Fake news

6th June 2024

Disinformation about the impossibility of averting the climate crisis is part of an alarming turn in denialist tactics, writes David Burrows

In January, the World Economic Forum published its Global Risks Report 2024, which draws on the views of almost 1,500 global risk experts, policymakers and industry leaders. “Misinformation and disinformation are the biggest short-term risks, while extreme weather and critical change to Earth systems are the greatest long-term concern,” the forum warned.

Which puts us in a bit of a pickle – because disinformation (still) plays a role in fuelling climate denial. That’s right, in 2024, denial of climate change is a real and present danger – in fact, there is evidence of a shift in tactics that is threatening to undermine confidence in solutions and the advocates who seek to avert climate catastrophe. And young people could be most at risk.

“Most cynical and telling of all is the way opponents to action on climate change have pivoted from claiming climate change isn’t real to claiming climate change is real, but that we have no hope of averting it,” explains Imran Ahmed, CEO and founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), based in Washington, US.

New denial

Research conducted by the centre, published in January, detailed how climate denial on YouTube has “evolved radically” of late. Using an AI model trained on climate denial they tested transcripts for 12,058 videos from climate denial channels on the social media platform between January 2018 and September 2023. They found that just 30% of the denialist claims related to the old arguments that ‘global heating is not happening’ and ‘human-related greenhouse gases are not causing global heating’. The other 70% were what they are calling ‘new denial’.

The ‘super-claims’ within this new video vortex of denial include: the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless; climate solutions won’t work; and that climate science and the climate movement are unreliable. Arguments within those might be that the building of tens of thousands of solar panels and wind farms will mean tearing up land, destroying the environment and food supplies in the process. Or that more carbon dioxide encourages more plant growth and makes the world ‘greener’. Or that the climate movement is alarmist, corrupt or unreliable – fuelling confusion and, in turn, inaction.

The attention this is grabbing concerns climate scientists and has done for a while. Speaking to Transform in 2021, Michael E Mann, one of the world’s pre-eminent climate scientists, explained that there is as much consensus among the world’s scientists about climate change as there is about gravity – and yet there is an assault on the work of the climate scientists. “The science of black holes, dark matter and multiple universes – these are far more speculative areas of science, and yet they are not attacked because there isn’t fundamentally a vested interest,” he said.

“Misinformation and disinformation are the biggest short-term risks”

This is happening right now, in Ottawa, Canada, where talks to thrash out a global treaty on plastics are under way. These materials contribute to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Green NGOs as well as progressive businesses and countries are aligned on the need for a cap on their production. But vested interests, in the shape of plastic producers and oil-rich states, are spanners in the works of an ambitious, legally-binding agreement.

“On past form, it seems likely that some lobbyists will try to cast doubt on plastics research to slow down the negotiations,” wrote Martin Wagner, a professor of environmental toxicology in the Department of Biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. Lobbyists will, for example, artificially increase the scientific uncertainty around plastics and the harm done. “Doubt, disguised as scientific critique, is cast by discrediting scientists and their research,” he added. “Meanwhile, companies promote their own studies, which demonstrate a lack of harmful effects.”

This corporate-funded misinformation is being used against new packaging regulation proposals in Europe. For example, long but opaque studies by consultancies paid for by industry have been used to claim the laws could result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, they argue, sticking with the status quo of single-use packaging would be better. Campaigners and academics have accused industry of promoting “scientifically dubious, cherry-picked evidence in opposition to the legislation”, according to DeSmog (which works to counter climate disinformation), and those industry tactics seem to be working.

Similar spanners are being thrown in the works elsewhere. Consider, for example, research on the impact of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions. “We have increasingly become aware about the significant amount of misinformation posts around the environmental and health impacts of meat and dairy,” noted Nusa Urbancic, CEO at Changing Markets Foundation.

The foundation’s analysis of more than 285 million digital posts on X, Reddit and forums during a 14-month period, from 1 June 2022 to 31 July 2023, revealed that around 948,000 posts featured misinformation. Some 78% of these were categorised as ‘disparaging’ — attacking plant-based alternatives, vegan diets and climate science. Another 22% fell into the ‘enhance’ category — where the health or environmental benefits of eating or producing meat and dairy products were exaggerated. This represents so-called greenwashing, she says.

The climate community has been laser-focused on greenwashing as a form of passive information malpractice of late. This is important work, but the active climate disinformation found in both the mainstream media and on social media platforms presents “as much, if not more, risk of climate goals being thwarted”, says Chris Hilson, professor of environmental law at the University of Reading.

The trouble with trolls

“There is an EU Code of Practice on Disinformation which is voluntary (although it does not name climate change specifically), and some social media platforms have themselves put in place specific commitments on climate change, but much more needs to be done,” he says. “A lot of the problem is not so much in the ‘stories’ or posts themselves – these may well get picked up – but in the community ‘comments’ on these. Many newspapers in the UK have a pretty shocking record of anti-climate trolls in their online comments sections, which they seem to be doing little to weed out or fact-check,” he adds.

An investigation by the fact-checking network of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) identified a number of narratives that were spread in summer 2022. These included that climate change is not real (one of those ‘old denials’) but also that traditional media spreads panic through false news and/or manipulated images, and that renewables, recycling and electric vehicles are useless or dangerous (new denials).

“Participants trusted ‘fake news’ that reinforced and exacerbated their biases

The single piece of false news that spread most successfully related to two temperature maps in Sweden. They were attributed to the years 1986, in green, and 2022, in red. They showed similar temperatures, leading to claims by some social network users that traditional media have just “coloured red” the same map to be able to label it as “extreme heat”. But it was a hoax. “The first map refers to 2016, not 1986, while the second map refers to 2021 and not 2022,” EDMO wrote. “The two maps come from different media outlets that normally use different colours, which makes a comparison between the two meaningless; and, most importantly, temperatures in Sweden rose significantly in the past few years.”

Similar maps were found in France, Spain and the UK. The exceptional heatwave at the time, together with fading attention on other topics such as the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, opened up space for deniers to fill. Of the 1,729 fact-checking articles published by EDMO’s network in March this year, 136 (8%) were on climate change-related disinformation. This is down from that high of summer 2022 (15% of 1,235 articles) but expect more in the coming months – as extreme weather events become more frequent they are widely reported by the media, and this climate information is followed by climate disinformation.

Going for Google

At the CCDH, the focus is on the big tech firms – and their role in preventing the spread of such disinformation. In April, they wrote to Sundar Pichai, CEO at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, claiming that declarations of intent to, for example, prohibit adverts on videos that “contradict the well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change” have failed to translate into effective action. The centre called on digital platforms to “de-monetise and de-amplify climate denial content”.

Left to spread, the pernicious messaging will further infiltrate the internet as denial evolves further into inactivism. And in a year when half the world goes to the polls, the risks are perhaps greater than ever.

Indeed, a study just published in American Economic Journal: Microeconomics found that when people were presented with new information on politically sensitive topics, including climate change, individuals on both sides of the political spectrum struggled to detect whether the information was true or not, and were biased towards trusting news that aligned with their political beliefs. “I came out feeling a little sad,” study author Michael Thaler tells Transform.

Thaler found the participants trusted ‘fake news’ that reinforced and exacerbated their biases more than ‘true news’ that brought them closer to the correct answer. When given news that could plausibly be true or false, people trusted the reports that drove them to be even more extreme than they already were, which could lead to greater political polarisation, he adds. “I think one very natural further research direction is how do we mitigate these biases and how do we design information that is true, and that people realise is true.”

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher


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