WASHINGTON (AP) — Search for “climate” on Twitter and the first automatic suggestion is not “climate crisis” or “climate jobs” or even “climate change”, but instead “climate fraud”.
Clicking on the recommendation spawns dozens of posts denying the reality of climate change and making misleading claims about efforts to mitigate it.
Such misinformation has proliferated on Twitter since it was acquired by Elon Musk last year, but it’s not the only site promoting content that scientists and environmental advocates say undermines public support for policies to respond to a changing climate.
“What’s going on in the information ecosystem poses a direct threat to action,” said Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit. “This sows the seeds of doubt and makes people think maybe there is no scientific consensus.”
The institute is part of a coalition of environmental advocacy groups that released a report Thursday tracking climate change disinformation in the months before, during and after the UN climate summit in November.
The report accused social media platforms, among other things, of not enforcing their own policies that prohibit misinformation about climate change. The latest to highlight the growing climate misinformation problem on Twitter.
The researchers found that Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, allows nearly 4,000 ads on its site, many of which are bought by fossil fuel companies, rejecting the scientific consensus behind climate change and criticizing efforts to respond to it.
In some cases, ads and posts cited inflation and economic fears to oppose climate policies while ignoring the costs of inaction. Researchers also found that a significant portion of accounts making false claims about climate change also spread misinformation about the US elections, COVID-19 and vaccines.
Twitter did not respond to questions from the Associated Press. A spokesperson for Meta cited the company’s policy, which bans ads proven false by fact-checking partners, a group that includes the AP. The accuracy of the advertisements defined in the report has not been checked.
Under Musk, Twitter laid off thousands of employees and made changes to its content moderation that its critics said were undermining the effort. In November, the company announced that it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. Musk also reinstated many previously banned users, including several who spread misleading claims about climate change. Instances of hate speech and attacks against LGBTQ people increased rapidly.
Tweets containing “climate hoax” or other terms linked to climate change denial rose 300% in 2022, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Advance Democracy. While Twitter has tagged some of the content as false information, most of the popular posts have not been tagged.
Musk’s new verification system may be part of the problem, according to a report by the Center for Digital Hatred, another organization that tracks misinformation online. Previously, blue checkmarks were held by people in the public eye, such as journalists, government officials or celebrities.
Now, anyone willing to pay $8 a month can look for a checkmark. Posts and replies from verified accounts are automatically supported on the platform and become more visible than content from non-paying users.
When researchers at the Center for Fighting Digital Hate looked at accounts that were verified after Musk took over, they found that they spread misinformation about climate change four times more than users verified before Musk’s purchase.
Verification systems are often created to assure users that the accounts they follow are legitimate. However, according to the center’s CEO, Imran Khan, Twitter’s new system makes no distinction between authoritative sources on climate change and anyone with $8 and an opinion.
“We found it,” Khan said, “actually putting rocket propellants into the spread of lies and disinformation.”