Big Tech Must Do More to Combat Climate Disinformation ‘Super-spreaders’, Report Says

COP26 misinformation spike prompts call to rein in social media accounts that promote “delayism” and “junk science”.
Big Tech Must Do More to Combat Climate Disinformation ‘Super-spreaders’, Report Says
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A new report has documented climate disinformation circulating on social media before, during and after COP26. Credit:Stenbocki maja (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Big Tech platforms are spreading climate disinformation “with impunity” but have the tools to solve this crisis, a new report has said today.

“Deny, Deceive, Delay: Documenting and Responding to Climate Disinformation at COP26” was launched on Thursday at the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

Researchers from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think tank monitoring extremism, and the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition, captured misleading social media climate narratives over an 18 month period, with a focus on the 2021 Glasgow climate conference.

They found that high-traction disinformation stemmed primarily from a very small number of individuals. In the month immediately before, during and after the COP26 climate summit, disinformation from just 16 “super-spreading” accounts, including known climate deniers and sceptics, amassed over 500,000 likes and retweets.

The small group of pundits and political actors – including known climate sceptics Bjorn Lomborg and Patrick Moore – were said to be conflating climate with divisive “culture war” issues. Their narratives were circulated widely through social media, before being further amplified by traditional media.

Twitter carried the most false content by volume, according to the report. For its part, Facebook’s fact-checking policies were found to be “woefully under-enforced” and its algorithm drove greater exposure to climate disinformation than to its own Climate Science Center. 

Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), the think tank leading the project, said the analysis showed “in stark terms how a well-worn information and influence operations playbook is being applied to the climate context”. 

“This report clearly evidences the overlap between climate sceptic influencers and conspiracy, extremist and hostile state disinformation networks,” said Havlicek, adding that both governments and social media companies were failing to stop the spread of climate disinformation.

‘Vested Interests’

The report follows criticism last February from the UN’s climate science body –  for the first time – that “vested interests” were  delaying efforts to tackle climate change.

The IPCC found that actors representing “vested economic and political interests” had eroded support for climate policy by generating “rhetoric and misinformation that undermines science and disregards risk and urgency”.

The new data-led analysis in the ISD-led report found that inadequate social media policies are to blame for misleading posts from this “small but dedicated community” of bad-faith actors reaching millions of people on social media. 

Repeat-offender climate sceptics were found to often spread misinformation on multiple topics, sharing misleading information on COVID-19 as well as conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

The report also concluded that paid advertising – from fossil fuel companies, their front groups and others – continued to increase the reach of greenwashing and other delayer narratives.

In the 18 months documented, the climate conversation shifted.  The report found “outright climate denialism” had moved to “delayism and distraction from acting” over time. These efforts circulated widely on social media and were then amplified by print, broadcast and radio media. 

Calls to Action

Under pressure from campaigners, tech companies have begun to take steps to fight climate disinformation. In April, Pinterest announced it was banning climate change disinformation from its site, saying it would take down content that distorts or denies the facts of the climate crisis.

Facebook launched its Climate Science Center in 2020 “to connect people with science-based information on climate change”, though a recent investigation found that the algorithm on the main platform actually amplifies climate disinformation.

CAAD, the coalition behind the new report, is advocating for the immediate steps to be taken by tech companies to stem the flow of climate delayism and “junk science”.

These include applying sharper definitions of climate mis- and disinformation in their terms of service and enforcing platform policies against repeat offender accounts.

The authors also urge tech companies to: improve transparency and data access for researchers on climate disinformation; restrict paid advertising and sponsored content from fossil fuel companies, and ensure better labelling on missing context and on the re-posting of old or recycled content.

It also recommends governments and multilateral bodies implement a unified definition of climate mis-and disinformation within UN key institutions, and limit media exemption loopholes within legislation.

Philip Newell, Associate Director of Science Defense at Climate Nexus, a non-profit climate and clean energy communications group, said the report represented the “most robust effort” to monitor climate disinformation he had witnessed.

“While each industrial disinformation campaign is unique, the actors and their playbook remain the same,” he said.

“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.”

Facebook and Twitter have been contacted for comment.

Big Tech Must Do More to Combat Climate Disinformation ‘Super-spreaders’, Report Says
Phoebe is Senior Reporter at DeSmog. She previously trained as a news reporter across local titles in Essex and East London, with her work since appearing in the Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, and The Local and Prospect Magazine.

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