Climate change denial surges on social media, reports say, peaking after Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

  • Analysis counted 1.1 million tweets or retweets using strong climate-sceptic terms in 2022, nearly twice the figure for 2021
  • US-based campaign group blamed Musk, who reinstated numerous banned Twitter accounts and allowed users to pay for a blue tick
Agence France-Presse |

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Two computational social scientists at City, University of London found climate denial posts peaked the month after Tesla billionaire Elon Musk took over the platform. Photo: Reuters

False information about climate change flourished online over the past year, researchers say, with denialist social media posts and conspiracy theories surging after US environmental reforms and Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover.

“What really surprised us this year was to see a resurgence in language that is reminiscent of the 1980s: phrases like ‘climate hoax’ and ‘climate scam’ that deny the phenomenon of climate change,” said Jennie King, head of civic action at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based digital research group.

Popular topics included the false claims that CO2 does not cause climate change or that global warming is not caused by human activity, said Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a coalition of campaigners, in a report.

“Let me expose what the climate scam is actually all about,” read one of the most-shared tweets, cited in another survey by US non-profit Advance Democracy, Inc (ADI). “It is a wealth transfer from you – to the global elite.”

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2022 saw 1.1 million tweets or retweets with climate-sceptic terms

An analysis of Twitter messages – carried out for AFP by two computational social scientists at City, University of London – counted 1.1 million tweets or retweets using strong climate-sceptic terms in 2022.

That was nearly twice the figure for 2021, said researchers Max Falkenberg and Andrea Baronchelli. They found climate denial posts peaked in December, the month after Tesla billionaire Musk took over the platform.

Use of the denialist hashtag #ClimateScam surged on Twitter from July, according to analyses by CAAD and the US-based campaign group Center For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). For weeks it was the top suggested search term on the site for users typing “climate”.

CAAD said the reason for that was “unclear”, though one major user of the term appeared to be an automated account, possibly indicating that a malignant bot was churning it out.

World leaders have agreed to try to limit the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, in hopes of staving off severe climate disruptions. Photo: AP

What’s behind these climate denial posts?

ADI noted that July saw US President Joe Biden secure support for a major climate spending bill – subject of numerous “climate scam” tweets – plus a heatwave in the United States and Europe.

Climate denial posts also peaked during the COP27 climate summit in November.

A quarter of all the strongly climate-sceptic tweets came from just 10 accounts, including Canadian right-wing populist party leader Maxime Bernier and Paul Joseph Watson, editor of conspiracy-theory website InfoWars, the City research showed.

Within the Inflation Reduction Act passed last summer in the US is a US$369 billion package of climate investments meant to tackle the climate crisis. Photo: AP

CCDH pointed the finger at Musk, who reinstated numerous banned Twitter accounts and allowed users to pay for a blue tick – a mark previously reserved for accredited “verified” users in the public eye.

“Elon Musk’s decision to open up his platform for hate and disinformation has led to an explosion in climate disinformation on the platform,” said Callum Hood, CCDH’s head of research.

Musk himself tweeted in August 2022: “I do think global warming is a major risk.” He has also created a US$100 million dollar prize for technology shown to be effective in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But prolific climate change contrarians – such as blogger Tony Heller and former coal executive Steve Milloy – have hailed him in their tweets.

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Climate change denial is widespread

An analysis by Advance Democracy seen by AFP found the number of Twitter posts “using climate change denialism terms” more than tripled from 2021 to 2022, reaching over 900,000.

On TikTok, views of videos using hashtags associated with climate change denialism increased by 4.9 million, it said.

On YouTube, climate change denial videos got hundreds of thousands of views, with searches for them bringing up adverts for climate-denial products. YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez told AFP that in response to the claim, certain climate-denial ads had been taken down.

TikTok and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

On Facebook, meanwhile, ADI found the number of such posts decreased compared to 2021, in line with overall climate change claims.

New research shows climate misinformation has been flourishing on Twitter since Elon Musk purchased the platform last year. Photo: AP

Recommendations to restrict misinformation’s reach

The CAAD report said climate content regularly features alongside other misleading claims on “electoral fraud, vaccinations, the Covid-19 pandemic, migration, and child trafficking rings run by so-called ‘elites’.”

Given the reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing that human carbon emissions are heating the planet, raising the risk of floods, droughts and heatwaves, CCDH’s Hood emphasised the urgency of restricting the reach of misinformation.

“We would encourage platforms to think about the real harm that is caused by climate change,” Hood said, “so people who repeatedly spread demonstrably false information about climate are not granted the sort of reach that we see them getting.”

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