“It’s a moral choice to gaslight the earth.”
A report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate quantifies the mushrooming threat of online climate disinformation.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Graphic design by Tess Abbot.
“We cannot tackle the climate crisis unless we tackle the climate disinformation crisis,” tweeted Representative Ro Khanna, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the evening before oil industry executives were brought before Congress to testify about their campaigns to spread climate disinformation. After putting Big Oil in the hot seat, the same committee is now setting its sights on another accomplice in climate disinformation: social media companies.
Just days after the Big Oil hearing, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an international nonprofit that “seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation,” released a report finding that posts linking to content from just ten publishers account for 69 percent of Facebook users’ interactions with climate denial content.
Dubbed the “Toxic Ten,” those publishers are:
The Western Journal
Media Research Center
The Washington Times
The Daily Wire
Russian State Media
The Patriot Post
Examples of viral climate denial content included a Washington Times article claiming there is a “cult of ‘climate change’” whose “worship” is based on unproven science, a Breitbart piece promoting conspiracy theories that climate legislation involves “lockdown decrees,” and a Newsmax article telling readers not to “worry too much about CO2 baking the planet.”
This type of content didn’t emerge on its own. CCDH’s CEO, Imran Ahmed, said the fossil fuel industry has “shown its willingness to embrace new technologies and every tool available to it to create harm — and climate denial is harm.” Social media, he says, is the last frontier for Big Oil to cultivate opposition against climate action that might threaten their bottom line.
“If they can’t win the battle on legislation, they’re going to seek to undermine the consensus, the self-preservatory consensus that underpins the push for legislation. They know that you can’t possibly get political agreement if we can’t even agree on the basic facts,” Ahmed said. “And all they have to do is simulate the appearance of dissent, of debate.”
According to the report, Facebook and Google, which have portrayed themselves as “green” and allies in the fight for climate action, are doing business with denial. CCDH’s research found that Facebook failed to label 92 percent of the Toxic Ten’s climate disinformation, despite the company’s pledge to start placing information labels on posts about climate change. It found that eight of the Toxic Ten have received a combined $5.3 million in revenue from Google ads in the last six months alone. Google promised to stop attaching ads to climate denial content in October, setting its own deadline of November 9 — but it hasn’t acted on that promise yet.
CCDH isn’t alone in calling this out: online climate disinformation has been identified as an urgent and emerging issue in pieces published in The New York Times, The Conversation, and The Nation within the past week.
CCDH’s research was released during COP26, this year’s United Nations climate summit, where at least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists — more than any country’s delegation — were present, according to an analysis by Corporate Accountability and other advocacy groups.
Go figure: the industry’s attempts to halt climate action through third parties have been simultaneously occurring online, where, thanks to internet trolls, right-wing publications, and the cooperation of social media platforms, they can now reach exponentially more members of the public. At least two of the Toxic Ten have historic ties to funding from ExxonMobil:
Media Research Center, a self-described watchdog against “leftist bias in the news media and popular culture,” received at least $50,000 from ExxonMobil directly in between 2000 and 2003, and another $50,000 in 2009, along with more than $4.5 million from the Scaife Foundations, which themselves are financed in large part by the oil industry.
Townhall, a right-wing media group originally founded by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has received at least $870,000 in grants from ExxonMobil, according to the Climate Investigations Center.
Digital platforms make that particularly easy through frequency bias — a fundamental psychological characteristic that causes humans to believe that something must be true or at least popular if we see it frequently enough. And disinformation, whether about vaccinations or climate change or electoral processes, is “sticky,” or “chewy,” in Ahmed’s words — it gets people talking.
Ben Decker, CEO of Memetica, a firm that works to investigate disinformation across digital media platforms, called climate disinformation “the legacy disinformation narrative plaguing America,” and fossil fuel companies the “historical purveyors” of that disinformation.
“The content itself becomes a space where fossil fuel companies can advertise themselves,” said Decker, who says policies to address climate change, not necessarily the science itself, are now the greatest target for these kinds of attacks.
Both Decker and Ahmed referred to the “asymmetry” of these so-called debates, which are manufactured with the help of the fossil fuel industry’s immense resources, and enabled by social media platforms that profit from publishers who advertise climate denial content on their sites.
So how do we tackle the climate disinformation crisis?
CCDH’s report calls on social media companies to stop monetizing and profiting from climate denial, and to comprehensively label climate disinformation on their websites. “It is amazing that the regulatory framework for a bodega in Manhattan is more onerous than that for a company like Facebook, which has literally caused at least one genocide,” Ahmed said, in reference to the violence in Myanmar.
In Decker’s view, it’s important for social media companies to codify exactly what images and words constitute climate disinformation if they’re going to prevent its spread. “They’re coy and smart around the words that they use,” he said of publishers and bad actors that facilitate harm over these platforms.
Growing wells of academic and journalistic research on evolving climate disinformation, and now the ongoing House Oversight investigation, could help define and identify harmful content. But if you ask Ahmed, the problem goes deeper than a lack of consensus or standards.
“We get too tied up in the technology of algorithms, automated moderation, AI and machine learning,” Ahmed said. “It’s a moral choice to gaslight the earth, and that’s what social media companies are doing. They’re making a moral choice to do business with climate denial. These are rapacious companies willing to sell out their communities, nations, and the planet, for their own wealth.”
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