The evolution of climate change disinformation
Ruarigh Thornton, Head of Social Media Intelligence
With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) due to take place in Glasgow from 31 October – 12 November, the PGI Digital Investigations team examined the evolution that climate change disinformation has undergone in recent years, from outright denial of the existence of climate change to partisan politicised manipulation.
When the politicisation of science engulfed Covid-19 and the subsequent pandemic response, many public figures and politicians reacted with surprise, as if the same process hadn’t been playing out around climate change since the 1970s at least. Fossil fuel companies have long funded a variety of overt and covert think tanks designed to shape public opinion around climate change, from publishing research papers contrary to the mainstream scientific consensus, to amplifying the risks of renewable energies, to outright denial of climate change.
Though climate change disinformation in 2021 still has commercial roots and objectives, the nature of climate change denial has evolved considerably.
With climate change becoming more difficult to deny outright, the climate change counter movement has shifted its tactics from denial to attempts to discredit the scientific evidence backing man-made climate change, and highlighting the economic costs attached to environmental policies. Any policies that are agreed upon during COP26 are likely to be met with harsh criticism by the denial movement which will attempt to highlight the costs attached to each policy recommendation. Content creators promoting these ideas have found engaged and militant audiences among the plethora of conspiracy theorists, across both mainstream and alternative social media platforms. The figureheads in this space are keenly aware of their audience and of the red policy lines of the platforms on which they operate; benefiting from the fact that conspiracy theories lie in the heart of the grey zone between disinformation and freedom of speech that platforms struggle to regulate. They resultantly confine the overt disinformation to dedicated followings on Telegram or Gab, while using more mainstream video hosting platforms to promote fundraisers and advertise merchandise amid pseudoscience that seems to abide by platform regulations.
The impact of the normalisation and mainstreaming of climate change denial that occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency continues to affect the state of climate change disinformation today. Trump’s scepticism of climate science, nomination of the former president and chief executive of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, and inclusion of popular climate change sceptic John Christy to the US Environmental Protection Agency, further enshrined climate change as a political partisan issue.
Looking towards the UK, where COP26 will be held next week, multiple Conservative Party politicians are affiliated with entities like the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which is critical of the government’s green initiatives and publishes its own ‘factsheets’ and reports to counter mainstream scientific evidence of man-driven climate change. The deceptive tactics of entities like the GWPF—which often present themselves using a name designed to show neutrality or expertise on climate change—speak for themselves.
The evolution of climate change denial to focus on political ideology in insisting that climate science is backed by left-leaning political groups is particularly concerning. Amplifying claims that global warming serves the ‘leftist agenda’ of increasing taxes and redistributing wealth, coordinated attacks to frame Greta Thunberg as a ‘liberal puppet’ and, in the US in particular, allegations that environmentalists are socialists intent on destroying the American capitalist system, are all indicators of the dangerously polarised information environment around climate change denial. The case study of climate-sceptic reporting of Sky News Australia and other right-leaning media organisations is the case in point for this evolution.
Virtual and physical collide
Much as various right wing conspiracists stormed the US Capitol on 6 January and anti-vaccine protesters sought to storm the headquarters of the BBC in the UK on 9 August, it is certainly only a matter of time before the online damage of climate change disinformation and denial plays out in the real world.
The climate change counter movement is particularly reactive to external events, such as media content, extreme weather events, the release of mainstream scientific publications and conferences on climate science. COP26 will certainly trigger a spike in discussion of climate change from organic and inorganic entities, authentic and inauthentic users, scientists, pseudoscientists, supporters and denial figures – so using COP26 as a lens for mapping communities and networks engaging in this discussion will be fruitful exercise in understanding the ecosystem that exists around climate change denial, and where the strategic amplification of conspiracy and disinformation might be taking place at a more hostile foreign policy level.
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