Social media: Climate crisis deniers stay on message by adapting the narrative
07 Feb 2024
Hereby we recommend you a very interesting article by Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia. She analysed the new CCDH report The new Climate Denial. How social platforms and content producers profit by spreading new forms of climate denial.
She gives a broad overview of how denial messages changed over the years, naming who profit most from these messages, and concluding with some tips for communicators who want to pose the right questions to talk about climate crisis.
Old Denial vs New Denial
In February 2015, James Inhofe, the climate change denying Senator from Oklahoma, brought a snowball to the floor of the US Senate to demonstrate that while the previous year had been the hottest on record, winter in Washington D.C. still was pretty cold.
In the new report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a not-for-profit NGO, Inhofe’s stunt would be classified as ‘Old Denial’. The message used to be that global warming is not happening and human activity is not causing it. According to the report, this type of denial is increasingly being replaced by a new set of (false) arguments.
CCDH used artificial intelligence to analyse 4,458 hours of YouTube videos from 2018 to 2023 and found that the arguments most often used by climate crisis deniers had changed considerably. From the old ‘It’s not happening, nothing to see here’, the message pivoted to ‘New Denials’ such as “the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless”, “climate solutions won’t work” and “climate science and the climate movement are unreliable”. According to CCDH’s findings, “New Denial constitutes 70% of denialist claims in 2023, up from 35%” The reason for the change? “Experts suggest climate deniers have changed tactics because the results of global warming and climate change are evident to the public”. CCDH concludes: “New Denial narratives are now the most prevalent arguments used to undermine climate action”.
For social media companies hosting climate crisis deniers is lucrative business: DDCH analysed material from 96 YouTube channels and says the company made up to $13.4 million a year from ad revenue.
As a conclusion, the NGO says: “Major platforms including Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and X must evaluate their own platforms for the prevalence of New Denial content and review their policies toward climate change denial, particularly those that permit the monetization and amplification of New Denial”.
The study makes interesting reading and the recommendations make sense. But will social media companies take any notice? Climate crisis deniers are not the only ones spreading false information, content moderators stand little chance against the onslaught of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
What's beyond social media companies?
CCDH also does not look beyond social media companies. To me, the questions are: Who places the ads? What’s the target audience? And who is open to the messages – the ‘New Denials’ as well as the advertising content that’s placed next to them?
Across the globe, governments debate the impact of the climate crisis, come up with green policies and implement them – or at least try to do so. Getting to carbon net zero is becoming a universal goal, but reaching it comes at a cost and often involves ‘inconvenient’ regulations: from new standards for house insulation to plastic carrier bags no longer being freely available. The message: ‘climate solutions don’t work’ reinforces the belief that governments are ‘overreaching’, and that protesting environmentalists are a nuisance and should be stopped. The message ‘global warming is beneficial or harmless’ translates into: ‘I don’t have to change, things can go on as before’. Such messaging can have real life consequences way beyond the YouTube profit margin: when such messages are pushed or endorsed by politicians it may well influence voting behaviour, for example in the European Parliament elections this summer.
Companies such as agrochemical and seed companies benefit too. ‘It may be pricy, but we will come up with a technological fix’, is their message. Who in their right mind can argue against allowing gene editing and gene modification technology if that’s how we might ‘drought proof’ plants? Scientists who point to the multitude of unintended consequences from gene editing and gene modification, and to the fact that something like drought resistance in a plant is a highly complex interplay of genetics, can’t present solutions and have no snappy messages. And in any case, why listen when ‘climate science and the climate movement are unreliable’?
I am an agricultural journalist, and talking to farmers is (mostly a very enjoyable) part of my work. In particular in the US I have met quite a few farmers who don’t believe that the climate crisis is real. I have long since stopped arguing with them and avoid the topic altogether if I can. Instead I ask about the weather. Have they seen changes in the last few years? Has it had an impact on the way they farm? Was it too wet in spring? Did they incur additional costs because they needed to reseed? How was the summer? The hottest and driest they can remember? That must have had an impact on yields and profit! And the conversation turns… to the benefits of good soil, that they planted cover crops for the first time over winter and what a difference that made. We get chatting about biodiversity and seed breeders who work with heritage varieties – the yields may not be quite as high, but the plants deal better with drought stress, need fewer inputs and at harvest it turned out the profit margin was actually better. Probably I won’t go as far as talking about ‘agroecology’ or pointing them to the Slow Food website – at least not on my first visit. Eventually they’ll get there by default.
Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia.
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