Twitter has always been a hotspot for climate change misinformation.
Under new owner Elon Musk, falsehoods about the warming planet are whipping around the social media platform at a sizzling pace, according to a study of climate-related conversations shared exclusively with USA TODAY.
The new report echoes recent research showing a surge in climate misinformation since Musk bought the company in October.
Tweets using terms associated with climate denial such as “climate fraud,” “climate hoax” and “climate scam” more than tripled in 2022, up 300% from 2021, according to Advance Democracy, a research organization that studies misinformation.
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The most widely shared tweets were not labeled, despite Twitter’s policy to do so, the review found.
Twitter’s media relations department, which was gutted after Musk bought the social media platform, did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
‘Musk has openly encouraged attacks on mainstream science’
“Musk has openly encouraged attacks on mainstream science with his own posts, has brought back previously banned anti-science-promoting accounts and has altered the site algorithm in a way that greatly limits the reach of leading climate communicators,” Michael Mann, director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability & the Media at the University of Pennsylvania, told USA TODAY.
Preliminary data gathered by the research project CARDS, or Computer Assisted Recognition of Denial and Skepticism, which uses machine learning to detect and categorize claims skeptical of climate science, shows that Twitter attacks on climate scientists are escalating, according to John Cook, research fellow at Monash University.
Those attacks from bots and critics have driven some climate scientists from the platform, says Michelle Amazeen, director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University.
Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, says his research group also found increases on TikTok and YouTube.
“Last year, social media companies announced additional steps to combat the proliferation of climate change misinformation on their platforms. Despite these steps, Advance Democracy found that in almost all cases that the proliferation of climate change denialist content increased in the past year, and in many cases, dramatically so,” Jones told USA TODAY.
Misinformation surge alarms climate scientists
Climate change is one of the most contentious debates raging on social media.
Scientists say the warming of the planet is primarily caused by human activities that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The effects include higher sea levels, drought, wildfires, increased precipitation and wetter hurricanes.
Climate science deniers use social media to undercut the overwhelming evidence of human involvement in climate change. “Sensational, controversial, emotionally evocative content” upstages scientific findings on most platforms, Amazeen said.
Climate activists participate in a protest action in Glasgow in November 2021 during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.
For years, climate scientists have urged social media companies to identify and remove posts and videos denying climate change, disputing its causes, or underplaying its effects. Despite company policies to flag content that denies climate change, social media posts often lack warning labels or links to credible information.
Cook says he fears the increasingly rapid spread of climate misinformation will further erode the public understanding of climate change and public trust in science and scientists.
How climate change got so heated on Twitter
The uptick in climate denial content on Twitter began in July when President Joe Biden unveiled plans to fight climate change with executive actions, Advance Democracy found. The number of tweets containing climate-change denial terms exploded in November during a United Nations climate conference.
Three of the 10 most-retweeted English-language Twitter posts mentioning climate change suggest either that climate change does not exist or that it is a narrative being pushed by the media, according to Advance Democracy.
Under CEO Elon Musk, falsehoods about the warming planet are whipping around Twitter, according to a new study.
Though Twitter has not changed its policy on climate change misinformation under Musk’s ownership, tweets rejecting climate change science have increased sharply, according to research by City, University of London conducted for The Times newspaper.
Much of that rise is linked to the hashtag “climate scam” which accounts for some 40% of tweets containing climate-skeptic language, compared to 2% before 2022, researchers Max Falkenberg and Andrea Baronchelli found.
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Musk fired the sustainability team working on a Twitter account, @TwitterEarth, that was launched in November as “the voice of COP27” before the U.N. climate conference began.
“Climate denial on Twitter was already a dumpster fire; now, it’s as if it had a litre of gas thrown on it,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Times.