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Delayism and disinformation

Delayism and disinformation

Misinformation about climate change remains rife on social media. Platforms must first define and then counter the problem before it causes more harm.

Outright denial of the climate crisis has largely been succeeded by “delayism” – narratives that try to slow down or distract from the rapid action required. This shift to a more subtle tactic poses a growing problem for social media platforms, who urgently need to decide what, exactly, should count as climate mis- and disinformation. 

Analysis of social media posts over the last 18 months by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CASM Technology identifies a small but dedicated community of pundits, some of them verified, who have outsize influence in the climate-sceptic online sphere. Over the course of two weeks during Cop26 these 16 Twitter accounts amassed over half a million likes and retweets. Interactions for 158 other identified climate-sceptic accounts during the same period totalled just 330,000. 

These “superspreaders” of climate misinformation include individuals like Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing commentator who started his career in the Reagan administration, and institutions like Friends of Science, a Canadian organisation describing itself as a group of scientists who conclude “that the Sun is the main direct and indirect driver of climate change”. Many are active in broader “culture war” debates such as critical race theory and LGBTQ+ rights, but when it comes to climate, the data shows they are pushing three main narratives:

China. “If China and India aren’t making an effort to cut emissions, why should we?” This argument – seeking to absolve one country of obligations to act on climate by blaming another – was found in 6,262 Facebook posts and 72,356 tweets around Cop26. Needless to say, this goes against the spirit of the Paris Agreement which calls on all countries to submit Nationally Determined Contributions for cutting emissions.

– Elitism. “Those calling for action are elitist and guilty of practising double standards.” Posts in this category sought to undermine the Cop26 process and its organisers as corrupt, irrelevant and without public mandate. This narrative was found in 199,676 mentions on Twitter and 4,377 posts on Facebook around the time of the summit in Glasgow.

Security of supply. From 1 January to 19 November 2021 the study found 115,830 tweets or retweets and 15,443 posts on Facebook that called into question the viability and effectiveness of renewable energy. Disinformation in this category spiked during the Texas blackouts in February 2021, as well as during Cop26.

What are platforms doing about it?

  • Facebook has made much of its Climate Science Center for factual information from organisations including the IPCC, but according to the “Facebook Papers”, leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, 86 per cent of users yet to access it didn’t know the service existed. The platform has a general policy that any account fact-checked more than 5 times in 90 days will be deplatformed.
  • Twitter announced plans to ‘pre-bunk’ climate mis- and disinformation post Cop26. It also says it’s going to demonetise climate scepticism by prohibiting adverts that contradict the IPCC’s findings on climate change.
  • Google, along with Pinterest, are the only social media platforms to have comprehensive definitions for climate mis- and disinformation and formally include it in their policies and Terms of Service. YouTube has banned monetised content that “refers to climate change as a hoax or a scam.”

As a first step, there needs to be agreement on what exactly the problem is. “A commonly-held, multilateral definition [of climate misinformation] would set the mandate for companies who are, to an extent justifiably, extremely reticent about making these decisions themselves,” says Jennie King, head of climate disinformation at ISD. 

Why it matters

Climate change offers one of the biggest tests of a central problem for social media companies: policing the boundary between free speech and harmful speech, especially when the latter costs lives.

The offline consequences of inaction are clear: Facebook has admitted it failed to do enough to prevent its platform being used to incite violence in Myanmar, in which more than 9,000 people were killed. Delaying action on climate change will have a significant cost. The WHO predicts climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths a year from 2030.

In April, Facebook removed a network of accounts with ties to the Brazilian military that posed as fictitious environmental groups and played down the risk of deforestation. The company said it was “the first operation we’ve disrupted that primarily focused on environmental issues.” It won’t be the last.

Cop27 is around the corner and the ISD expects that delayers will seize upon the summit in Egypt as another opportunity to throw a spanner in the works of concerted action. But more delay means more drastic changes in the future. Platforms need to fix the climate disinformation problem now.


Keep it in the ground?
Costa Rica and Denmark are leading a global coalition of countries and regional governments pushing to leave fossil fuels in the ground, which is essential for a transition to net zero in the next three decades. Most of these are relatively small-scale; Denmark produced 103,000 barrels of oil per day in 2019. The victory of former guerilla fighter Gustavo Petro in Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday may add momentum to this shift. Petro has said he will stop awarding oil exploration contracts and turn Colombia away from an economy based on extractive industries. That’s a bold move; Colombia is South America’s biggest coal producer and a major exporter of crude oil (it pumps about 700,000 barrels per day). If Petro succeeds it will cast an unflattering light on wealthier nations that continue to drill.


Low energy
At the Glasgow climate talks last year, countries agreed on the urgency of action, but energy appears to be fizzling at the end of two weeks of negotiations in Bonn, meant to lay the groundwork for this year’s climate summit in Egypt. A key sticking point was financial compensation for vulnerable countries dealing with storm damage, drought and other impacts of climate change. Wealthy nations blocked an attempt to put this issue – known as ‘loss and damage’ – on the official agenda for Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. “We had that injection of political will coming out of Cop26,” said Alex Scott of E3G, a climate think tank. “We’re looking at a final outcome [from these talks]… that’s a bit divorced from that political reality and a bit divorced from the climate impacts that are hitting on the ground.” The stage is set for the next COP to be a messy conflict between the world’s rich and poor countries.


Thin ice
Polar bears have become the iconic species of climate change, Polar bears have become the iconic species of climate change, furry emblems of the threat that warming poses to a multitude of species. They rely on sea ice to hunt seals, their main source of food, and their survival is threatened as the ice dwindles. Researchers have now studied a genetically distinct population of bears living in southeast Greenland, which is able to hunt seals from freshwater ice breaking off from a glacier rather than pack ice forming at sea. The study raises the hope of survival for the bears in an Arctic with low sea ice, though it may only be for declining fragments of the species.


Burn out
Infants and children are more vulnerable to the health effects of climate change than adults, because their bodies are less able to regulate heat at extremes, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, in a review of current research on the topic. Children also spend more time being physically active outdoors, and depend on adult carers to manage the risks of heat. The review notes that in the US heat-related illness is a ‘leading and increasing’ cause of death and illness among student athletes. Heat associated with climate change also has adverse effects on the mental health of children and teenagers.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre


Additional reporting and editing by Jeevan Vasagar.

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