Twitter has proven to be a go-to forum for climate scientists to share their research, as well as for activists seeking to mobilize to shut down pipelines or expose politicians’ failure to reduce pollution. But many are now fleeing Twitter due to a rise in climate misinformation, spam and even threats that have upended their relationship with the platform.
Scientists and advocates have told the Guardian they are unnerved by a recent resurgence of debunked climate change denier talking points and memes on Twitter, with the term #ClimateScam now regularly the first result that pops up when ‘climate’ is searched on the site.
Under the often chaotic leadership of Elon Musk, Twitter has laid off content management teams, dismantled durability arms and lifted the bans of several prominent users with millions of followers, such as Donald Trump and right-wing commentator Jordan Peterson, who has espoused falsehoods about the climate crisis. The changes were too much for some climate experts to bear.
“Since Musk’s takeover, I’ve reduced my own use of Twitter, using it less both to seek information and to share science,” said Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. , who said she feared years of ties formed between scientists could “collapse” if trust in Twitter plummets.
“People noticing an increase in climate denial and misinformation is particularly concerning and I fear this will set back climate action in ways that are devastating to economies, communities and health,” she said. .
Michael Mann, a prominent University of Pennsylvania climate scientist, said he has no immediate plans to quit Twitter, but noted that climate misinformation has “become a little more the nose, climate deniers who had been deactivated reappearing, and climate denial gets a little more traction”.
Mann created a profile on Mastodon, a new social media site seen as an alternative to Twitter, and was joined by a group of other climate scientists appalled by Musk’s tenure. “I don’t think I get much value from being on Twitter now, there are more interesting conversations going on at Mastodon,” said Bob Kopp, a Rutgers University climate scientist who expressed concern over at Twitter’s end of its Covid-19 misinformation policy. , which he says “tends to go hand in hand” with climate denial.
Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech advocate and previously lauded by environmentalists for his leadership of electric car company Tesla, said Twitter “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.” But his recent actions suggest “he is interested in creating a massive, global cage fight. If that happens, we’ll accept a pass,” according to Ed Maibach, a climate communications expert at George Mason University, who said many people in the climate community have considered leaving the site.
There has been an increase in Twitter content referring to #ClimateScam, “climate scam” or “climate is a scam” since July, three months before Musk took over the site for $44 billion, with more than 500,000 mentions of those terms since then, according to an analysis by the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition. The opaque nature of Twitter’s algorithm makes it unclear why this happened, the coalition said.
“There’s no evidence that there are more posts with ‘climate scam’ than ‘climate emergency’ or other terms, or that they get more engagement, so it’s a bit perplexing why that’s the highest search term, we’re scratching our heads,” said Jennie King, civic action manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which is part of the coalition.
“I can understand climate scientists saying it’s no longer a productive place to have conversations with each other. They’ve become lightning rods for hate speech and death threats, we’re seeing a real escalation in threats against them, intended to chase them from the rostrum.
King said there was “renewed energy” in the effort to spread unsubstantiated claims about the climate crisis on Twitter, especially by high-profile accounts that embed the issue in other major clashes, such as abortion or LGBTQ+ rights.
Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and media personality who was reinstated on Twitter by Musk following a ban, recently became fixed on climate change, often launching a dozen or more tweets in a single day on the issue to his 3.5 million followers.
The right-winger has shared debunked theories that excess carbon dioxide is good for the world, that ‘motoring freedom’ is under threat from efforts to cut pollution from cars and that climate activists want “to wreak envious and narcissistic havoc”.
“Peterson is big because his brand extends beyond the environment, but now he’s doubling down on climate,” King said. “Time and time again we have seen these narratives that espouse denial and climate backwardness also spread misinformation about other topics, such as voter fraud, racial politics or reproductive rights.”
While misrepresentations about the climate crisis have been deployed for decades by the fossil fuel industry and various conservative figures, there is evidence of an increase in climate polarization on social media over the past couple of years. years. A recent study by researchers in the UK and Italy found that there was a fourfold increase in “contrary” right-wing climate conversations on Twitter during the UN COP26 climate talks l year, compared to the same summit held in 2015.
The rise of minority voices on climate, who claim that people in favor of climate action are somehow hypocrites or that reducing emissions is unnecessary or costly, is fueled by well-known right-wing politicians in the United States. States and Europe who are turning fire on climate activists who have become more prominent in recent years, the researchers said.
“We have entered a new era of conversation about climate change, where there is diminished trust and no interaction between groups who disagree,” said Andrea Baronchelli, co-author of the study and researcher at City University London. “If you’re on one side, you’re not necessarily exposed to the opinions of the other side, except to make fun of them.”
For climate scientists, the outage raised fears that previously traditional online spaces like Twitter were being handed over to conspiracy theorists and others without any expertise in global warming. Kim Cobb, a climatologist at Brown University, also moved to Mastodon, but lamented that it felt “pretty tame and quite corny” compared to Twitter.
“As someone who has followed many women scientists and scientists of color, I notice the absence of those precious voices,” she said.
“Maybe they quit Twitter, or maybe they went silent, or maybe the network has deteriorated to the point where I just don’t see them being retweeted by mutuals. Twitter is just a shadow of itself when it comes to climate change.
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