How online disinformation threatens climate change action
An ice sculpture with Facebook’s logo embedded on the inside melts near the U.S. Capitol building, as part of a protest over Facebook’s role in the spread of climate misinformation online in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis
What’s the context?
Falsehoods spread by oil companies, climate skeptics and others are a threat to progress against global warming, campaigners say
- Oil firms, climate skeptics seen stoking disinformation
- Scientists warn of threat to action on global warming
- Green campaigners say Big Tech must enforce policies
LONDON - The internet has long been fertile ground for myths and falsehoods about climate change, threatening the fight against global warming and fuelling calls for tougher action by Big Tech to enforce disinformation policies and tackle greenwashing.
Myths such as "the planet's rising temperature is normal", "cold weather means global warming is not happening", or "China is the only country affecting climate change" can quickly snowball on social media platforms - despite tech companies' policies to counter disinformation.
A May 2023 report by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a global coalition, said Google has been monetising videos promoting climate disinformation on its YouTube platform in violation of its own policies.
Google did not reply to a request for comment.
So how is climate disinformation spread and what are the consequences?
How is social media used to spread disinformation?
Climate denial is making "a stark comeback" as myths and falsehoods about global warming circulate online, a 2023 report by the CAAD found, saying fossil fuel companies often lie behind such misleading information.
In 2022, a group of more than 450 scientists said "advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies ... seek to obfuscate or downplay our data and the risks posed by the climate crisis."
Common disinformation tactics include saying green energy is expensive and exacerbates the recent cost-of-living crisis, casting doubt on the reliability of green technology and trying to make climate skepticism part of wider culture wars, for example over "wokeness", research has found.
"Actors who push climate disinformation are often deeply entangled with other forms of disinformation too," said Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology in society at the University of Cambridge who has advised Meta and Google about climate misinformation policies for their platforms.
"Anti-vax, anti-climate, pro-Russia and New World Order conspiracy theories now go hand-in-hand," van der Linden told Context.
On social media, emotive content, posts shared by friends and algorithmic recommendations can make false information more likely to gain traction, researchers from Indiana University found.
Is climate disinformation getting worse?
False information tends to mushroom on social media sites around key events such as reports by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), COP climate talks or extreme weather disasters.
There had also been "a huge resurgence" in climate disinformation on Twitter since Elon Musk took over in 2022, van der Linden said.
Twitter is now relying more on automation and less on humans for content moderation, the company has said. A spokesperson could not immediately be reached for further comment.
Companies' enforcement of their policies against disinformation and corporate greenwashing is vital to taming the spread and impact of climate falsehoods, digital rights and environmental campaigners say.
A 2022 report from the British-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate said Facebook did not add fact-checking labels to half of all posts pushing content from prominent climate change deniers.
The report followed allegations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that the company had misled investors about its efforts to tackle climate change and COVID-19 misinformation.
Facebook said at the time it had not completed its labelling rollout before the study finished, and there are "no one-size-fits-all solutions to stopping the spread of misinformation".
Is disinformation hitting climate action?
False information and the "politicization of science" are key barriers to climate action, the IPCC said in 2022. Rhetoric from "vested economic and political interests ... undermines climate science", the U.N. climate science panel added.
Without reliable information about a complex topic, people tend to base their judgment on something else - such as the character of the person making the argument, found research by John Cook, a senior research fellow with the University of Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change in 2018.
While outright climate change denial has shifted to the margins, disinformation tactics have shifted to subtler "discourses of delay" intended to prevent any meaningful response, said Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank.
"There is a great danger in assuming that issues like climate are a 'settled matter' or that key arguments have been won," King said.
To counter that pressure, environmental groups are calling for governments and large technology firms to stop letting fossil fuel companies use paid advertisements - a major source of greenwashing.
The CAAD coalition also recommends improving transparency around data for better tracking of how disinformation spreads and for the enforcement of penalties for repeat offenders.
(Reporting by Adam Smith; Additional reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Helen Popper)
- Disinformation and misinformation
- Tech and climate
- Content moderation
- Social media