Addressing Climate Change Disinformation to Help Build Consensus for Solutions

Angrej Singh / Jul 28, 2022

Angrej Singh is pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and is an intern at Tech Policy Press.

Peloponnese, Greece, August 2021. Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.

Climate change is wreaking havoc all over the world, and yet there is a subset of people who reject its significance, despite a steady stream of news headlines. In recent weeks alone:

  • Heat waves afflicted the globe. Wildfires spread across the U.S. and Europe — where several countries, such as Britain and France experienced record-high temperatures and displaced thousands of people.
  • California’s largest wildfire of the year ravaged 18,715 acres as of July 27.
  • In St. Louis, Missouri, rainfall broke previous records when upwards of 11’’ of rain fell on July 26, in which one person drowned in his car. It’s the most rain seen in the area since records began in 1874.
  • Heavy rain caused damage in many parts of India, and flash floods displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh.
  • Drought ravaged Eastern Africa for a fourth consecutive season where nearly 18 million people are facing malnutrition and food scarcity amid the rise in food prices.
  • Several regions in Western U.S. are facing the second or third drought year in a row, and Lake Mead and Lake Powell in Arizona — two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — are at the lowest levels, below 30 percent, since they were filled.
  • A glacier collapsed in the northern Italian Alps that left 11 people dead.
  • A Dartmouth College study forecasted that the economic impacts of greenhouse emissions caused $6 trillion in global losses.

Climate change and its impacts are indeed real. And while most people accept the scientific evidence, there are substantial vested interests that take advantage of dynamics in the information ecosystem, human cognition and identity to cloud the political debate about solutions.

Social Media, Vested Interests, Political Elites and Identity

Online platforms are enabling the spread of climate mis- and disinformation, according to a report released last month by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, CASM Technology, and the Climate Action Against Disinformation Alliance. The recurring content that perverts the conversation on climate change comes from a handful of influential politicians, pundits and personalities, many with verified accounts on social media, and some associated with the fossil fuel industry. These figures have a disproportionate effect on seeding and pushing adversarial content.

For instance, from October 25 to November 21, 2021, tweets and quote tweets from 16 climate misinformation ‘super-spreading’ accounts — including individuals such as Michael Shellenberger, John Stossel, Bjorn Lomborg and Patrick Moore — amassed a total 507,000 likes and retweets on climate narratives, according to the analysis. Others in this cohort of high traction accounts also shared misleading claims on conspiratorial topics such as QAnon, the anti-semitic Great Reset, and purported electoral fraud.

There are some mitigation measures in place at big technology platforms, such as Facebook, which partners with ‘independent, third-party’ fact-checkers certified via entities like the International Fact Checking Network to identify, review and take action on questionable content that is ‘timely or trending and important to the average person’. However, analysts in the above referenced report say these measures are not enough, as there was minimal evidence of any enforcement against known disinformers, even during moments when a global climate summit was held, or extreme weather events occurred.

Part of the reason the challenge is so immense is that climate beliefs and attitudes are difficult to shift, especially in a context where coverage in the media and discourse on social media can be misleading, resort to bothsideism, or come under the influence of the fossil fuel industry.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Brendan Nyhan, Ethan Porter, and Thomas J. Wood, titled “Time and skeptical opinion content erode the effects of science coverage on climate beliefs and attitudes,” underscores that over time, people may revert to false beliefs despite exposure to accurate scientific coverage. The study highlights that while exposure to factual coverage had immediate effects on attitudes, with people in the study becoming more supportive of government action and renewable energy as a result, the effects did not consistently endure. Matters of fact can become muddled when people are exposed to skeptical opinion content, leading to the erosion of effects of prior exposure to scientifically accurate coverage. This illustrates why misperceptions about issues like climate change can persist, even after an individual has received factual information.

Climate change is one of the most polarized issues in the United States, a Pew Research report found. Stances on the subject have become an almost purely partisan issue, according to John Cook, a research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. “When you have politicians saying climate change is not happening, that sends an influential social signal that ‘our tribe’ shouldn’t believe this thing,” Cook added.

In this context, political elites and partisan influencers send powerful signals that neutralize the benefits of fact-based reporting and content.

“Outlier opinions from contrarian voices can erode the effects of productive discussion in the public arena and consistent accurate and strong coverage is one answer, but in our current media architecture and infrastructure, I do not think that is feasible,” said Maxwell Boykoff, the Director of the Environmental Studies department at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Partisan Media and Social Media Undercut Accurate Reporting

Substantial sources of climate misinformation include the fossil fuel industry, some conservative think tanks, and conservative climate blogs. A content analysis of climate coverage across 4,856 newspaper articles in the fifteen years between 2005 and 2019 found that while media coverage is improving, historically conservative outlets had less accurate coverage. The climate misinformation presented by such sources is sometimes covered and amplified by mainstream media — in the form of print, digital, television, and radio — and shared by users on social media.

This dynamic played out significantly in Texas last year. While the news media, outside of historically conservative outlets, did a great job of debunking the myth of the role of frozen wind turbines in Texas’ winter 2021 power outages, it was on social media platforms that the false narrative was amplified, according to Michael Khoo, co-chair at Friends of the Earth, a coalition that combats climate disinformation. Politicians in Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans, blamed the state’s reliance on renewable energy, even though the state primarily relies on fossil fuels to power its grid. Fox News and other far-right cable television repeated the false narrative about the role of frozen wind turbines. “The core issue is platforms giving a small group of people an outsized voice, over a debate that the vast majority of the public and all credible scientists agree upon,” Khoo said.

