Familiar dynamics in climate change disinformation
Senior Policy Advisor Michael Daubs •
In a recent interview on TVNZ’s Breakfast about conspiracy theorists shifting their attention from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change, Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa was asked, “How has this happened to us?” Hattotuwa’s initial response was to chuckle, an understandable reaction since, as he notes, there’s “nothing surprising” about it.
Hattotuwa and his colleagues at The Disinformation Project, and others researching disinformation in Aotearoa, have long observed and warned about networks that are flexible, adaptable, and capable of taking advantage of nearly any event or disaster to spread disinformation. These networks often form online with those sharing disinformation connecting with others who share their views or objectives. But they can have offline effects as well, as seen during the so-called ‘freedom’ protest and occupation of Parliament grounds in February 2022.
It’s difficult to think of a major event since the turn of the millennium that hasn’t been immediately associated with a conspiracy theory of some sort – from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and major events in between. Here in Aotearoa, conspiracy theories emerged about the March 15, 2019 attacks against mosques in Christchurch (which persist to this day in groups on Telegram and other platforms), and even the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake sparked conspiracy theories about a ship with “earthquake technology.”
As seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, these disinformation-fueled conspiracy theories are increasingly extremist and international or, as Hattotuwa phrased it, “following a foreign script.” Moreover, the fluid and flexible networks that have formed to spread this disinformation are increasingly interacting with other networks, groups, and communities.
For example, during the Parliament protests, extremist networks intersected with wellness, anti-vax, and anti-vaccine mandate groups, both at the protests and on online platforms such as Facebook and Telegram. Some of the people in these other groups were in an emotionally charted state: angry about vaccine mandates, in fear of losing their jobs, uncertain about their futures. They were looking for answers, and instead ran into disinformation peddlers that exploited their emotional state to further stoke anti-government and anti-expert sentiment, and position themselves as the sole trustworthy source of information.
Despite a wealth of scientific evidence of human influence on the climate, that same dynamic is happening again, this time with anti-climate change disinformation in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle. There is a lot of fear, sadness, and uncertainty after a disaster like Gabrielle. People affected, many of whom have lost their homes or loved ones, were searching for help, resources, and information to establish some sense of order. Others, who maybe weren’t directly affected, also searched for answers about how such a tragedy could happen.
Both groups are highly receptive audiences, in part because engagement with disinformation is often driven by emotion, and research shows that content that ‘sounds true’ and evokes a strong emotional response tends to be more believable. Disinformation is carefully crafted to evoke such a strong response. For example, Newsroom’s Victor Billet notes that people seeking information after Cyclone Gabrielle are hearing that “climate change is a fiction or a conspiracy, driven by globalist cabals, and those responsible must be brought to account (a familiar echo from the Covid protests).” Mentions of a ‘globalist cabal’ have their roots in antisemitism, a driver of a lot of COVID-related disinformation, and experts have warned that antisemitism is on the rise here in New Zealand as well.
In short, the tactics and messages we’re seeing from those spreading disinformation after Cyclone Gabrielle are not new; they’re just being applied to a new event. At the heart of this climate change denialism is the same anti-government, anti-expert, anti-intellectual, anti-media, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric that's been seen for decades. The Internet just helps support the networks that spread this disinformation by amplifying that rhetoric on a speed, scope, and scale that wasn't possible before.
But the end goal of those sharing disinformation remains the same: to enhance their own social power by undermining trust in governments and institutions and destabilising social cohesion. As Hattotuwa stated, part of the agenda of those spreading climate change denialism is to entrench themselves as “saviours.”
Countering these dynamics will require public institutions experiencing historic levels of mistrust, including government, media organisations, and academia, to be open and transparent, and work with communities, in order to rebuild that trust. It will not be an easy or quick process, but it is a necessary step to preserve safety in Aotearoa and help people prepare for future challenges and disasters.
In the meantime, governments and organisations — including InternetNZ — need to listen to and work with communities to better understand current developments. We need to find ways to minimise the influence of disinformation, especially for the communities most targeted and affected by that disinformation. InternetNZ is committed to this community engagement and dedicated to amplifying community voices. In addition, we will continue to call on government to resource and support existing work by community groups already delivering information literacy programmes. These community programmes can play a significant role helping people of all ages identify and disregard disinformation.
Michael Daubs is a Senior Policy Advisor at InternetNZ
Photo credit: mika-baumeister-CMLL0UD6AEE-unsplash