Climatosceptic Internet users go on the offensive
They are masters in the art of spreading their message, distort and exploit scientific findings and are driven by an anti-system sentiment. Here is how this community is organized on social networks.
Researchers have noted an increase in posts denying the climate emergency on social media.
Climate-skeptical communities have sharpened their weapons online. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, posts denying the existence of a climate crisis have seen a resurgence, notably on Twitter in France. The wave is breaking on social networks, under the passive eye of web giants.
There is no climate emergency, it has become a new religion .
The IPCC is a political propaganda machine.
No one has been able to prove that global warming is due to our emissions.
On the Elpis_R Twitter page, one publication does not wait for the other. In a daily stream, this French-speaking user discredits the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the media by sharing extracts from articles, scientific studies and graphics.
In his biography, he presents himself as a climate realist specializing in research conducted from independently on climate science.
However, Elpis_R has no expertise other than its ability to confuse crowds by distorting what science says, according to French researchers who have closely followed the evolution of the account. In their eyes, this user who has been interested in climate issues for a short time has quickly become the most influential of the French climate-skeptic community on Twitter. The activity of this account followed by more than 18,300 subscribers has more than doubled since the summer of 2022.
The behavior of Elpis_R is symptomatic of a trend observed by researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research in recent years.
In their study, the researchers also designate the climatoscepticism by “climate denialism” and “climatodenialism”. According to them, these terms correspond more to the attitude adopted by these communities, which consists in rejecting scientific facts in favor of controversial ideas.
By crossing data from three observatories that independently document different types of militant publications on social networks, the researchers found that the climate-skeptic community has solidified around common causes unrelated to the climate issue and that it possesses a very particular organizational structure.
The number of accounts that make denial of the climate emergency their creed has seen a massive increase during the French electoral cycle, which began in the spring of 2022, and then during the United Nations conference on climate change in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt, in November 2022.
But something new has happened, at least in France, explains David Chavalarias, research director at the CNRS. This marked resurgence in the activity of climate skeptics is not just correlated to a too hot summer or to the holding of a COP on the climate.
If climate-skeptic activists are used to going on the offensive on social networks in response to climate-related news, this time there is a real desire to act on the information space, with people who are there all the time developing [negationist] arguments, underlines Mr. Chavalarias.
“Their level of activity has really been multiplied and surpasses all previous activity levels. We are witnessing an overactivity of "climatodenialism". »
— David Chavalarias, CNRS Research Director
Although the mathematician finds it difficult to clearly identify the causes, he nevertheless argues that this surprising mobilization has its own patterns and is propelled by tactics and discourse which, according to him, testify to an inauthenticity.
The number of posts potentially generated by robots is higher in this community, according to the researchers, who also note a marked level of contradictions and toxic remarks.
The tenors of climate denial also pride themselves on having multiple areas of expertise. Unlike the accounts identified as proclimate by the researchers, these Internet users present a fairly abnormal expertise profile, with some accounts tending to express themselves on all subjects in large quantities.
A select group of accounts further concentrates this alleged expertise, write the CNRS researchers.
Here is how CNRS researchers sum up the tactics of subversion employed by these communities:
– Deformation : publications pour into the misinformation and exploit the results of scientific studies.
– Discredit : to counter the message of scientists, climate skeptics question question their credibility.
– Distraction : the accounts emphasize that the climate issue should not take precedence over other societal issues deemed more important, such as unemployment.
– Deterrence : Internet users will insist on the consequences of the policies implemented to combat climate change. They brandish, for example, the threat of job losses linked to the energy transition.
– Division : climate skeptics will pit the powerful, the scientists and the media against the people who, unlike the elite, will suffer from the climate policies adopted, according to this discourse.Agrandir l 'image
French researchers have closely followed the evolution of the @Elpis_R Twitter account, which regularly publishes content that rejects the existence of a climate crisis.
To these 5Ds is added doubt, according to David Chavalarias. The subject of global warming is complicated and complex, he says. As scientific results are often presented as a range, some accounts will therefore play on the uncertainty around these findings. Is it really worth bending over backwards for something that is uncertain? Maybe it's better to wait, he gives as an example.
In addition to questioning the climate emergency, Internet users also tend to deny the existence of the biodiversity crisis. This phenomenon, dubbed extinction skepticism, is increasingly evident on social networks, notes Julie Talbot, director of the Department of Geography at the University of Montreal.
It is embodied by a denial of the extinction rates of species or by discourses that wrongly relativize the impact that, according to them, the disappearance of fauna and flora would have on human activities, explains the researcher, who worries that this strategy is just as damaging as that of denying the existence of climate change.
But how is this community constituted? By observing the past publications of 10,000 profiles, the French researchers noticed that 60% of them had contributed to relaying the propaganda of the Kremlin, at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A large part of the accounts had also opposed the health measures imposed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and had spread false information about the variants of the coronavirus.
The typical profile of the Internet user who denies the climate emergency is anti-system almost in principle, observes David Chavalarias. Neither right nor left, with no proven correlation with traditional political parties, these are people who have campaigned in an anti-system framework, for example anti-vaccine, often with a conspiratorial component, and who have participated in other protest movements who have nothing to do with the climate, he says.
“There was fertile ground among those people who took the pandemic in the face and who were able – for sometimes good reasons, by the way – to be angry with the system and to mobilize. But some are exploiting this and have decided that from now on, it is on the theme of the climate that they coordinate. »
— David Chavalarias, research director at the CNR
It is not only in France that the pandemic has come to crystallize important communities formed around beliefs conspirators.
In the report Deny, Deceive, Delay,researchers from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an English think tank specializing in research on extremism and disinformation, have documented the extent of misleading climate publications on the sidelines of COP26 and COP27 on climate change climate change.
They found that content from a handful of players managed to achieve disproportionate social media reach and engagement with millions of people around the world.
Similar to their French counterparts, the ISD researchers noticed that these profiles tended to share misinformation on topics other than the climate. It can range from genocide denial, to conspiracies like QAnon or the Great Reset, to voter fraud, according to Jennie King, report co-author and head of research and policy. of climate at ISD.
It's as if groups collided online and hybrid conspiracies were then formed, she described before the Special Commission on Foreign Interference in the All Democratic Processes of the European Union, including disinformation.
Jennie King, who has observed the evolution of climate denial discourse since 2020, notes that Internet users have also been able to share content related to white supremacy, even anti-Semitism. Claims about alleged elites running child trafficking rings were also a favorite topic for some users.
The campaigns run by these accounts have more and more recourse to divisive rhetoric in which climate action is opposed to an economic crisis and an alleged loss of civil liberties, summarizes the researcher.
Over a four-week period, before, during and directly after COP27, ISD identified 12 Twitter accounts, with some 400 posts reaching nearly 350,000 shares. The reach of each of these profiles ranged from 65,000 to 1.9 million followers. Of these 12 accounts, 9 were at the time – and remain to this day – certified blue tick accounts, which testifies to verification by the social network.
In July 2022, the #ClimateScam hashtag suddenly spiked in popularity on Twitter, before reaching over 362,000 mentions from 91,000 unique users by December. The account that contributed the most to the hashtag was displaying robotic behavior, according to ISD, which estimated the number of posts made over five months at more than 60,000.
In November 2021, an ISD review at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland identified the narratives most commonly used by climate skeptics to discredit climate action on social networks.
One of them was to propagate the idea that the conference, which brought together leaders from around the world, was actually corrupt and damaging to the climate. The most widespread accusation was to point to the double standard under which leaders arrived from all corners of the globe on polluting private jets, despite the health restrictions of COVID-19. As the summit was not the result of a public mandate, the results negotiated in Glasgow also had to be rejected.
Many profiles also tended to postpone question the credibility and viability of renewable energy sources and electric vehicles. COP26 breathed new life into old, already debunked narratives that claim these vehicles have as bad or worse an impact on the environment than gasoline-powered vehicles, the ISD researchers noted.
Among the accounts identified as super-influencers of climate misinformation were several well-known Canadian figures, such as Jordan B. Peterson, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who has 3.9 million Twitter followers and 6.5 millions on YouTube.Enlarge image
On his YouTube channel, Jordan B. Peterson invites personalities who question climate science.
Particularly popular in conservative circles for his inflammatory comments on feminism, the gender identity or university censorship, Jordan B. Peterson has been speaking out more on environmental issues since 2021.
Invited to his podcast or shared on his profile, other super-influencers of climatoscepticism, such as Bjorn Lomborg, author of the book Skeptical Environmentalist, Michael Shellenberger, ex-ecologist turned expert in eco-pragmatism, or even Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress think tank which sells “I Love Fossil Fuels” merchandise, contributes to his platform.
Patrick Moore, former president of Greenpeace Canada – who has since insisted on distancing himself – and Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, were also among those cited for having shared and amplified misleading remarks on the sidelines of COP26.
One of the frequently recurring narratives is that carbon dioxide (CO2) – a greenhouse gas that, when released into the the atmosphere, contributes to the increase in temperature on the planet – would be much less harmful than one might think.
Not only are Internet users denying the fact that the level of human activity is increasing the CO2 content in the atmosphere, but they are minimizing its impact by arguing that the molecule is good for plants.< /p>View larger
Maxime Bernier has often relayed this information on CO2 on his social networks.< /p>
We divert the fact that CO2 contributes to the functioning of plants to say that in fact, the more CO2 we send into the atmosphere, the more it is beneficial for ecosystems, illustrates Julie Talbot, who sees regularly pass this fallacious assertion on the web.
This is an example of a real research result, that plants can have improved growth when there is more CO2 available, except that it is made into an argument that the negative impacts of the decrease of our GHG emissions would be greater than "assumed" positive impacts.
Other pages that propagate such content have taken to hiding under misleading names, according to Jennie King. Their name can give the impression that they are community groups, such as Energy Citizens or Community Alliance for a Safe Future, she gives as an example.
Similarly, the Canadian organization Friends of Science, which is particularly active on Twitter and Facebook, describes itself as a group of scientists and engineers specializing in earth, atmospheric and solar sciences. who conclude that the sun is the main driver of climate change. However, Friends of Science relies on funding from the oil and gas industry, ISD points out.
Before the European Parliament's INGE, the researcher pointed out that the weaknesses of digital platforms fuel and aggravate the dissemination of false information on the climate.
This allows this content to go up on the surface and, in many cases, to dominate the public debate on climate policy at a time when, as the IPCC urges us, the window for action is rapidly closing, she argued.
< p class="e-p">According to the latest installment of Deny, Deceive, Delaypublished last January, 3 to 4 million US dollars were spent by entities related to fossil fuels – companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, lobbies or public relations teams – on Facebook and Instagram between September 1 and September 1. November 23, 2022.
Not only are flaws in Meta, Twitter and Amazon's platforms continuously exploited by major players in the fossil fuel industry, who can rely on record revenues to fund these online disinformation campaigns, but also hostile netizens are appropriating the climate issue to fan the embers of distrust and division, she said.
These campaigns, she insisted , have the ultimate purpose of weakening democratic processes.
“This trend has the effect of drowning legitimate climate concerns in a mass of baseless claims, smear campaigns and misleading propaganda, much of it coming from the fossil fuel industry itself.
— Jennie King, Head of Climate Research and Policy at ISD
Of the same opinion, David Chavalarias is concerned to see these communities capitalizing on the frustrations of some and the doubts of others to feed the climatosceptic machine. In fact, one might even think that their primary interest is not to know whether global warming is true or not. It is rather to demobilize people on climate issues, he argues.
If the trend continues, the risk is both that the population will be increasingly more divided and that it bears the brunt of the consequences of climate inaction, fears the researcher.
The actions that we must implement will fundamentally change the conditions in which we we will live by the end of the century, insists Julie Talbot. While it may be reassuring to believe those who say there is no need to question our ways of life, she continues, this strategy will only waste our precious time.
It will influence support for policies that must be put in place now, and therefore the way people will go to vote, she summarizes. And that doesn't bode well.