Opinion sections also play a role. When people are presented with information on climate change from different news organizations and their opinion sections, they may experience a ‘canceling out effect,’ where they get confused and ultimately revert to belief in mis- or disinformation. Opinion sections, when not employed responsibly, can cause a distrust of journalism. “The consequence of this is that anyone in the business of trying to communicate accurate information to the public needs to be aware of the vulnerability of our facts, so we need to go beyond just explaining the facts,” said Cook.

The ongoing amplification of climate mis- and disinformation in news media can also arise from bad actors exploiting the traditional notion of objectivity, or over-dependence on the norm of 'balanced' reporting. The fossil fuel industry takes advantage of this dynamic to inject content that contradicts the scientific consensus into climate coverage, according to Khoo. “Just because Republicans say that renewable energy is weak, that doesn't mean media should repeat that talking point, or that social media companies should amplify it,” he said.

The fossil fuel industry has several tactics by which it pushes information that is not in the public interest. The industry uses a public relations toolkit — which some experts recognize as a disinformation playbook– including setting up front groups, funding university centers, and funding media either directly through ads or indirectly, and even setting up their own pseudo-media operations.

For instance, Chevron started a local news site in Richmond, California called the Richmond Standard. The company also operates a refinery in the community. Local organizers caution that Chevron uses this outlet to, in effect, distract from the pollution its practices cause, leaving citizens less informed. Another example includes an electric services company in Florida that used the Capitolist as part of an elaborate, off-the-books political strategy to advocate for rate hikes, agitate for legislative favors, attack political opponents and eliminate things like home solar panels, as an Miami Herald investigation found. Florida Power and Light, the electric services company, used a network of its shell companies to funnel money into the Captolist.

The practices of the fossil fuel industry are not new. For instance, there was a carbon tax that was introduced by the Clinton administration in 1993 called the BTU tax. When corporate actors found out, they mobilized and built think tanks like the Global Climate Coalition, which met its objectives by aggressively opposing policies that restricted greenhouse gas emissions and then dissolved in the early 2000’s. However, some members like the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute continue to lobby against emissions reductions, according to DeSmog, a blog that focuses on topics related to climate change and organized public relations campaigns within the field.

What Social Media Platforms Can Do

The aforementioned report from ISD and its partners on disinformation surrounding UN climate negotiations lists solutions that policymakers and tech companies can pursue amid the climate change crisis. This includes having a consensus on the definition of climate mis- and disinformation within key institutions and reflecting the definition in companies’ community standards and terms of service. The report urges platforms to improve transparency and access to data for vetted researchers and regulators on climate misinformation trends, as well as the role played by algorithmic amplification; go beyond the labeling of posts on ‘missing context,’ and restrict paid advertising and sponsored content in news media from fossil fuel companies and other companies with a history of spreading mis- and disinformation.

A June 2022 report from BSR, “Building a High-Quality Climate Science Information Environment: The Role of Social Media,” lays out a range of complementary suggestions. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Mozilla, and the Ariadne network of European funders for social change and human rights, the report suggests social media platforms should follow a “human rights-based approach" to "help establish the relationship between misinformation and harms to people,” including:

• Identifying the precise human rights harms that climate misinformation can lead to.

• Prioritizing company action based on the severity and likelihood of harm.

• Considering impacts on vulnerable populations.

• Providing guidance on appropriate action based on the company’s attribution to harm and its leverage to address it.

BSR concludes that social platforms must do more to remove false content, but that they must also help users “build resiliency” to misinformation. The report calls on platforms to explore how to make better policies related to climate misinformation, apply content moderation frameworks and fact-checking capabilities, make additional investments in tools such as “provenance-enhancing technologies” and solutions that help users see the connections between climate change and its negative impacts, and additional scrutiny on fossil fuel interests. It also recommends that platforms collaborate more substantially with civil society organizations that address climate issues.

Considerations related to justice and equity within the climate change conversation are important because they intersect with how we live and function in society, according to Boykoff. These relate to fundamental challenges that society faces: starting migration patterns that can spark considerations of public health, and all kinds of urban and rural issues on different scales and different environments. He suggests it may be necessary to restructure media organizations, where the profit margins are slim and pressures are put on editors and journalists to produce stories at a churn rate that's far beyond the ability for them to do the nuanced, investigative work that's necessary to explain complex issues related to climate.

Perhaps social media companies, with their billions in profits, can support such efforts more directly, in part to counter the misinformation that spreads on their platforms. There are climate communication tools that can be used by news media organizations to make articles more effective and relatable to communities.

“Localization, making it more local, can reduce psychological distance and let people know that climate change is an urgency and is not happening in the future when it’s evidently happening now,” Cook said. “But also framing and explaining this issue in ways that don't threaten people's values but resonate with their values, and how it relates with them and their lives.”


Angrej Singh
Angrej Singh is specializing in engagement journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is an intern at Tech Policy Press and an audience producer at Hearst Connecticut Media. He previously worked at the New York Daily News as a metro desk reporter to help cover breaking...