Conspiracy Theorists Spun a Web of Disinformation, from Election Fraud to Climate Change

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was the culmination of years of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives pushed by the GOP, the Trump administration, white supremacists, and the far-right — but these tactics are not a surprise to those who work in the climate movement. Indeed, experts like John Schwartz, a science writer for The New York Times, the lies and rhetoric that fueled the riots felt all too familiar. “A big part of our job is dealing with the disinformation that people and institutions spread to muddy the waters about climate change,” he wrote.

Why This Matters:  The fossil fuel industry employed the big tobacco disinformation playbook, a strategy that only became more effective with the onset of the internet age. With frightening speed, climate denialists gained large followings online by allying themselves with other far-right conspiracy theorists, and that further fueled their growth. In 2020, QAnon supporters online began claiming that the devastating wildfires engulfing California were started by Antifa activists. Now, it’s not just fossil fuel companies opposing climate action, but a bona fide online army, validated by the president’s own rhetoric.

 Combatting Climate Disinformation

Following Twitter’s recent ban of the president (and his subsequent ban from every major social network and streaming platform), false information about the election fraud dropped by 73% in just one week. The drop highlights the very real power social media companies have when it comes to controlling the spread of disinformation, a power they have denied having in the past. This revelation begs the question, should social media companies be doing more to combat disinformation about climate change?

To Fact Check…

Environmental organizations Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace released a statement calling on Facebook and other platforms to regulate misinformation about climate change. “Climate deniers are an easy group to define — we gave Facebook the list. Just as Facebook has taken responsibility for its own carbon emissions, it must take responsibility to stop climate deniers from spreading disinformation on its platform,” they said. Michael Khoo, an advisor to Friends of the Earth says he’s scared of what climate change deniers will do with unchecked power. “My greatest fear is that if we have a rare moment to take real action on climate change, they could be the foot soldiers that stop that,” he said. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered.”

…Or Not to Fact Check

The Times’ Schwartz isn’t so sure it matters. He noted that after Trump’s ban, White House officials stepped in to continue the spread of disinformation. David Legates, who served as the head of the United States Global Change Research Program, and Ryan Maue, a senior official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, posted a series of debunked “scientific” reports spurring responses from other climate denialists online. “Efforts to limit disinformation just move the myths around. If history is any guide, it will pop up again elsewhere, virulent as ever,” wrote Schwartz.

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