How Mobilisation by Climate Sceptic Actors on Facebook During COP26 Undermined the Summit

19th November 2021

By Cécile Simmons & Francesca Arcostanzo

Over the course of COP26 (31 October – 12 November 2021), ISD researchers tracked posts about climate change produced by Facebook’s official Climate Science Center alongside those by a sample of accounts known to spread climate scepticism, ‘discourses of delay’ and/or content which contains mis- or disinformation in relation to climate science.

We sought to compare the levels of engagement generated by reliable scientific organisations and climate sceptic actors respectively across the platform.

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Facebook’s Climate Science Center is an initiative developed by Meta aimed at boosting reliable, fact-based information on the platform. It comprises the following pages: Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, Met Office, IPCC, World Meteorological Organisation, UN Environment Programme, UK Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, and the World Climate Research Programme.

ISD compared the climate-related posts from these entities during COP26 to those produced by the following pages, known to share climate sceptic messaging and/or content which contains mis- or disinformation in relation to climate science: Breitbart London, Spiked Online, Net Zero Watch (formerly known as GWPF), GB News Online, Heartland Institute, Bjorn Lomborg and Tucker Carlson. In order to do so, we used a list of keywords related to climate change and COP26 [1]. Here’s what we found.

Climate sceptic actors were substantially more active during the period of study

In the first week of COP26, pages affiliated with the Climate Science Center produced 188 posts, while climate sceptic actors produced 449 matching our climate-related keywords.

The number of posts using climate-related key terms from sceptic actors increased by over 230% during COP26, compared with the first two weeks of October. We identified an 110% increase in the same timeframe for authoritative sources.

Posts from climate sceptic actors generated higher levels of user engagement

The most viewed climate-related content shared by sceptic pages generated significantly higher traction than posts produced by authoritative sources. The most viewed piece of content from the latter group – a video of David Attenborough’s speech at the Glasgow summit shared by the UN Environment Programme – generated just over 8,600 views; in contrast, the most viewed video produced by sceptic actors was a video featuring Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill, in which he describes the summit as a gathering of ‘hypocrites, narcissists and virtue signallers’. The video received over 34,100 views and was shared 5 times more than the UN’s post.

Authoritative pages achieved an average of ~7,500 interactions on their posts during the period of study, versus ~92,000 interactions for climate sceptic actors – in other words, sceptic content garnered 12 times the level of engagement of authoritative sources on the platform. This is reflective of a broader ability to generate engagement and visibility through polarising, incendiary or ‘contrarian’ content on social media.

GB News Online was the most active page in the dataset, producing an average of over 100 posts per day and generating more than 500,000 interactions during the period of study. In contrast, the most active authoritative page (IPCC) produced an average of 6 posts per day and generated just 18,000+ interactions during the same timeframe.

When looking at the average interaction per post, authoritative sources received 288 versus 241 for sceptic pages. However, in absolute numbers, climate-related posts produced by sceptic actors received three times more engagement and were shared twice as much as those from authoritative sources.

Only 2 posts produced by authoritative sources received over 1,000 interactions, in comparison to 30 posts from climate sceptic actors.

Authoritative sources gained visibility and followers during COP26

During the period of study, authoritative pages gained over 81,000 followers (compared with just over 7,000 the week before the summit), while climate sceptic pages only gained 8,300 followers. This suggests that authoritative pages benefited from increased exposure during COP26 and global attention on issues surrounding climate change.

Climate sceptic pages actively and explicitly attacked efforts to curb climate change.

Through a qualitative analysis of the 50 highest performing climate-related posts[2] produced by sceptic actors, we found that 35 came from GB News Online, 10 from Spiked Online, 3 from Breitbart London, one from Net Zero Watch and one from Bjorn Lomborg. Thematically, the messaging we observed usually presented the summit as one of the following:

1. useless
2. a failure
3. hypocritical
4. harmful to the economy
5. the product of an ‘eco-fascist’ agenda orchestrated by climate activists and elites.

One fifth of posts actively tried to undermine COP26 (10/50), with three posts specifically attacking ‘elites’. Another fifth (9/50) attacked journalists or climate activists (including Greta Thunberg). Five posts undermined green solutions and the fight against climate change writ large, and another five fell under the category of outright climate change denial. Overall, 60% of posts could be classified as actively and explicitly attacking efforts to curb climate change.

Examples of posts attacking climate activists included a video by GB News Online, in which Tom Harwood declared that “Greta Thunberg will not be happy until the entirety of humanity is back living in caves, dying at the age of 35 and eating moss!”. Other posts attacking COP26 included one from Breitbart London, which quoted an article on its website describing the summit as “an eco-fascist, globalist gaslighting operation”.

Significance

COP26 negotiations drew to a close on 13 November, but our research throughout this period shows how efforts to delay climate action or mislead the public about key events and agendas has shifted. Tactics have pivoted from outright climate denial to attempts to frame climate change through a culture wars lens and prey on existing divisions or conspiracies. A broad spectrum of dis- and misinformation content has continued to thrive across social media, with its full reach and impact not yet fully understood.

Our research demonstrates that while verified sources on Facebook increased their followership during COP26, actors known to promote climate sceptic or actively disinformative messages significantly ramped up their activities. These pages used their existing platform and audience to communicate extensively about climate-related topics in a way which undermined efforts at COP26 or the response to climate change as a whole. By producing highly polarising and sensational content, including ad hominem attacks on activists, their content continues to generate higher levels of user engagement on Facebook than the platform’s own Climate Science Center. Ultimately, while such initiatives are welcome they are insufficient to counter the spread of climate mis- and disinformation, and particularly the high-traction activity of ‘repeat offender’ accounts or pages.

 

1 – We selected the following key terms: Cop26, climate, climate change, CO2, carbon, greenhouse gas, global warming, green new deal, carbon dioxide, climate summit, decarbonise, emission, hydrogen, paris agreement, renewable, solar, thunberg, greta, wind, glacier, environment, weather, ice sheet, net zero, wildfire, pollution, natural resources, Glasgow.

2 – We identified over-performing posts, defined as follows: ‘Overperforming is calculated by benchmarking how many interactions that account’s posts usually get after a certain period of time. Benchmarks are calculated from the last 100 posts of each post type (photo, video, link, etc.) from the account.’ (Source: CrowdTangle Glossary | CrowdTangle Help Center).

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