What's the difference between a university professor and a conservative columnist? Where does a nuclear activist go when his nonprofit funding dries up? Why'd the Twitter shitposter cross the social media road and start a YouTube podcast?
Today we'll answer these 'world’s-worst-career-day' jokes, and in doing so, we might just find some indication of what 2023 has in store for the world of climate disinformation. Because while the fossil fuel industry shows no sign of slowing its billions of dollars of anti-climate lobbying, there's another route emerging for those who make disinformation a profession.
It's a new class of climate denier. They're the same as the old class, but now with additional streams of financial support, thanks to social media. They're like traditional influencers, but they peddle disinformation.
Meet the Disinfluencers.
We've been using blogger turned Twitter troll Tom Nelson as a denier bellwether since at least 2015, as his regular Tweeting was a good indication of what ideas got traction with decidedly unprofessional climate deniers. But last year he did a YouTube interview, and then started his own climate disinformation channel. On the channel, Nelson interviews all the professional deniers you know and love, and while Tom's not exactly going viral, his audience is growing, with his video with denier Valentina Zharkova approaching 90k views.
While Nelson's channel doesn't (yet) appear to be monetized, we did see ads on his videos, which suggests that, despite its apparently entirely unenforced policy against ads on climate disinformation, YouTube is selling ads on Tom Nelson's climate disinformation.
Then there's the supposed former environmentalist Michael Shellenberger. In a September interview with Robert Bryce that we watched for sake of hearing about his humiliating loss in the California governor's race, Shellenberger also describes how he lost funders for his pro-nuclear-power nonprofit a few years back. But it's not all good news. Since then, he's found that a few thousand Substack subscribers are starting to fill that financial gap. That would certainly explain his drift from pro-nuclear advocacy to general purpose hippie-punching, bundling in attacks on anti-racism and pro-LGBTQ+ efforts as part of his algorithmically-amplified recruitment of new subscribers.
Anyway, newsletters like the one the John Birch Society used to send out are nothing new, and reactionary/racist rhetoric will remain a staple of white supremacy. But Substack streamlines and monetizes newsletters in a way that makes propaganda profitable not just as a tool for larger political campaigns but as a product in itself.
But again, disinformation isn't unique to the digital age. Traditional media still provides its own incentives for convenient untruths and a retirement plan for former professors who can no longer tolerate the constraints of scientific accuracy imposed by the Ivory Tower.
Such is the fate of Judith Curry, former Georgia Tech professor, founder of a climate forecast company with oil clients, blogger, and now, SkyNews Australia columnist. In a December post to her blog, Curry found herself "at a bit of an inflection point," with her academic days behind her, and the publication of a new book ahead of her. In the meantime, she's taken an offer to contribute regular columns to SkyNews Australia.
She was hired not because she has any particular wisdom to impart to the land Down Under, but instead accepted the offer specifically because it's far away from domestic US issues. Apparently Curry feels that her home turf in the US is "so toxic and noisy" that she turns down requests from outlets to write op-eds. For her, "trust is a big issue," which is why she feels "comfortable working with SkyNews."
For those unfamiliar with Australia's version of Fox, SkyNews Australia is the Murdoch-owned media company that regularly platforms climate deniers in clips that get shared online around the world. Seems Curry is only comfortable working with a media outlet that disinfo research has shown to be a "global hub for climate misinformation."
Instead of producing peer-reviewed science, Curry now writes conservative opinion columns suggesting that we just slow down and take it easy on this whole climate issue.
Instead of pretending to be an environmentalist while promoting the nuclear power industry, Shellenberger's anti-woke self-promotion is profitable thanks to Substack.
And instead of just Tweeting into the ether for hours on end every day, amateur Tom Nelson is now building a platform for professional climate disinformation thanks to YouTube.
Though still ultimately reliant on the professional climate disinformation organizations' products and reports, we suspect the proliferation of disinfluencers is going to be a recurring story in 2023.
Thanks, Big Tech!