If you've missed the last two 'roundups, we're exploring a major report released last week, covering the state of (mostly online) climate disinformation, and offering steps to address it. We gave an overview on Thursday, and looked at the main narratives and networks on Friday.
Today we're turning to the really fun stuff, the top two of seven recommendations to clean up climate disinfo described in "Deny, Deceive, Delay: Documenting and Responding to Climate Disinformation at COP26 and Beyond."
The first one is simple, but its ramifications are broad. It's for "key institutions" like the IPCC, UNFCCC and/or other official scientific bodies to "implement a unified definition of climate mis- and disinformation," and for Big Tech companies to then "reflect these criteria in tech company Community Standards and/or Terms of Service."
The point, the report explains, is to "create a precedent for both private and third sector entities and remove the pressure for companies to act as sole ‘arbiters of truth’ on climate, which is an increasingly contentious issue."
If social media companies should be able to defer to some legitimate scientific body to provide the factual guardrails to inform Big Tech's content policies. Since the IPCC is slowly beginning to acknowledge that climate disinfo is a threat to climate action, hopefully this report will provide an impetus for them to adopt the definition of disinformation being advanced by the anti-disinfo community.
That definition is three-fold, describing climate mis- and disinformation as "deceptive or misleading content that:
1. Undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, the unequivocal human influence on climate change, and the need for corresponding urgent action according to the IPCC scientific consensus and in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement;
2. Misrepresents scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions; or
3. Falsely publicises efforts as supportive of climate goals that in fact contribute to climate warming or contravene the scientific consensus on mitigation or adaptation.
And lest anyone cry "censorship!", we will note that the most important words in this definition are "deceptive or misleading content", so as long as one's anti-climate propaganda is factually accurate, they have no need to worry that this definition would impact them!
But given that so very, very few accurate arguments against climate action exist, if and when platforms follow Pinterest's lead in adopting this definition, they will have a lot of accounts that post climate disinformation like it's their job.
And that makes sense, because it is their job! The report lays out, in detail, plenty of examples of people profiting off their climate disinformation, which is why the second policy point is so important.
Once platforms create some sort of policy to prevent climate disinformation from harming their users, they need to actually enforce that rule, and deplatform users who repeatedly break those rules. If not, the report says:
"We know that sensational content fuels the ‘outrage economy’, and therefore serves the current business model of most platforms, and climate is no exception - whether outright denial or other forms of disinformation, this content is generally high- engagement, which increases the value proposition for advertisers on social media. As such, efforts like Facebook’s much-touted Climate Science Center become somewhat moot - while they report an average of 100,000 daily visitors, organic content from known ‘super-spreaders’ of disinformation gains vastly more reach and visibility. Rather than fixate on individual posts, accounts which consistently distort, undermine or refute scientific consensus should be addressed in line with Terms of Service, Community Standards and the definition outlined in Policy Ask 1."
And those working the outrage economy thanks to the fossil fuel industry's support have certainly figured out how to game the social algorithms. One of the report's case studies found that "In the period from October 25 to November 21 2021, the tweets and quote tweets of just 16 Twitter accounts amassed a total 507,000 likes and retweets (“interactions”) on climate narratives alone." Those super-spreaders are well-known names to readers here, including holocaust denier Peter Sweden/Imanuelsen, Koch contractor John Stossel, Homeless harasser Michael Shellenberger, P.O. Box Bjorn Lomborg, Obama birther and Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Tony Heller, and Round-up refuser Patrick Michaels.
Given their many non-climate interests, the report noted that
"Repeat offenders have often spread mis- or disinformation on multiple topics . This is most clearly observed in the number of high-traction accounts sharing misleading claims on climate and COVID-19, but encompasses a wider range of issues - from anti-vaxx sentiment and genocide denial to conspiracies such as QAnon, the Great Reset and electoral fraud. This should provide an even greater incentive for platforms to act, since an effective response against such accounts could have a ‘force multiplier’ effect and mitigate harm in multiple areas."
Turns out people who lie about climate change also lie about other stuff, which isn't exactly a huge finding, but it is a huge reason why social media companies should remove users who habitually make their websites a toxic and disinformation-filled mess.