Arm yourself. There is a war raging across our information systems. Whilst no bombs are being dropped, the impacts of this war will have far reaching consequences.
At the same time Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America, 2016 witnessed the rise of populist and extremist movements all over the globe.
The success of many of these causes, groups and individuals came as an unexpected surprise, even a shock. Many asked ‘how could this happen?’
In the aftermath of various elections and referenda, fake news and misinformation spread through social media was identified as being behind many of the successes.
Russian, corporate, or anonymously backed and dubious news sources or social media groups have been creating, distributing, or perpetuating fake news. The purpose is to either strengthen or discredit their chosen agendas.
So you’ve heard it all before? Read on…
Pay attention because the big thing is, fake news is growing at an alarming rate, but it’s likely you’ve not have seen a shred of it. Why? Because complex algorithms target specific groups of people susceptible to the messages being peddled.
On the other hand, you could have been exposed to lots of it. You might see certain posts and messages on Facebook that the rest of us would never see.
The problem is, fake news and misinformation is becoming infinitely more subtle and difficult to detect. Micro-messages are being specifically targeted at you, so how do you really know what is real and what isn’t?
The Trump campaign masterminded the channeling of specific messages to individuals with identified interests and causes. Their associates used so called ‘big data’ (that’s data gathered from all over the web, about you, to determine what type of person you are).
Incredibly, the culprits are even profiting from sharing these posts, narratives and stories that are simply false, and in many cases, dangerous.
As a basic example, pro-gun fanatics would see stories on their Facebook feed highlighting Trump being the champion of protecting gun laws. These messages would tap into their fear, depicting messages of dark strangers breaking into their properties whilst their children were sleeping.
Evangelical Christians would receive different messages supporting their cause. Pro-life campaigners would see other articles reinforcing their cause, and so on. In every case, Trump was their champion, rallying against the elite who were conspiring against them. Yes, Trump, the man who shits in a gold toilet, had positioned himself as a man of the people. The champion of many causes.
Whilst on the face of it, Trump seemed to continually contradict himself, tell outright lies (fact checking by Politifact reported only five per cent of his statements to be true during the Presidential campaign), and communicate conflicting messages during rallies. In the background, it is suspected that the campaign was carefully designed to create sound bites that could be used to specifically target different groups through social media targeting.
This may not be new information to you. However, fake news has far from gone away since Trump’s election victory. Instead, it has a new focus. Climate change denial.
The same fake news sites pushing Trump and other populist or ‘alt right’ agendas are now targeting climate science in a big way. Most have been engaged in climate change denial for years. However, it now appears to be their primary focus.
Challenging scientific findings and theories is essential to furthering understanding and scientific progress. However, climate change denial refers to anyone who is obstructing, delaying or trying to derail policy steps that are in line with the overwhelming scientific consensus that says we need to take rapid steps to decarbonize the economy. This is usually done with the aim of protecting an existing revenue stream, investment or industry (usually the highly polluting ones).
Perhaps Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, his support for burning coal, and his evident disdain for green energy – has emboldened climate change deniers. Or maybe this was the end game all along?
The big question is why?
Climate change denial, how it works and how you’ve been influenced
Just scratching at the surface reveals the scale of the sophisticated climate change denial machine that is beginning to influence all of our views and opinions on human impact on the planet. Throw enough mud and it sticks.
Whilst fake news was previously spread by Eastern European and US based content farms, The London Economic has uncovered a disturbing pattern of misinformation spread by organised fake social media profiles and automated bots into Facebook social groups. This content then spreads and proliferates outside of these groups and finds itself being shared hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of times over, as ‘factual’ news content.
The London Economic asked a social network expert to delve into the various ‘climate change discussion’ groups online to see who has been creating and spreading the climate related fake news, and how they do it.
Crucially, at first glance the fake news and data appears to come from credible sounding sources. This is why it is so easily shared. However, closer inspection exposes that many of the bodies behind these stories aren’t what they seem on the surface.
Most of the sources, if traceable, are corporate funded or ‘corporate friendly’ publications (many already on fake news watchlists). These websites are often owned or edited by hard-right campaigners and funded by corporate bodies.
Worse, is that climate fake news hasn’t been confined to crazy redneck click-bait on our social media feeds, it has been making its way into our new national newspapers. Last week ‘The Mail on Sunday’, a UK major national newspaper, was forced to publish a lengthy admission that an article on climate change by one of its reporters, David Rose, was fake news.
