EP5 Hot Politics – Tracking Disinformation
David McKie 00:00
This is Hot Politics. I’m David McKie. Hot Politics is made possible by listeners like you. We’re asking for your support to keep the word going. If you’ve supported the podcast with a donation already, thank you. If you haven’t yet, please donate what you’re able, whether it’s five or ten dollars, as a one time contribution or monthly gift. Every little bit helps keep us producing more episodes, so please donate at nationalobserver.com. Welcome to episode tracking climate disinformation. No one knows that Twitter will survive its new owner, Elon Musk. But Twitter has been useful and sometimes essential as a communication tool. And at the same time, a nightmare of nastiness, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Researchers in the UK wanted to quantify Twitter disinformation around the climate crisis. So, they looked at Twitter data from 2014 to 2021 – seven years – and they put together a report called Growing Polarisation Around Climate Change on Social Media. And what they found is not good news. Joining me today is Max Falkenburg of City University of London and lead author, and Andrea Baronchelli, also of City University and the Alan Turing Institute. Welcome, Andrea and Max to Hot Politics. So Andrea, why study climate disinformation on Twitter?
Andrea Baronchelli 01:54
But we have been looking at the dynamics occurring on social media a lot over the past two years. We are part of a coalition called Iris Research Group where we want to understand infodamics, that is how people react to the over presence of information on Twitter. Looking at Twitter is pretty natural from several points of views. One is that Twitter is a major social network used, especially by politicians and journalists, to communicate with the public. But at the same time is big enough for a lot of these intermediated conversations to take place. The other reason, honestly, is that, for example, we don’t have data for Facebook, from Facebook. So Twitter has also this benefit that provides access to researchers to the conversations that go on there.
David McKie 02:51
So don’t we know that Twitter is full of disinformation?
Andrea Baronchelli 02:56
Well, we do. I mean, first of all, as the title of the study says, Growing Polarisation Around Climate on Social Media, we try to stay away from the concept of misinformation or disinformation. But we looked at polarisation, which is a neutral concept from this point of view, analysing how the conversation unfolds. And to look at polarisation, you can do two things: one is to check the opinions that are expressed and see whether they are for example similar to one another or correlate with the extremes in the political spectrum, which we did. But more importantly, we looked at the structural properties of the network of conversation. So who interacts with whom?
David McKie 03:47
Max, I’d like you to jump in here. So talk about this polarisation.
Max Falkenberg 03:52
There’s a literature that’s really built itself over the last 10 years that looks a lot at echo chambers. And the idea when you’re studying echo chambers is that individuals on a social network were going to principally interact and engage with people they agree with. And you know, if it’s something benign, like which football team you support, thats not really important, but when it comes to important socio political issues, including for instance, climate change, well, then there is a risk that individuals who end up in this minority echo chamber in which they are only exposed to views that are, let’s say, contrarian to the best climate science we currently have available, well, then it’s going to be difficult to progress climate action, in a sense. The point in looking at polarisation is to try and understand how information flows throughout a social network in terms of specific issues, as opposed to taking very hard specific views on whether a certain piece of information is truthful or not. You have sort of a range of five different typical climate contrarian claims. The most extreme of those are climate change is not happening and climate change is happening, but it has nothing to do with manmade greenhouse gases. Those kinds of claims are generally quite easy to identify, but they are actually in the minority. What is far more common is claims that are associated with discrediting pro climate groups. And that are associated with the idea that climate action is not feasible. But yet, because the important stakeholders are not at the table because even if we acted as strongly as possible, it’s all too late. Those are the kinds of claims that are very difficult to actually identify when you’re working with big data. Sure, if you look at a handful of individual tweets, you might be able to do it. But when you’re working with really large datasets, that’s very difficult. And that’s why we choose to take a more structural approach and look at this echo chamber of minority views instead. So how did this play out like in COP 26 in Glasgow, for example, what we started with is to just map the network of engagement on Twitter. So who are the most shared users? And who are they being shared by? So in terms of COP 26, what we really saw is how these minority climate contrarian views, what they’ve managed to do since 2014, is to attract a much wider audience who they receive engagement from. So the way to put that concretely is if you look from COP 20, in 2014, to COP 25, at the end of 2019, you see that this minority appendix of contrarian views are about 1% of influential accounts. And generally they received very little engagement. And then if you looked at specifically, who are the most influential people within this minority conversation, you see, they’re all accounts who are very specialised on climate issues, but who are to be perfectly honest, not very well known in the wider public conversation, thier quite niche figures. And what really happened in COP 26 is that the nature of this conversation changed. Those highly specialised climate controlling accounts are still there during COP 26 but they are now the minority within this minority. And what you now see is a much larger group of highly influential accounts from predominantly the political right, but not exclusively. And these are accounts which have a far wider reach. And they are accounts who have not previously heavily engaged in the climate conversation. And to put concrete numbers on that, I said, 1% of accounts were part of this minority, up to COP 25. In COP 26, it’s about 16%. So one in six accounts.
