Yesterday we wrote about the toplines of a new report on digital climate disinformation and its potential solutions, but today (and perhaps through next week, we'll see what happens…) we're going to go in-depth on the extensive body of evidence assembled.
At 116 pages, there's a lot of ground to cover in "Deny, Deceive, Delay: Documenting and Responding to Climate Disinformation at COP26 and Beyond," but we'll start with Part 1: Discourses of Delay, the 20-page discussion on the most prominent climate disinformation narratives monitored during COP26. The four discourses of the opposition’s delay tactics were that (1) elite climate alarmists are hypocrites for flying, (2) "we" shouldn't take action unless some other "they" does first, (3) renewables are unreliable, and (4) electric vehicles are stupid.
Content attacking people as hypocrites for living with a system they're trying to change (e.g tweets criticizing COP delegates for flying) was tweeted/retweeted 199,676 times on Twitter, and over 4,000 Facebook posts with this narrative were shared more than 100,000 times between October 10th and November 19th, 2021.
What the report terms the "absolution narrative" – that the US shouldn't take action because of China or India's pollution – got more Facebook posts (over 6,000) but fewer tweets at "only" 72,356 instances.
Then there's the classic stand-by, that renewables aren't reliable enough to keep the lights on, but it was only found some 14,400 times on Twitter and only 855 posts on Facebook during the COP. The report notes that one:
viral piece of disinformation alleged that diesel generators were powering Glasgow, and continued to gain traction even after the COP Presidency issued an official fact-check. The first tweet making this claim garnered 8.7k likes and 3k retweets, in stark contrast to the Presidency comment which had fewer than 100 interactions overall. This demonstrates how fact-checking may not achieve desired outcomes, whether via labels, prompts or evidence-based responses; unless content is downranked or removed by platforms and action taken against repeat offenders, disinformation often remains at large.
Finally, there were the anti-electric vehicle posts, which were relatively fewer at only 1,612 Facebook posts and 22,421 tweets. But there was a spike at the beginning of COP26, particularly on Twitter, as disinfo spread about COP negotiations relying on electric cars being recharged by diesel generators, and then died down before peaking on Facebook towards the end of the period studied.
Those are the narratives, but disinformation isn't an actor, it's a message - so who's spreading it? The next section covers a network analysis of Twitter accounts spreading climate disinformation, demarcating 13 different sub-groups, like anti-science conspiracy theorists and various right-wing politicians and pundits in the US, UK and Australia, and a small but mighty showing from the Crypto community.
Analysts at Graphika, who compiled this section, found there was clear overlap between the political right and climate and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. And while they're buddies, it does appear there are more rightwing grifters occasionally talking about climate than there are dedicated climate disinfo spreaders.
As a result:
Due to the relative volume of these groups and their geographical focus, some of the most popular content across the network, even during a prominent event like COP26, pertained to unrelated topics such as the origin of COVID-19, ‘cancel culture’, critical race theory and LGBTQ+ education in schools. These are all issues high on the agenda of right-wing pundits and activists, the latter two particularly in the US. This further suggests that the audiences of US climate-skeptic influencers are also engaging in other ‘hot button issues’ and could be cross-pollinating communities with their content.
That mostly wraps up the 40 pages of big-picture data analysis in the report. The next 60 pages go over the 7 ways that the UN, IPCC, EU and Big Tech can start to reduce the imminent public harm of climate disinformation, and maybe we'll get to those next week!