Who are these scientists bucking the trend, because we can’t find them
Almost all of the content we’ve trawled through cites untraceable or unknown ‘scientists’ bucking the trend of global climate consensus, or ‘scientists’ emerging from privately funded bodies, lobby groups, or corporate backed organizations. These individuals appear to make strong claims aimed to discredit, contradict or undermine the climate change consensus.
The majority of the posts contain authentic looking datasets and charts that are either unrecognized or impossible to verify. Even the articles that use real data-sets horribly misuse or misinterpret the data.
Research by Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge has described a “virus” of anti-climate change rhetoric: specifically, information suggesting that climate scientists don’t agree that human-caused global warming is happening.
Whilst research has shown that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are causing climate change. Despite this, Leiserowitz estimates “only about 15 percent” of Americans understand this scientific consensus exists.
That leaves many in the US and the rest of the globe, vulnerable to misinformation about climate change. Whilst telling people about the scientific consensus works to a certain point — disinformation campaigns working against consensus builders appears to be gaining more traction, despite their relatively tiny numbers.
Even if three per cent (or fewer) of scientist are correct and climate change isn’t happening, questions must be asked about what motivates a person to vociferously deny or obstruct steps to a more sustainable, cleaner, or renewable future.
You only need to visit any industrial or overpopulated city to see how polluted the air is. Or blow your nose after walking around London for a day to see the black gunk your nostrils have collected.
Surely everyone agrees that it’s better to innovate to create a cleaner and more sustainable world? Using technological advances to improve air water and soil quality for life on our planet is a no brainer, isn’t it?
Apparently not. Not if you have something to lose from it.
The funding of climate change denial
According to investigations by Greenpeace research, a network of secretive billionaires are funding the efforts of a network of climate denial front groups.
Billionaire siblings the Koch Brothers alone have sent at least $100,343,292 directly to 84 groups denying climate change science since 1997. The brothers have made billions from their ownership and control the second largest privately-held company in America. Unsurprisingly it’s an oil company with an especially poor environmental record.
Furthermore, recent peer reviewed studies found that oil giant Exxon Mobil has been communicating a very different message externally than internally of what it knows about climate change. Whilst acknowledging the existence and risks of climate change in private, the company even took steps to take out ads in newspapers aimed to dilute or cast doubts over climate change.
Social media enabling misinformation, in a big way
It says a lot about human nature that very small numbers of individuals are able to spread this rhetoric so easily. Ignorance is bliss. Not only is fake news is absorbed and shared in its millions, the language is changing too.
Instead of muddying the waters and doubting the science, climate change denial articles are now on the attack, using language such as ‘climate alarmists’ and ‘globalist agendas’, tapping into people’s conspiracy paranoia. This helps the content spread across populist movements and conspiracy theorists the world over.
In the same way that far-right groups such as Britain First were found to be spreading misinformation with as little as 50 avid followers (which were largely made up of fake profiles), posts are also being introduced into climate change interest groups by small numbers of ‘profiles’.
I use the word ‘profiles’ because on closer inspection these certainly don’t look like real people. Profiles with small numbers of fanatical or globally scattered friends that do nothing else but furiously share anti-climate change rhetoric all day, every day.
Interestingly, most of these climate bots have other things in common. They support fossil fuels, pro gun laws, and… Trump.
The reason content is so easy to spread is down to the Facebook algorithm that rewards post engagement. This means that a network of fake profiles are able to seed the articles into discussion groups that raise both a positive and negative response. Not only is the content almost always ‘click bait’, the content becomes more visible to more people the more people engage with it, further increasing visibility and reach.
So what can we do about it? Here’s the catch 22…
The problem is, by commenting on, discussing, or disputing the content, you are inadvertently assisting both the distribution and the profiteering for the content creator. Inadvertently making the content more visible to others.
However, ignoring the content allows others to share and absorb the content without challenge. So what’s the answer?
Fake news and propaganda has been around since the dawn of time. However the nightmarish strategy of misinformation and ‘alternative fact’ spread through social media not only threatens our democracy, it threatens our environment, the ability to hold individuals and corporations to account, and it threatens our security.
At the moment, fake news is winning. We are going to have to rely on media companies, such as Facebook, to help us screen fact from fiction, or at least alert us when a news source is highly biased or has a history of fake news.
All we can do it arm ourselves with true facts and information by going to the source, reading the scientific journals, studying the data, and checking our sources.
Also ask yourself, despite the swelling human population on the planet, what if climate change is a hoax and we’re creating a more sustainable world for nothing? I’ll leave you with this image…
For more information about the current media climate and why you should be worried, watch this eye-opening talk. Veteran investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages.