Climate Disinformation: The Digital Threat to Communities and the Climate

As the progressive environmental movement expands, conversations around clean energy transitions and The Green New Deal have become more prominent. Climate disinformation – false or misleading content that undermines the impacts of climate change or the viability of environmental policies – has put these good-faith conversations on the future of our planet at risk. The spread of this content reduces the ability to enact change by denying the severity of the climate crisis, downplaying its urgency, and attacking climate solutions. Although mis- and disinformation come from a variety of sources, all of it has the same goal: to advance a right-wing agenda and preserve the fossil-fueled status quo.

Tech accountability researchers have found that ten accounts make up nearly 70% of Facebook’s climate denial interactions and are often supported by ad revenue from Google. From Breitbart to Daily Wire, users read falsehoods that have not been fact-checked and do not carry a warning label. On Twitter, right-wing conspiracists run amok. In addition, fossil fuel companies are running record-breaking greenwashing campaigns to salvage their image and deceive the public on oil, gas, and climate change.

Big Tech has taken an evasive approach to content moderation. Under capitalism, the ruling class’s highest priority is to preserve the current hierarchy while maximizing profit. Mis- and disinformation that dismisses the climate crisis and uplifts narratives from Big Oil and Gas allows both tech and fossil fuel industries to profit and maintain power. Therefore, it’s in social media companies’ best interest to downplay the disinformation problem or produce cosmetic policies to save face while never actually addressing the problem. 

The result? Twitter’s Elon Musk has created a content moderation hellscape. Facebook Climate’s Science Center is outperformed by a factor of 12, meaning that climate denial and climate change skeptic content received 12 times more engagement than posts promoted by Facebook from the UN, IPCC, NOAA and others. Time and time again, researchers have found incidents of mis- and disinformation dominating social media.

Disinformation around environmental crises have become so rampant that they’ve influenced narratives used by Republicans at the highest levels of power. In 2021, disinformation that falsely linked the Texas winter storm blackouts to frozen wind turbines surfaced on Twitter and was quickly magnified by state representatives and Governor Greg Abbott. In a recent incident, misinformation that argued offshore wind farms were responsible for a spike in whale deaths dominated conversations on wind energy on Facebook. None of the posts were fact-checked by the platform. In addition, Meta and Google have reinstated Donald Trump– one of the world’s most influential climate change deniers.

The Green New Deal is the target of massive disinformation campaigns Fueled by Big Oil and Gas, professional disinformers have exaggerated the consequences of the proposal, claiming that it will bankrupt the country and result in a drastic loss of personal freedoms. How can we rally support and awareness for truly effective climate legislation when so much false information is crowding the everyday social media user’s digital world?

Luckily, climate and tech accountability activists have provided clear guidance on actions that platforms can take to address the problem. Humans wrote the code, and humans can fix the code! Platforms can adopt a strong, comprehensive definition of climate mis- and disinformation. Climate mis- and disinformation can be demonetized, and fossil fuel companies should be banned from planting greenwashing advertisements on digital platforms. Platforms can begin proactive efforts to educate users on how to spot and limit exposure to false and misleading content. These policies can also be applied to other types of disinformation, including public health and election integrity. 

Above all, the public deserves as much transparency as possible when it comes to how climate disinformation is addressed online. After all, every other industry — from food production to car manufacturers and airlines — must report on the safety of its products. Why should tech companies be any different?

Government and intergovernmental bodies can also support the fight for transparency and accountability. The United Nations and previous IPCC [spell out]reports have validated the threat that climate disinformation poses. It’s only sensible that they apply national and international pressure to social media companies that are unable to meet the moment. The EU’s Digital Services Act has become a pivotal first step in putting these aspirations into action. The United States holds similar potential with the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act, but the battle to advance such legislation will be an uphill one.

Some equate stronger content moderation to censorship or a threat to free speech when the real danger is that social media algorithms amplify hateful, exaggerated, and false content, drowning out the voices of climate scientists, climate activists, and those most affected by the climate crisis. Furthermore, the first amendment doesn’t give immunity for false, misleading, or harmful statements.

The climate crisis is a daunting, complex problem that often pushes the boundaries of our country’s political imagination. Stopping the spread of climate disinformation doesn’t have to be so daunting. If we want to have truly productive conversations around climate change and the Green New Deal, we must turn our attention to Silicon Valley. Interested DSA chapters can sign the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition’s Open Letter, and contact the coalition directly to find out ways to get involved.