Rise in #ClimateScam Tweets Is Worrying Scientists
Climate scientists are reportedly leaving Twitter due to a recent revival of climate disinformation – how will this impact access to public knowledge?
Search the term “climate” on Twitter and the first hashtag to appear as a result is not climate action, but #ClimateScam. There has been a sharp rise in climate denialism on Twitter that is worrying scientists who have long relied on the platform to share research insights and mobilize action. This recent revival of climate misinformation, coupled with spam and even threats, has led to some researchers and activists leaving the platform or falling silent, reported The Guardian.
“I can understand climate scientists saying this is not a productive place for conversations with each other any more. They’ve become lightening rods for hate speech and death threats, we are seeing a real escalation of threats against them, intended to drive them off the platform,” Jennie King, head of civic action at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue told The Guardian. Twitter becoming a playground for conspiracy theorists and climate denialists reflects how pervasive polarization is in the online sphere, but goes well beyond that to also signal its potential devastating consequences for public knowledge.
Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tweeted, “Many have been noticing decreases in followers the last few weeks. My list of ‘scientists who do climate’ has shrunk by 2% & my followers by about the same. So the most likely conclusion, at least for me, is that most of the decrease is due to people closing their accounts.” The ripple effects of declining trust in Twitter could have a massive impact on the dissemination of research and access to information.
Some speculate whether this resurgence in misinformation is a result of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. The Sunday Times recently reported that the number of tweets with the term “climate scam” have risen after Musk proclaimed himself “Chief Twit.” Citing an analysis for The Times, it also pointed out that “2022 was the worst year for content sceptical of climate change since the social media giant was founded.” Meanwhile, The Guardian stated that climate scam tweets have been on the rise since July, three months before Musk’s takeover, garnering over 500,000 mentions.
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Musk’s tumultuous leadership of Twitter has irked climate experts. During COP27, Twitter was supposed to be the “voice” of the conference. Instead, Musk fired two of Twitter’s sustainability leaders along with many employees responsible for content moderation during the recent layoffs. #ClimateScam took over the platform and discussions around climate change were significantly low at a time when the important summit looking to accelerate global climate action was underway.
“Since Musk’s takeover I have ramped down my own use of Twitter, using it less both to look for news and to share science… Folks noticing a rise in climate denialism and disinformation is particularly worrying and I am concerned that it could slow climate action in ways that are devastating to economies, communities and health,” Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center told The Guardian.
Over the years, Twitter has come to be the main forum for the exchange of ideas and information. Musk himself acknowledged the platform to be a “de facto public town square.” The ability to access real-time information, build personal and professional networks and engage in conversation on Twitter has made it an indispensable part of public communication.
Twitter has also come to be integral to the work of scientists, providing a platform for strategic communication with policymakers, journalists, civil society organizations and the wider public. It gains special importance for those researchers who are attempting to break past the historic gatekeeping in science and improve public access to knowledge. This becomes relevant across disciplines. In the context of public health, a paper noted that Twitter has the potential to aid the scientific community in disseminating health-related research to policymakers and narrow the gap on evidence that translates into policy. Meanwhile, a 2019 paper stated it serves as a pedagogical tool for students and teachers to gain information, share insights and participate in communities of interest.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the significance of a platform like Twitter to enable interaction with diverse stakeholders and spur action increases manifold. However, navigating these conversations online become complicated, due to its potential for political polarization and the creation of echo chambers based on an algorithmically-defined curation of information.
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Climate denialism and disinformation are not new. However, a study in Nature Climate Change found that there has been a rise in polarization over climate change on social media, specifically in the last two years. The researchers say this spike is driven by right-wing activity, which increased four-fold during COP26 as opposed to previous years. Apart from climate disinformation funded by fossil-fuel companies, bots have also emerged as a major source of climate denialist messages on Twitter. As trust in Twitter erodes, the climate community is slowly shifting to other platforms, or at least considering it.
“I don’t think I’m getting much value from being on Twitter now, there are more interesting conversations happening at Mastodon,” The Guardian quoted Bob Kopp, a Rutgers University climate scientist. The rise in disinformation is also silencing many important, diverse voices, as pointed out by Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University.
“As someone who followed lots of women scientists, and scientists of color, I’m noticing the absence of these treasured voices… Maybe they’ve left Twitter, or maybe they’ve fallen silent, or maybe the network has deteriorated to the point that I’m just not seeing them being retweeted by mutuals. Twitter is a shadow of its former self when it comes to climate change,” she said.
With climate change impacts becoming increasingly visible around the world, rampant climate misinformation and disinformation in online discourse pose a significant danger. By undermining the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, it can slow climate action at a time when it needs to be sped up.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.