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Navigating Climate Disinfo in the Digital Age

The origins of climate change disinformation that contradicts the science behind the climate crisis can be traced back to fossil fuel companies and their decades of climate denial campaigning. That’s just one of many findings from a recently published study by Boston University’s Climate Disinformation Initiative,  “Data and Misinformation in an Era of Sustainability and Climate Change Crisis”. Misinformation is known as information that is simply false, while disinformation is distinguished by the intention to mislead to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. Climate misinformation and disinformation narratives come at the climate movement from all different angles, from accusing solar panels of making climate change worse due to the heat it generates to blaming grid failures on renewable energy. These strategic messaging campaigns against renewable energy can delay efforts to respond to the climate crisis.

Climate mis- and disinformation is a multi-community issue. A 2022 study identified a network of Spanish-language social media accounts, mostly based in Spain and Latin America, spread misinformation by relying on right-wing content (translated from English content from the U.S.) that included climate change denialism. While this content originated in countries outside of the U.S., misinformation appears in the social feeds of Latiné people in the U.S. because of the relationship between Spanish-speaking immigrant communities and their countries of origin. These accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are able to reach their targeted audience by using phrases such as “alarmismo climático” (climate alarmism), “manipulación climática” (climate manipulation), “fraude climático” (climate fraud), and “engaño climático” (climate hoax). Despite this, data from a 2023 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that Latiné communities in the U.S. are the second highest racial group with high levels of support for climate justice after reading about it. This is notable when juxtaposed with the fact that Latiné communities, among other frontline communities, are more vulnerable to climate change impacts.

We are more connected than ever to each other, have more access to information, and can spread content faster and easier than ever before, thanks to advances in social media. With this comes the inevitable dissemination of disinformation. Research from Avaaz, a global network of activists and organizers campaigning for climate action and other social justice issues, showed that in the first two months of 2021, misinformation related to climate science and renewable energy racked up an estimated 25 million views across Facebook. Algorithms aimed to grab people’s attention with targeted content, combined with human behavior such as confirmation bias and the tendency for people to form social connections with those who are similar to themselves, create favorable conditions for spreading misinformation. The image below illustrates this.

A schematic illustration of the climate change misinformation network. It shows the actors (purple) and producers (orange), as well as the echo chambers among influencers (blue) and the public (green). Credit: Treen et al. (2020)

The worst platform for this kind of activity is X, formally known as Twitter. Tweets using terms associated with climate denial such as “climate hoax” and “climate scam” more than tripled in 2022, up 300% from 2021, according to Advance Democracy, a research organization that studies misinformation. Additionally, Twitter/X lacks any content moderation for climate change misinformation and ranks the lowest on the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition’s scorecard for addressing and reducing the spread of climate mis- and disinformation. 

What to do when you spot misinformation:

The Disinfo Defense Toolkit is a resource curated by ReFrame and PEN America to respond to disinformation and misinformation originally for the 2020 election season and beyond. Here are some highlights:

When you see something that makes you mad:

  • Don’t repost on social media
  • Don’t comment trying to outsmart them, this attracts more to the post
  • Only if the post is already popular, do comment with vetted debunking info
  • Do take a screenshot and if you must, share only through email, messenger, etc.
  • Do educate your allies and community to exercise the same discipline

Elevating the solutions and voice of communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution, following the Jemez Principles, and authentically centering their lived experience, fundamentally brings truth to the discussion of climate change.