Climate change is an incredibly complex problem, but addressing it is no mystery. Social media remains a key vector for the spread of climate disinformation, and measures to slow it are failing miserably, where they even exist at all.
That's the topline finding of a comprehensive, 100+ page report "Deny, Deceive, Delay", published today by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the members of the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition (CAAD), the result of a massive monitoring effort around last year's COP26 climate negotiations. They found that Twitter actually carried a greater volume of false content than Facebook, with generally an order of magnitude more content engaged with on Twitter than any other platform. But Facebook hardly came away looking good — their algorithm drove more views to climate disinformation than it did to their own Climate Science Center, and their fact-checking programs remain pitifully unenforced.
Jennie King, Head of Climate Disinformation at ISD, said the "analysis has shown that climate disinformation has become more complex, evolving from outright denial into identifiable ‘Discourses of Delay’ to exploit the gap between buy-in and action."
But the report offers a guide for responding, and so, King continued, “governments and social media platforms must learn the new strategies at play and understand that disinformation in the climate realm has increasing crossover with other harms, including electoral integrity, public health, hate speech and conspiracy theories. We’ve proposed seven concrete measures they can take to thwart the prominence and impact of this content, in order to build public mandates based on credible science and good-faith debate.”
On the government side, the report details how media well known to this space like the Wall Street Journal routinely spread climate disinformation, and therefore shouldn't be exempted from pending EU legislation to address online disinfo.
For Big Tech though, there are six concrete asks, each thoroughly supported by examples from the COP26 monitoring effort. Some are technical, like improving labeling of old disinfo that gets re-shared, transparency and data access so that researchers can easily and effectively get a handle on large-scale disinformation trends, and making image-based searching better, so researchers can track the spread of images.
It calls on social media (and others) to adopt a definition of climate disinformation, particularly official science and political bodies like the UN and IPCC. That way social media companies have a reliable source to inform their policies. One such, another of the report's topline recommendations, is that media and social media companies simply stop letting the fossil fuel industry run misleading and greenwashing advertisements.
That's a big ask, as is the call for platforms to actually enforce rules against repeat offenders. The monitoring found that the bulk of the disinfo was coming from just a handful of users, most of whom were professional or politically motivated. You know the names: Bjorn Lomborg, Tony Heller, Michael Shellenberger...
“We will not be able to stop climate change if all conversations are flooded with disinformation,” said Michael Khoo, co-chair of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth US, who provided US expertise in partnership with CAAD. “Governments must require social media companies to be transparent and accountable about the harms their products create, as they do with every other industry from airlines to cars to food processing. We should not continue this endless game of climate denial whack-a-mole.”
And at least some governments may actually be paying attention! Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, member of European Parliament, both praised the report's "timely and important exploration of the state of play on climate disinformation" and as a member of the EU special committee on disinformation threats, added that "platforms are amplifying the voices of a small community of actors spreading climate disinformation....We must do more to address climate disinformation at the European level. If urgent steps are not taken to tackle climate disinformation head on, our collective work towards reaching the climate goals is at risk of being undermined."
Not exactly a risk of being undermined, but more of a reality.
As Philip Newell, Associate Director of Science Defense at report contributor Climate Nexus surmised, “this was the most robust effort to monitor climate disinformation that I've seen in my decade of tracking Big Oil's climate denial. While each industrial disinformation campaign is unique, the actors and their playbook remain the same, so if the lessons in this report are heeded by Big Tech and other policymakers, climate disinformation won't still be an obstacle to climate action another ten years from now.”
We can certainly hope so! Then again, there's something to be said for job security…