November 1, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Social Media and the Climate Crisis

Activists in San Francisco in 2019 push for action to prevent the climate crisis. Photo by Li-An Lim via Unsplash.
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Sunday marked the beginning of COP26, a UN conference to try to avert the worst of the climate crisis, which could see temperatures warming by a disastrous three degrees. In light of the conference, this week features a special edition of the Decoder focused on climate disinformation and social media. The Decoder is a weekly roundup of news about digital deception. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

Policies among the different social media platforms intended to address the spread of climate disinformation vary wildly. 

  • Google announced at the beginning of October that it would be banning ads for and monetization of claims contradicting both the existence and human causes of climate change. Currently YouTube also adds a context banner to videos and searches about climate change that reads, “Contemporary climate change includes both global warming caused by humans and its impacts on Earth’s weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current changes are more rapid than any known events in Earth’s history.” An early 2020 report from Avaaz found that YouTube’s algorithm frequently recommended videos with climate disinformation.
  • Twitter announced today that it will be putting in place new measures designed to ‘pre-bunk’ climate disinformation, according to Axios. The platform will include authoritative information on climate change in the explore tabs and search portals. This past June, Twitter also created a climate change topic that users can follow to get credible information. Historically, the platform has struggled with reigning in climate disinformation. A paper published in January in the journal Climate Policy found that bots accounted for roughly one fourth of all tweets about climate change in the weeks surrounding then-President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. In Forbes, Peter Sicui has also written about how a deliberately obvious piece of climate disinformation that trended Tuesday shows how easily even evident disinformation can spread.
  • TikTok prohibits content that is “inaccurate or false” and claims to remove misinformation as it finds it. Despite its policies, the site has been receiving more attention recently over its failure to fully address disinformation.
  • Big Oil Hearing: On Thursday, US oil executives appeared at a congressional hearing to testify about their role in spreading climate disinformation. Prior to the hearing Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif) tweeted that, “We cannot tackle the climate crisis unless we tackle the climate disinformation crisis.” During the hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) questioned executives about social media advertisements run through shadow groups. In August, the think tank InfluenceMap released a report detailing how the oil and gas industry has used digital advertising — especially on Facebook — to spread their own climate narratives virtually unchecked.
  • Conspiracy theory watch: There is a growing conspiracy theory that links measures to check the spread of coronavirus and measures to tackle the climate crisis to plans to introduce a new world order. For Coda Story, Marta Biino writes about the spread of the theory in Italy. A separate report by Eisha Maharasingam-Shah and Pierre Vaux for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue traces the chronological growth and spread of this “climate lockdown” conspiracy narrative across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
  • Research: In the wake of the past month’s negative social media news, the National Journal reports that momentum for legislation that would allow researchers access to social media data is growing. A recent paper in the journal Digital Geography and Society found that in Europe, in countries where people spend more time on the internet, individuals feel that they have less power to make a difference on climate change. Protocol has created a diversity tracker, which looks at employee diversity data from influential tech companies.

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