Climate Change Denial Returns to Twitter
If Twitter feels nastier these days, that’s because it is. Media monitors say hate and lies of all kinds have gotten more traction on the platform since it was acquired by self-styled free-speech absolutist Elon Musk. It seems the move has emboldened malicious actors. The trolls are feeling confident.
And they’ve wasted no time in spreading harmful lies. Take the flood of climate disinformation that spread on Twitter during the recent COP27 UN climate talks. This wasn’t just the usual delay and distract tactics we’ve come to expect from the climate ‘inactivists’. This was much worse.
This was a full return to the bad old days of out-and-out climate change denial. Conspiracy theories claiming the climate crisis as a hoax were by far the most popular climate lies shared on Twitter during the talks, according to research by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD).
One reporter searching Twitter for “climate” during COP27 was shown #climatescam as the top result, pointing to wider problems that pre-date the Twitter takeover. Across social media, algorithms designed to drive engagement also amplify sensational lies, widening their reach.
The recent flood of lies hasn’t stopped at climate change denial. There’s been a spike in hate targeting climate activists, blaming them for food shortages and soaring energy costs. Too often, there have been calls for violence — at a time when an environmental activist is killed every two days.
Other misleading posts sought to place climate action within the wider culture war. One tactic known as ‘wokewashing’ has seen bad actors use progressive language with manipulated evidence to frame climate action as corrupt or elitist. The spread of doomism, or fatalism, is the ultimate aim.
Twitter insists it hasn’t changed its moderation policies or practices since the takeover. Yet analysts say mass staff layoffs and walkouts have created the impression that moderation is less strict than before. As a result, there has been an explosion of bad behavior and a slump in public trust.
The chaos surrounding Twitter’s blue tick has hardly helped matters. Previously reserved for verified accounts, the feature was briefly made available to anyone for a fee. This led to a slew of new fake accounts — both mischievous and malicious — impersonating celebrities, firms, and authorities.
This and other recent missteps by Twitter give an impression of a platform in free-fall. That’s dangerous, former Head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth, wrote after departing the firm. If the initial chaos unleashed bad actors, the lasting lack of clarity has left them emboldened, and unchecked.
There are signs of hope. Musk has now promised to “demonetize and deboost” what he calls “hate tweets.” Roth also reminds us that platforms can’t afford to lose advertising revenue, be banned from app stores, or fall foul of standards and regulations enforced by Europe or the United States.
It is vital that sense prevails. Those peddling lies about the climate crisis will grasp every opportunity to deny, delay, and deceive. All those seeking to erode trust in science, weaken public resolve and attack those pursuing action pose a major threat to our future. We can’t yield them any more space.