From fake news articles and targeted advertising to bot campaigns and harassment by trolls, online disinformation campaigns seek to undermine the efforts of climate scientists and activists attempting to educate mankind about climate change and the necessary measures to address it.

Climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, notes: “The most dangerous aspect of climate misinformation is not that it exists, but that it is being amplified by social media algorithms designed to keep us engaged and clicking, regardless of the veracity of the information.”

To reduce the damage done by these online campaigns, it’s important to understand the tactics they use, so that those equipped with the right information can communicate the facts, and the urgent need for climate action by educating people on the true state of the problem, and how they can help make a difference.

Why is the spread of climate misinformation so concerning?

Evidence for climate change and environmental issues is all around us. Rising year-on-year temperatures, melting ice caps, and extreme weather events, coupled with mass environmental destruction through pollution, de-forestation, and similar, make it harder and harder for deniers to continue to nay-say the scope and urgency of the problem.

But there are certain industries that can’t afford for the public’s opinion to settle on the side of science, because of the impact this could have on their profit margins and the regulation of their operations. These online campaigns seek to inspire denial and promote disinformation, undermining the work done in the field of climate and environmental science, and the potential impact of the solutions proposes.

An alarming report from 2020 advises that the many of the same tactics used during the tobacco industry’s decades-long attempt to suppress scientific information linking cigarettes to cancer, have been employed to drive the cause of climate misinformation campaigns.

When it comes to the high stakes game of climate change, every piece of false, distorted, and conspiracy theory, information that’s shared is an obstacle in our ability to employ meaningful interventions. Bad actors seek to inspire disagreement so that the divides between people and ideological groups grow, increasing public uncertainty and mistrust in scientific research and reputable organisations.

What do these online campaigns actually look like?

In some cases, the online campaigns are blatant, and their link to major polluters are clear, while others are less easy to identify. One analysis reported that 16 of the world’s biggest polluters placed more than 1 700 advertisements on Facebook in 2021, achieving 150 million impressions of false and misleading information that undermined climate change and environmental efforts.

Attacks on clean energy

A favourite target of disinformation merchants is ‘clean energy’, which is often the focus of oil and gas companies looking to delay the decrease in the use of their products. One example of this is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank with strong ties to the oil and gas industries.

To promote their own interests, the Foundation produced YouTube videos depicting the oil and gas companies as being on the side of the small business owners, while wind energy is communicated as the small-business-decimating-creation of multinational corporations. These sorts of campaigns seek to inspire outrage through appropriated narratives that feed into American Dream, casting providers of clean energy as a threat to every ‘hard-working’ American.

From online to sky-high

Another conservative think tank, The Heartland Institute has been accused of spreading climate disinformation through online campaigns for more than a decade. In 2012, the think tank’s documents were leaked sharing details of funding the Institute received from fossil fuel companies in return for the planning and implementation of a campaign that discredited climate science.

The Climategate controversy

In November 2009, the ‘Climategate’ controversy occurred. An external hacker targeted the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, and spread more than 1 000 emails to various Internet locations a few weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change.

Climate change denialists were the first to respond, appropriating the information and sharing it out of context to fabricate the story that climate change is a scientific conspiracy perpetuated by scientists seeking to manipulate data and suppress critics. A blatant smear campaign, Climategate’s repercussions were far-reaching, in spite of reputable organisations releasing statements in support of the scientific consensus that the Earth’s mean surface temperature has been rising for decades.

In reference and summary to the event, A. A. Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale University Project on Clime Change, along with several colleagues, stated that: “Climategate had a significant effect on public beliefs in global warming and trust in scientists. The loss of trust in scientists, however, was primarily among individuals with a strongly individualistic worldview or politically conservative ideology.”

Combatting climate change and environmental disinformation campaigns

When it comes to combatting online disinformation campaigns, it’s not as simple as sharing facts, and claiming it’s true.

A report published by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project found that “false, misleading, and harmful information” does tend to spread more widely on social media, with serious consequences for public health, political stability, and research credibility (among other things).

Despite this, there are things that can be done in pursuit of a multi-faceted solution to mitigate these online campaigns, incorporating several different tactics to address the problem:

1. Promote media/digital literacy: when it comes to reducing the damage done by disinformation campaigns, it’s imperative that the public can develop advanced skills in media literacy and critical thinking. This approach can involve teaching media literacy in schools, with a specific focus on digital literacy, and conducting public training workshops (online and in person), while providing people with access to educational training materials on an individual and global scale. Hive Mind is one online learning space that’s purpose-built for activists, trainers, and organisations, with the intention of helping civil society build its digital resilience.

2. Support fact-checking organisations: across the globe, fact-checking organisations certainly have their work cut out for them! These organisations, and the journalists who engage with them, play an important role in combatting disinformation campaigns. These strategies can involve rigorously fact-checking claims made by public figures and news organization with wide reach, as well as keeping an eye on trending topics on social media. It’s imperative that efforts and funding are put into the further development of tools and technologies that help verify the authenticity of content, particularly as cases of deepfakes and manipulated visuals increase.

3. Develop communication campaigns: in the same way communication strategies are put to work for disinformation campaigns, it’s important to tailor climate change and environmental communication campaigns to combat it. Targeting specific audiences in set locations ensures the impact of information on climate change and environmental issues is more relatable, and therefore, more capable of mobilising action.

4. Hold bad actors accountable: where organisations or individuals are found to intentionally spread disinformation, there should be steps taken to hold them accountable. Whether these steps take the form of legal action, or public communication about what they’ve done, it’s important that some degree of accountability is achieved to deter others from doing the same things in the future.

5. Address the root cause: to address the root cause of online campaigns, it is vital we find a way to hold the platforms that facilitate their spread accountable. Efforts like this may be more long-term in their implementation, particularly if there’s a need to involve government, civil society groups, and the private sector, but they’re well worth the effort – particularly when it comes to ensuring the damaging campaigns of the past aren’t given the opportunity to be repeated.

Combating climate change and environmental disinformation is an urgent challenge that calls for a multi-faceted approach on an individual, national, and global scale. And while it will take a coordinated effort from multiple stakeholders to make meaningful progress, by working together, we can build a more sustainable and environmentally sound future for all.

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