David McKie 08:18
I think what Max is saying is that you have a minority who have an outsized influence, should we should we be concerned about that?
Andrea Baronchelli 08:27
More than outside influence, outsized influence, what we saw is that it really grew. It grew around 2019. And besides being bigger now, it also could see individuals who are not climate specialised. So politicians are a typical example of individuals engaging with broad range array of topics, who are not specifically on climate, and we’re now engaging with climate conversation.
David McKie 09:02
I also want to bring Canada into this conversation, and you make a note that there are several countries involved, one of them in Canada. So what are some of the major trends or accounts of interest in Canada?
Max Falkenberg 09:15
So Canada is interesting. You know, I didn’t know a lot about the climate conversation in Canada, and I wasn’t expecting Canada to be so much of the story in what has ended up being our paper. So we we’ve mentioned this majority group in the minority group. And one of the things you often see on social media is that people within the same country, even if they have different political views, they are more likely to interact than people across country. And the interesting thing around COP is that’s not the case. What we found around COP is that climate contrarians in Canada, climate contrarians in the UK, climate contrarians in Australia, and of course in the US, all of those individuals are part of the same echo chamber that is separated from this pro climate conversation. And within this minority group, many of the best known figures are from Canada. I think probably the loudest Canadian voice will probably be Maxine Bernier. But there is definitely engagement from the political right in Canada. And then you have certain news organisations who are also heavily engaged in climate conversation, and I should say, have been for many years. And I think the key news organisation you see there as Rebel News, so that was the real takeaway in Canada. You also have people like Pierre Poilievre, I should say. I mean, there is a clear distinction between him and Maxime Bernier. So if you look at the content from Maxime Bernier, I mean, I don’t think it’s controversial for me to say, you know, his content is outright climate denial. Given that his most shared tweet was “everything climate alarmists have told you is a lie”.
David McKie 11:04
Maxime Bernier is the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, very controversial figure, has yet to win a seat in the house of commons. But during the last election, his party, there are those who feel that his party syphoned off enough votes from the federal conservatives to make a difference. So he’s a well known figure. And of course, Pierre Poilievre is the leader of Canada’s official opposition, and in some circles, a bit of a controversial figure as well.
Max Falkenberg 11:33
The content from Maxime Bernier is pretty outright in its denial of climate change. Pierre Poilievre is also heavily mentioned in this conversation, but it’s never as blunt as what you see with Bernie, the arguments are far more economic. They’re far more associated with the Canadian oil and gas industry. And the people who heavily share his material are also people who heavily attacked Justin Trudeau, for instance, for the way we phrased it in the paper was for allegedly “destroying the Canadian oil and gas industry”.
David McKie 12:06
Well, it certainly depends on where you live in Canada. If you’re out west. If you’re in Alberta, or Saskatchewan, you’re more likely to make that argument. If you’re elsewhere, maybe not.
Max Falkenberg 12:17
Well, luckily, we are much much further east.
David McKie 12:21
I’d like to wrap things up by just putting something to both of you. We’ve talked about polarisation on social media platforms like Twitter, why is it important for us to pay attention to this? Andrea, we’ll start with you.
Andrea Baronchelli 12:36
It is important for several reasons. One is to understand how the disintermediate conversation unfolds. In here, there is a huge problem. So social media are tools that were created for entertainment, today use for information. The production and consumption of information there follows completely different paths from those that we have been knowing for the last century. And from this point of view, the point that Max was making that the common trait between the two echo chambers we observe is acquisition so political hypocrisy is not the one you would want if you care about our democratic life. In the sense you could say, Oh, nice, but they have a common theme. Well, the common theme seems to denounce very clearly a lack of trust towards government and politicians. Even from this point of view, consequences can be major in several parties, for example, in Europe, which is the part of the world I know better, have thrived by accusing the political elites of being hypocrites, of being detached. We have seen this in Italy, in France, Brexit can be ascribed to a large extent to such a narrative. And therefore, I mean, observing this unifying trade is alarming from this point of view.
David McKie 14:14
Max Falkenberg 14:15
I’ll just give you a bit of a short response, which is always what I like to say to people who say Twitter’s not important. Last year there was an article in the Financial Times, one of the largest newspapers in the UK, that said that Labour Party strategists the you know, centre left party in the UK, were annoyed at politicians in their party for being too led by Twitter on what they believe public opinion is. They said that the strategic thinking of their politicians would be much higher if they stopped looking at Twitter, because they shaped their thinking based on what they see on Twitter. And if we frame that within what we’ve been talking about, echo chambers and polarisation, suppose a politician ends up in this group where all they see is voices saying we do not want climate action. We do not want an energy transition. What would the consequence of that be? People always say Twitter’s not reality. I completely agree. Yeah. But if a politician believes it’s reality, there’s a problem with that. And, you know, we should seriously think about the consequences of under estimating this phenomenon.
David McKie 15:32
Well, listen, Max and Andre, thank you very much for a fascinating conversation.
Andrea Baronchelli 15:38
Thank you. Thank you so much, David, it was a pleasure.
David McKie 15:41
Max and Andrea talked about doing part of the research for their Twitter study at the annual UN Global Climate Conference, COP 26 in Glasgow. Last year, a COP 27 was held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. These conferences are meant to move the world towards reducing carbon emissions and fixing some of the damage done by a warming Earth. They have been held for 30 years. Some years they make progress, other years, not so much. There’s a group of environmental organisations who decided to look at how much disinformation happens at these conferences, and maybe, just maybe, influences the agreements that are made. Jennie King is a London based climate disinformation specialist, and the head of Civic Action and Education at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. At COP 26, two years ago in Glasgow, the Institute organised a team from 30 organisations monitoring the tweets, the panels, the news releases. They were looking for disinformation, and they found it, a lot of it. So they did it again at last year’s COP 27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. This time, they created a so called intelligence room to report in real time on the disinformation. Jennie King joins me from London in the UK. Hi, Jennie. Welcome to Hot Politics.
Jennie King 17:11
Thank you very much for having me.
David McKie 17:12
How did this team of disinformation sleuths come together?
Jennie King 17:17
The million dollar question. So this coalition, which is called Climate Action Against Disinformation, has formed fairly organically over the last 18 to 24 months. And it’s a constellation of entities, some of whom have worked for a long time in the disinformation space, and in trying to understand the dynamics of information operations and malign influence across social media. And then another set of organisations who’ve really been on the frontline of climate action and advocacy work, including engagement with policymakers, as well as some of that more grassroots engagement in trying to educate the public about this phenomenon and the viable routes forward. And these two quite disparate groups came together, because we both began to notice a real convergence of environmental issues into the conspiracist, extremist and identity and grievance politics spaces. And over time, those collaborations became formalised to the point that we now have this 50 plus organisation coalition, which spans almost all regions of the globe. We have partners, certainly in North America and Europe, but also Asia Pacific, Sub Saharan Africa, and increasingly, we’re looking to expand into South Asia and Latin and Central America. So it’s, it’s really a recognition or a reflection of the fact that this problem has become very acute and central to a number of different fields.
David McKie 18:44
So why did you decide to look at the COP meeting in Glasgow?
Jennie King 18:48
What we know about disinformation and the disinformation playbook is that it relies in large part on opportunism. And what I mean by that is piggybacking on events that are taking place in the news cycle, in order to launder ideas into the mainstream, or to give them additional visibility with audiences who may never come across them otherwise. And that doesn’t have to be climate specific. But of course, the COP summits are the biggest rallying point or focal point in a calendar year, where the new cycle is really interested in environmental issues. And where there is an enormous amount of coverage happening in the mainstream media. And as a result, it offers a really unique points of entry. For those who either want to deny the reality of climate change, or an even bigger and kind of more complicated ecosystem of people who want to delay climate action. It’s the best point for them to get oxygen for those ideas.
David McKie 19:45
Is it denying the reality of climate change? Or has it become a little more subtle than that?
Jennie King 19:53
Well, it’s it’s really interesting that question because when we did the monitoring around COP 26, our conclusion was the evolution from denialism to what we call delayism or discourses of delay was relatively complete. And I don’t want to imply by any means that denialism had ceased to exist, but more than it had seemed to have been pushed to the periphery of conversation, and ultimately had become less palatable for a general civilian audience. So it wasn’t that there aren’t people out there who aren’t denialists. But they realised that that kind of content isn’t going to gain as much traction as it has in previous decades. And as a result, they had pivoted their tactics to focusing more on exploiting what I like to call the last mile, which is the gap between a recognition of the problem and actually doing something about it. What really surprised us this year, is that actually we are seeing a real resurgence of some of those well worn and traditional denialist concepts, but reframed around pushback on institutions. So for example, you will see conspiracies like the great reset, which is centred on multilateral bodies, like the World Economic Forum, and imply that the climate change agenda is a scam or a hoax in order to enable authoritarianism from these elite groups. So now, I think the information landscape is in tension between those two different fields of content, and both of them are coexisting in a lot of the same spaces.
David McKie 21:26
So take me, take us, inside this intelligence room.
Jennie King 21:31
Hmm. So this year, it was a quite a mammoth operation, we had 17 partner organisations that seconded analysts into the unit. And they were based in I think, six different time zones. So it really did end up being a 24 hour analytical process. And what we would do is we have built a sophisticated monitoring system that looks at both key actors globally, but also key narratives. And that tries to give us the broadest picture of what’s happening in the online space. So in the actor sense, we’ll look at a whole range of different communities or constituencies online, that act as you might call them, sort of canaries in the coal mine, for where disinformation is originating, but also whether it’s penetrated mainstream groups. So that could include kind of known anti climate figures or think tanks, it can be industry, front and lobby groups. It can also be key policymakers and media outlets. And by looking at those actor groups, it allows us to say, ‘Okay, where are these narratives stemming from? Who is amplifying them? And how do we assess when things have crossed a kind of critical mass or a threshold of concern?’ So this year, you know, we had a particular focus on things like the cost of living crisis, the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, loss and damage as a key negotiating clause within the Sharm el Sheikh negotiations, and other things like the necessity of fossil fuels, trying to discredit renewable energies, push back on electric vehicles, etc. And what we would do is every day we’d go into these systems, we would try and look at any new or emerging trends, and then break them down into their constituent parts. Are they concerning? If so, why? What does this say about the general mood or public perceptions of the climate issue? And more importantly, what is the through line to what’s happening on the ground in Sharm el Sheikh?
David McKie 23:35
So give me a practical example of one of these emerging trends that you’ve just talked about.
