Battling climate change and climate misinformation all at the same time
Jun 1, 2021

Battling climate change and climate misinformation all at the same time

The discussion of fracking in the presidential debate last year is among several triggers of spikes in climate misinformation online.

So far, most of our conversations about disinformation have been about politics, the 2020 election and, during the pandemic, misleading posts about COVID-19 and the vaccine. Facebook and Twitter have become more aggressive about fact-checking, labeling and removing posts or accounts that misinform the public about those two topics.

Now, however, there’s growing concern about climate misinformation. In some cases, coming from a lot of the same old sources either denying that climate change is caused by humans, downplaying its impact or spreading conspiracies about it. I spoke with Erin McAweeney, a senior analyst at Graphika. She said the fracking discussion in last year’s presidential debate and 2020 wildfires led to spikes in the circulation of misinformation. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Erin McAweeney, a senior analyst at Graphika.
Erin McAweeney (Courtesy McAweeney)

Erin McAweeney: Those pivotal moments create this drumbeat of climate misinformation that is spread not just from that core climate denial group, but from these adjacent groups. The QAnon groups, the conspiracy groups, and also the conservative groups converge around climate misinformation when all of their vested interests align. And it reaches such a farther audience than we would normally see this core climate denial group reach on a regular basis.

Molly Wood: I mean, I can see where, from the platform point of view, it’s a little tricky, potentially. The election, for example, had a fixed date and it’s provable that it was not rigged; hundreds of people are dying every week from COVID-19. The climate crisis is, in some ways, more diffuse to people. How, in your research, are platforms approaching this type of speech, and how broad the misinformation can be?

McAweeney: There tend to be clearer motivations when we’re talking about political disinformation, whether that’s ushering in a certain candidate or undermining election results. It’s easier to trace that thread back to what the ultimate end goal is. Whereas with climate misinformation and other types of science skepticism misinformation, it becomes a little less clear what that motivating factor is.

Wood: Which I would imagine makes it harder to know, in some ways, what to do about it. For example, the Biden administration is coming in trying to take more concrete action on climate policy. How could this mis- and disinformation affect that agenda?

McAweeney: I will say this is a trend that we saw start in the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s translated into climate misinformation. The type of misinformation that is spreading to debunk science and working to undermine authoritative scientific sources has been around for a long time. And we’ve seen an uptake and an increase in this other type of mis- or disinformation that spreads the narrative that there is sort of this more leftist authoritarian agenda that is working to undermine civil liberties. So we see this, for example, recently, there was disinformation around Biden restricting red meat consumption, which is totally false. This was picked up by familiar climate denial influencers, but it also was framed by conservative influencers and Fox News as an example of this left-wing government overreach. And so I think this is a good example of a convergence of the climate and political misinformation. This type of mis- and disinformation does start to impact the political conversation once these ideas are repeated over and over again. And of course, this narrative is also amplified in the COVID-19 space, as well. That’s why we saw the anti-lockdown protests happening. So ultimately, I do think this sways the political conversation.

Wood: I mean, you are describing such a thriving ecosystem of converging beliefs and this sort of Venn diagram of identity. Is this even a social media problem at this point?

McAweeney: This all did exist before the internet. I think that’s always a really good point. I think often the internet is used as a scapegoat saying, “If we fix these things, we won’t have disinformation or racism.” It’s being amplified on the internet and we just have to fix that. And I really appreciate the framing that this is bigger than the internet. I do think the internet allows this misinformation to travel faster, and I do think it’s used as a tactic, often by climate denial influencers. So by that, I mean that it’s becoming increasingly harder to argue with climate science. And the tactics that are used by these climate denial accounts are essentially to create a false equivalency. They want to appear like they have outsized support, because their views are becoming increasingly outdated and increasingly an affront to authoritative science. So by creating these online platforms it gives them more legitimacy and it gives them more authority in an arena in which they otherwise would not have a voice. It would be largely overwhelmed by pro-environmental and pro-science views. So I do think that while this exists outside of the internet, the internet is absolutely being used as a tool to push and amplify anti-environmentalism and climate and science skepticism views.

Wood: Is this a perfect example of a case where Facebook or Twitter does not have to be the arbiter of what’s true, but they can take their technology off of the table and not give this misinformation an artificial boost?

McAweeney: Yeah, absolutely. After the large QAnon takedowns that we saw after January 6, in our climate network, there was about like a 70% decrease in QAnon accounts, just in that network alone. I think that that type of deplatforming can be incredibly effective. We’re not necessarily going to remove these influencers completely, and that anti-science sentiment will be there, but at least it will hinder that appearance that this is a legitimate and widely accepted view.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrive at a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate with 40 world leaders in the East Room of the White House April 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
President Joe Biden in April pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. (Al Drago/Pool/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

USA Today reported last week on research from a group, Advance Democracy, that said there were hundreds of thousands of posts denying climate change across social media sites — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube — frequently without warning labels or links to credible content. Experts say that in some cases the misinformation is being instigated by fossil fuel interests.

There’s also apparently a grand conspiracy theory about something called a “Grand Solar Minimum,” when the sun gives off less energy and, boom, global warming will stop. I mention this only so that if you see it you can be appropriately suspicious. Most recently, researchers say the Texas blackouts generated waves of disinformation.

USA Today points out that at a congressional hearing in March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it wasn’t treating climate misinformation the same way as it was COVID-19 misinformation because it didn’t have the potential to cause “imminent harm.” In this case, let’s keep our eyes on YouTube, where one channel about this solar minimum thing had almost five million views. Weirdly, YouTube’s CEO has never testified in front of Congress about any of this stuff. What’s that about?

And, friends, I want to give you a little update so you’re not surprised when you don’t hear me for a little while. I’m going to be off the show for the next couple of months for a very exciting reporting project that I am so excited to share details about later this summer. Don’t worry, I’ll still pop back on if there’s big news or if I can’t help myself. You’ll hear me on “Make Me Smart,” and I know you’ll be in great hands with our wonderful reporters who are kind enough to fill- n for me over the summer. In the meantime, I’ll see you on the internet.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer