Disinformation is false information that is deliberately used to deceive. Although it has always been with us, social media offers a means for disinformation to get into our brains in a way that never existed before. Another characteristic of disinformation is that it clusters around important issues in the news. In the same way there is an infodemic around COVID-19 and a mountain of false claims about Black Lives Matters and new reports on the efforts of foreign powers to influence the 2020 presidential election, there is also a tsunami of disinformation around climate change.
"...social media offers a means for disinformation to get into our brains in a way that never existed before."
Disinformation and its close cousin, the conspiracy theory, flourish where there is anxiety and ignorance -- where people feel powerless. There is no greater existential threat to humankind than climate change, and for many it results in a sense of powerlessness. Climate change is a threat to all of us, but it is a particular threat to those with a vested financial interest in it, such as those in the fossil fuel industry who see scientists and environmental activists as adversaries and enemies. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, fossil fuel companies have been distorting information about climate change for over 50 years with tactics including everything from harassing scientists to using counterfeit science altogether.
"Disinformation and its close cousin, the conspiracy therory, flourish where there is anxiety and ignorance -- where people feel powerless. There is no greater existential threat to humankind than climate change, and for many it results in a sense of powerlessness."
In my book Information Wars, I specifically looked at the way Russia influenced the 2016 election. And, found that Russia used many of the same techniques climate change disinformationists are using. They create websites that pretend to be independent journalism. They start phony online groups designed to appear as genuine grassroots organizations. And, links to these entities are disseminated across Facebook and Twitter, often by automated bots to entice readers.
Take Naturalnews.com. Sounds like a legitimate site. But in fact, according to NewsGuard, a non-profit that evaluates news sites (full disclosure: I'm on its advisory board), "Naturalnews.com is a network of sites promoting both medical and non-medical conspiracy theories, particularly the false claim that vaccines are linked to autism." Here's a recent headline on the site that was engaged with more than 4 million times: "NASA admits that climate change occurs because of changes in Earth's solar orbit, and NOT because of SUVs and fossil fuels." This, of course, is false. In May of this year, Facebook banned the Natural News domain name for trafficking in conspiracy theories and falsehoods. Over the past year, according to the nonprofit activist network Avaaz, Natural News links have attracted more interaction on Facebook than both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.
"Facebook banned the Natural News domain name for trafficking in conspiracy theories and falsehoods...Natural News links have attracted more interaction on Facebook than both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control."
A forthcoming study by Brown University, written about in The Guardian, has found that a quarter of posts about climate change on Twitter were created by bots programmed to promote climate denialism. The analysis centered on the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, when thousands of bots applauded President Trump for pulling out of the agreement. According to a draft of the study: "These findings suggest a substantial impact of mechanized bots in amplifying denialist messages about climate change, including support for Trumps withdrawal from the Paris agreement." The study concluded that 38% of the Tweets about "fake science" were bots. Said Stephan Lewandowsky, a co-author of the study, "The more denialist trolls are out there, the more likely people will think that there is a diversity of opinion and hence will weaken the support for climate science."
Ultimately, disinformation about climate change is a form of pollution that contaminates our information ecosystem. What makes it especially dangerous is that it is much easier to create than combat, and the offensive weapons are more potent than the defensive ones. Climate disinformationists take advantage of techniques that make them harder to defeat and fake news more difficult to detect, such as: deep fakes, coordinate bot attacks, anonymous mass texting. Disinformation has even become professionalized, with firms selling such services to companies, groups, and individuals.
"Ultimately, disinformation about climate change is a form of pollution that contaminates our information ecosystem... The truth is, disinformation doesn't create divides between people, it widens existing ones."
So, yes, the supply of disinformation is growing, but that's in part because the demand is also growing. Anxiety, division, and despair are stimulants for disinformation. The truth is, disinformation doesn't create divides between people, it widens existing ones. And that's the disinformationists' ultimate goal -- not so much that we believe their falsehoods, but that we find ourselves questioning those things we know to be demonstrably true.
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