Jennie King 23:41
So for example, one thing that we we saw this year, which was relatively distinct from COP 26, was propaganda efforts by Chinese and Russian state groups online or affiliated networks online, that were using what we might call “woke washed language” in order to justify continued use of fossil fuels. So there, and that was matched by the African fossil fuel lobby. So they were putting forward posts and content along the lines of netzero transitions are a form of Western imperialism and colonialism in areas of the Global South. And allowing countries such as Nigeria to continue using oil is essential to human rights. That was a really interesting phenomenon that, you know, it doesn’t necessarily constitute out and out disinformation. It’s slightly blurrier in terms of those definitions. But we could begin to map how that kind of content was not just being pushed by state sponsored networks, but then being picked up by known climate contrarians or those who are trying to delay climate action in North America in Asia Pacific and in the UK.
David McKie 24:59
But does that kind of argument play as prominently, say in North America, in the United States, in Canada?
Jennie King 25:07
Well, what’s interesting is that you will see a lot of pundits who have been advocating for either a slower transition or a less ambitious transition, using these kinds of arguments to make to make themselves more resonant with the general public.
David McKie 25:29
But isn’t there something to that argument, right? I mean, if you take a look at the Russia’s war in Ukraine, and people going without heat and so on, because they are being deprived of, of, of heat, basically. Right. So when you’re talking about people’s livelihoods and their, you know, their ability to survive, doesn’t that kind of argument make sense in a way?
Jennie King 25:55
Well, I would say a few things, specifically on the African front. Those kinds of arguments are entirely counter to what climate justice movements and climate scientists from the region are saying. And indeed, what African nations and the African bloc are advocating for within global processes. There is no reason why the mistakes that have been made by the global north in terms of centering infrastructure on polluting fossil fuels need to be repeated in developing economies. And indeed, what those regions are largely saying is, they are already suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis. So why in a supposed effort to increase economic development or improve the well being and the livelihoods of their citizens would they expedite a climate emergency, which, which causes billions, if not hundreds of billions of pounds worth of damage that then needs to be refinanced through loss and damage and adaptation efforts? It’s entirely that when you look into those arguments, they don’t make any sense at a rational level, right? Because the measures that are being proposed for short term gain are going to have absolutely apocalyptic long term consequences for those exact same communities. Two concurrent crises have happened in 2022. One is economic downturn, which may well be a legacy from the COVID 19 pandemic. And the second is Russia’s war in Ukraine. Now, those two events happening in parallel, have really turbocharged a pre existing disinformation ecosystem, because what they’ve done is, again, create an impression that the green transition, or the climate policies in general, aren’t appropriate for this point in time. But what I’d really want to emphasise is that argument has been made for every year since you know, the 1970s. And whatever is happening in the news cycle at a given point in time will be used as pretext to remake the argument, and to reformulate it in a way that is going to resonate most with the public. What I find, both concerning, and I think extremely frustrating for the climate sector, is that a crisis which has been caused, in large part because societies did not pivot their infrastructure earlier to renewable technologies, and therefore wean themselves off reliance on authoritarian states, like Russia, for oil and gas, has somehow been reframed by the narrative that the green agenda is to blame for the current situation. And that is an incredibly successful and, you know, in some ways, impressive PR effort from both industry actors and those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But it’s, it’s really quite a perverse way of viewing where we currently are, because you could quite easily make the argument if 10 years ago, the calls for greater investment in solar and wind energy, greater insulation of domestic housing, greater measures to expedite the netzero transition had taken place, we wouldn’t have current disruptions to the energy supply chain. So to now use this crisis, as further grist to the mill to advocate for oil and gas seems like entirely the wrong conclusion to draw from the current state of affairs.
David McKie 29:27
But it seems to be working, doesn’t it? I mean, if you take a look at, if you take a look at Canada, for example, our federal government is bankrolling to a degree, the whole initiative of you know, carbon capture and storage, a technology that is decried by climate activists as inefficient, and, and so on. But nonetheless, it’s receiving government support. So doesn’t that argument that you’ve just described isn’t that working to a degree?
Jennie King 29:57
It’s absolutely working and that’s why I to say it’s frustrating how adept these this group of actors are in framing their narratives in a way that is going to be persuasive, not just for the public but also, as you say, for the decision-makers that ultimately are responsible for regulation and policy and response. I would anticipate a great consolidation of efforts in the information warfare space around what we would call solutions based disinformation, which is essentially amplifying campaigns around certain technologies, in particular gas, which is called natural gas, but in our coalition is called fossil gas, because it’s really not the kind of clean technology that it’s framed as hydrogen as well. And the sort of ambiguity about whether you’re talking about green hydrogen or blue hydrogen, you know, actually carbon neutral forms of energy production, and then carbon capture and storage. And what’s very potent about those particular campaigns is that the public is absolutely desperate for a good news story on climate, because people are genuinely terrified about the prospects of what lies ahead, both in the short term and in the long term. I think more and more people have direct experience of the impacts of climate change, whether that’s through blackouts, or droughts, or hurricanes or floods, you know, that that the immediacy of those experiences is becoming more and more acute. And so, this good news framing that says, ‘Don’t worry, the netzero transition is in good hands, because the free market, and the moment unsubstantiated tools, like carbon capture and storage are going to solve all of our problems’ is exactly the kind of reassurance that many people are looking for. And you know, all good disinformation ultimately preys on something in the collective psyche and in our individual emotions. That’s why it’s powerful. So I almost worry about that more than the old school forms of denialism.
David McKie 32:05
Do you feel that you’re maybe fighting a losing battle?
Jennie King 32:13
We’re fighting a very, very tough battle, because we’re fighting against people who have decades of experience, who have a very well developed and very successful playbook, and also, frankly, speaking, have billions of dollars at their disposal to fund these efforts. That stuff can feel a little bit insurmountable. But there are lots of levers at our disposal that would level the playing field in meaningful and tangible ways. And I think that there are a couple of case studies that give me hope, including the fact that in recent months, the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK took a ruling against the bank, HSBC, which forced them to pull down two of their posters, because they claimed that they were they were greenwashing and ultimately not representative of the company’s contributions to achieving net zero. All of these things might feel small individually, but they do show a direction of travel. And that direction of travel for me is heartening.
David McKie 33:11
Jenny King, thank you very much for this.
Jennie King 33:14
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
David McKie 33:17
This information is something Canada’s former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna thinks a lot about in her new role as the chair of a UN expert group on net zero emissions. I asked her about this after she returned from the COP 27 UN meeting in Sharm el Sheikh. I’m wondering how you would define the terms in from disinformation and misinformation when it comes to climate change? Because, you know, many people see that as a big, big, big problem.
Catherine McKenna 33:47
Yeah, I mean, there’s different layers to this, like, I mean, you go to you go on social media, I go to my Twitter feed, and people are saying all sorts of things that aren’t true to read about what we say on you know, I’ll say about climate or the science. So, I mean, there’s pretty basic things where people are just, you know, fostering lies.
David McKie 34:04
Like, what, for example, like what, for example?
Catherine McKenna 34:06
They say the planets always warming. I mean, that’s the most basic one or they say, like, you know, CO2 is good for, you know, plants are, like, I don’t know, they just say things. You know, these are pure climate deniers right there. So there’s that. But what people are worrying is that greenwashing is the new form of climate denial that you are basically focused on and this is the big concern with netzero targets we’re talking about. The world has to be globally net zero by 2050. So now that’s being extrapolated to companies, you know, and governments.
David McKie 34:41
Jenny King mentioned green hydrogen, and blue hydrogen. She also talked about African countries pushing for help to fight climate change. In the weeks ahead, Hot Politics is going to be tackling these issues. We hope to remove the fog and provide some clarity about what’s a real solution and what might be greenwashing? I hope you’ll keep joining us. Hot Politics is produced by Canada’s National Observer. Our managing producer for podcasts is Sandra Bartlett, Associate Producer is Zahra Khozema, Executive Editor of Canada’s National Observer is Karyn Pugliese. Our publisher is Linda Solomon Wood. I’m David McKie. Next week, it’s Maxed Out with Max Fawcett.