giveaway she hosted had a 10% conversion rate, which Haraus said “was just unheard of,” he recalled. Between the unmatched performance and the fact no one was talking about conservation on TikTok, he said he realized he could make a huge impact if he learned to use it strategically.

He said he’d been active on TikTok for about two weeks when he posted a video about the Arctic Refuge. The video quickly got over 5,000 views. Then, he said the Protect the Arctic team reached out. The filmmakers, he claimed, hadn’t seen anyone else talk about this issue on TikTok, and they asked if they could share their footage with him to help him spread the word. He didn’t hesitate to say yes, and told Passionfruit: “This was the dream.”

Haraus got right to work; he posted his first video with Protect the Arctic’s footage on Dec. 6, and two days later, 6,500 people already sent in letters to the BLM. Haraus and the rest of the Protect the Arctic team then realized TikTok’s potential, he remembered. According to Haraus, his videos alone “outperformed any other method” for getting the public engaged.

At that point, Haraus joined the coalition of people from Protect the Arctic, Project Impact, the Alaska Wilderness League, and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. He spearheaded the coalition’s social media strategy. Instead of just pumping out videos or reaching out to big name creators, he and the team decided to encourage regular people to get involved. 

“I was having success as a nobody, so I realized that anyone could do it, too, especially if we taught them how,” he said.

So, Haraus put together a toolkit anyone could use to make TikTok content to educate people about the Arctic Refuge, and he encouraged them to write letters. The goal, he explained, “was to get people to speak in their style.” Through his personal conversion rate, from videos viewed to letters sent took a hit, the strategy was a huge success.

Even when the BLM closed its comment period early, it kept going. Haraus and the coalition shifted their focus to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS)—the agency responsible for authorizing the seismic tests oil companies need to do before they drill—in hopes of preventing permits from being approved. For a little over three weeks, from Dec. 12, 2020 to Jan. 6, 2021, Haraus and team empowered the public to get involved.

People from all over the world started making content, writing letters, and encouraging their communities to get involved. Two of Haraus’ favorite examples of this were school-aged kids, one online and one offline. The first was a young girl who made a TikTok where she crocheted a polar bear stuffed animal while describing the situation in the refuge, with the video amassing over 750,000 views.

Another elementary school student saw Haraus’s videos and wanted to encourage his classmates to write letters, so he asked his teacher if they could get extra credit for writing letters. The teacher, he recalled, loved the idea and even shared the idea with other teachers. Before long, his entire school was writing letters to help protect the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. The impact these two elementary schoolers had—which was replicated by other kids and adults just like them—was huge.

“It just goes to show the power of outfitting people to speak on an issue,” Haraus said.

Between Haraus’ videos and the people who used his toolkit to make their own, a million letters were sent into the FWS within one week. At that point in the campaign, it was just “normal people encouraging normal people to do extraordinary things,” as Haraus explained during a Breaching Extinction podcast appearance on May 20, 2022.

It wasn’t until week two of the three-week campaign that any major creators got involved. Charlie D’Amelio was the first to post a video. After that, a few other large creators like Addison Rae and Jack Wright got involved, too. Though the coalition was well on its way to 2 million letters at that point, the celebrities “still had a huge impact on the number of letters that got sent,” Haraus said. The organic support helped the campaign achieve a truly massive scale.

When submissions closed, 6.3 million people sent something in. According to internal reporting by Project Impact, that’s more letters than any other public comment period, for any issue—environment or otherwise—in American history. And, most importantly, on his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order halting drilling in the Arctic Refuge and revoking permits.

While this campaign demonstrates just how effective platforms like TikTok can be, Haraus cautioned creators to understand “social media isn’t always the answer.” 

“You have to be intentional and choose an issue that the general public can actually impact,” he said.

He recommended consulting experts about the best way to impact an issue. If you jump in without understanding the path to success, you might end up charging down one road when another course of action would have been more effective. 

Nonetheless, you’ll learn something from it.

If you’re thinking about using social media for social impact, Haraus said, “Try your best to change the world, but just know if that fails, it’s not on you. … You have to be willing to mess up and try again because whether an attempt succeeds or fails, it’s still an experience you can learn from.”

These mistakes and experiences encompass what it takes to make an impact. As Haraus said, “It takes real determination to get a good thing done above all else.”

Update Nov. 7, 3:29pm CT: After the publication of this article, a representative for Project Impact said via email Haraus did not spearhead the social media strategy for the coalition of people from Protect the Arctic, Project Impact, the Alaska Wilderness League, and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. Instead, they said the social media strategy was overseen by a team of communication professionals at the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign. They said the success of the campaign was not boiled down to “Alex’s conversion rate alone” and said Haraus did not create the toolkit mentioned in the article by himself, and instead it was created in partnership with Indigenous partners at Native Movement.

The representative also said they do not want to publicly affirm the accuracy of the internal reporting mentioned in the article which states the letter-writing campaign was larger than in any other public comment period in American history. They said the report was shared “anecdotally” by their coalition lobbying partners in Washington, D.C.

Update Nov. 9, 2:45pm CT: After the publication of this article, Alex Haraus clarified the social media campaign and creation of the toolkit mentioned in the article was “in no way a solo effort” and said many organizations and individuals—particularly communication professionals at the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign and Indigenous partners—led the effort. He said his personal conversion rate alone was not the reason the strategy was a success. Haraus also said he did not claim “the filmmakers hadn’t seen anyone else talk about this issue on TikTok.” He said his own posts simply “happened to be gaining traction at the time.”

“I am very intentional about defending, lifting up, and working alongside Indigenous voices, and care about the partners we worked with immensely. … TikTok as a platform does seem to have a higher conversion rate than other platforms for all creators. Based on that informed assumption, everyone making videos was drawing more participation per post than they might on other platforms, especially large creators like Charli D’Amelio and others mentioned, and that is a large part of the reason why it was able to reach the scale it did,” Haraus said.

Haraus also said he is unable to verify if the campaign had the largest public comment period in history: “While it is true to my knowledge as well, there was no way to confirm it and the notion was purely something we discussed as a team.”