Climate, Clicks, Capitalism, and Conspiracists
by Michael Khoo, Friends of the Earth advisor and UpShift Strategies co-founder, and Melissa Ryan, CARD Strategies CEO and Chief Strategist
Big Tech is finally coming for QAnon, but it still doesn’t look good. Twitter, TikTok and Facebook took steps to curb the spread of the far-right QAnon conspiracy, which claims Donald Trump is waging war against the deep state and an international Satanist sex-trafficking pedophile ring.
Unfortunately, these actions are too little, too late. QAnon, where researchers have noted an accelerated increase in membership throughout the pandemic, has become a mega-conspiracy, absorbing multiple political and cultural online conversations in the process. As part of our work studying climate denial conversations online, we’ve observed climate deniers shift their focus over several months from climate change to QAnon greatest hits, such as COVID-19 conspiracies and anti-Black Lives Matter content and disinformation.
Haters Gonna Hate
A coalition of environmental groups hired analysts at the online network analysis firm Graphika to track climate denial conversations on Twitter for the past six months and found a definable group of people responsible for spreading most of this disinformation. On average, they observed that the Climate Denial group was about four times “louder” (number of tweets relative to the group size) than the Climate Science group. Many of these people and organizations have been spouting their anti-science propaganda for years and are now just using these platforms to avoid the fact-checking that the media sometimes provides.
In order to surface and monitor an online community of climate denial accounts, Graphika built a network map (see below) based on accounts engaging with a set of climate-focused hashtags on Twitter and their followership of one another. The map is multipolar: A large Pro-Climate Science and politically Left-Leaning group of accounts is on the left, and on the right is an insular Climate Denial and Right-Leaning group. The Climate Denial group is a small group of accounts achieving undue influence over American climate policies. In our climate map and overall political map, they appear marginal (in yellow below) but are central in the right pole.
Their outsized impact is partly due to the virality of their own echo chamber, a virality that plays out on the tech platforms, and it’s partly due to the GOP in Washington giving climate deniers an outsized voice. Deniers inform the GOP, who then forestall all action.
But research shows that they are not just anti-climate; these climate deniers spread hateful and anti-science content about lots of things. While they were focused on denying climate change in January, the group moved on to denying COVID-19 by March, and then by June, moved to conspiracy content to discredit the Movement for Black Lives. We suspect they’ll have a field day with Kamala Harris as Biden’s VP pick.
More worryingly, the climate deniers are now sharing content, hashtags, and interacting with influencers related to the QAnon conspiracy movement. This could ensure that no reasonable debate will be possible on any issue. The QAnon movement hasn’t traditionally covered climate change, but in May, when an influential QAnon account tweeted about climate denial, there was a notable and sustained increase of QAnon content shared within the climate denial group (see the chart below and note an increase in QAnon hashtags starting the first week of May). If a future Congress wants to craft a Green New Deal to stop climate change, you can be sure that QAnon will be the most virulent opponent, if social media companies don’t stop them.
The fossil fuel industry apologists will now combine with QAnon on social platforms to stop climate action — and normalize being racist, misogynist, anti-vaxxers along the way.
The charts below show the movement of the top hashtags used by this defined group of climate deniers over the past six months.
If you step back a bit, it appears that this small group of people is trolling America on every progressive issue. And they are allowed to have this outsized impact only because companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others hand them a ready-made soapbox.
Mark Zuckerberg said to Congress in July that “I do not believe that we have any incentive to have this content on our service,” but the opposite is true. The most outrageous climate denialism gets the most viral clicks, and that’s what must stop. But why isn’t it stopping? The answer is depressingly traditional: money and politics.
There have been big and long-standing PR campaigns by polluting industries to ensure these “merchants of doubt” will be funded and have platforms upon which to spew lies. They are an extension of the old Big Tobacco lobbying strategy that for decades discredited doctors to tell us smoking was harmless. Exxon, in particular, has a documented history of funding climate denialism over the past 40 years. And it results in these false-turncoat men like Pat Michaels, Patrick Moore, Michael Shellenberger, and Bjorn Lomborg. They lie about climate change and are supported by a big-money capitalist structure that benefits from those lies.
Climate Conspiracists Meet Click Capitalism
The new addition to this history of climate capitalism is the capitalism behind the clicks, the monetizing of disinformation that happens on all the platforms. The tech companies profit from and amplify the lies and the liars. Virality is central to the profit model, as are ads. Whether or not they’re true is secondary, from a business perspective.
More shamelessly, they also need to be in the good graces of the right wing, to try to avoid any future regulation. Facebook has policies that let Trump lie uninterrupted. And when climate deniers get a simple fact-check on Facebook, members of Congress themselves have sent letters to company executives to complain. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube have also been resistant to stopping climate disinformation.
This will continue and get worse. The upward movement from fringe climate detractor groups to being bolstered by a popular blog to being covered by Fox News and mainstream media such as The Washington Post is a common “trading-up-the-chain” tactic used to amplify fringe beliefs, documented by Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis. There is now an incentive to be more extreme in your climate denial.
Case in point: Naomi Seibt, whom the right has attempted to prop up as the conservative version of Greta Thunberg, became a key influencer in the climate denial conversation in the spring, but her more recent tweets have gone down the QAnon rabbit hole, including conspiracy content about the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeffrey Epstein, and even “Pizzagate.” Seibt has taken to other conservative wedge issues to boost her Twitter account engagement and appears to be including conspiracy content that allowed her to build more influence.
QAnon supporters are building political power that will outlast the Trump administration. There are 67 former and current QAnon supporters running for Congress this cycle, and so far, 14 of them have won their primaries. We’re likely to see at least two QAnon believers in the House next year. The Trump campaign relies heavily on QAnon supporters to amplify their messaging, especially conspiracies and disinformation.
This should scare the entire climate change community professionally and personally. If Democrats win in November, the best opportunity for climate legislation will be during the first year of Biden’s term, and it will face QAnon as the new and more powerful energy behind the traditional climate deniers. Additionally, the FBI has declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and QAnon supporters are now accused of multiple violent crimes. QAnon supporters engage in coordinated, targeted harassment on a massive scale. As climate denial becomes increasingly intertwined with QAnon, climate scientists, experts, and environmental organizations will become targets themselves.
Tech companies must take responsibility for this and stop giving disinformers a platform, pure and simple. They can and should treat climate disinformation as an emergency and a threat of inevitable harm. Additionally, the tech companies should close loopholes that allow climate disinformation to spread, focus on the superspreaders, correct the record when users have been exposed to climate disinformation, and stop outsourcing responsibility to others to fact-check climate-related information. Transparency about any efforts should be a minimum. Environmental advocacy must now involve both fighting climate disinformation head-on and pressuring the tech companies to make every effort to do so as well.
Climate change and the oil and gas industry are causing the death of people right now, all over the world. By continuing to let climate disinformation and conspiracy theories flourish, tech companies are letting climate deniers get away with murder.