The ice cap is expanding on Antarctica, so there is nothing to be afraid of, and global warming is anyway entirely natural and for our own benefit. The claims of the climate sceptics are repeatedly rejected by researchers as either directly wrong or simply misleading. But the advocates of the man-made climate change are opposed to a well-orchestrated system that spreads dubious claims strategically and repeatedly, so you might surrender and start believing them in the end.
By Gorm Palmgren, freelance science journalist writing for EUSJA’s NUCLEUS project
On Sunday, July 9, 2017, the American alt-right news site Breibart News published an article on their website under the heading: “Almost all the newer global warming is being fabricated, a study shows.” The article referred to a so-called peer-reviewed scientific study, meaning that other scientists have scrutinized the scientific methods and conclusions in a fully formalized manner and finally assessed the results as credible. The article tells us how scientist Craig Idso and his two colleagues behind the study have analyzed the past 120 years of climate data and now can document that organisations such as NASA, as well as the United States and Britain meteorological institutes have consistently manipulated and misinterpreted the numbers. Accordingly, there is no scientific evidence of the allegations that global warming is taking place or that the recent years have been the warmest in Earth’s history.
In a few days, the article was shared over 30,000 times on facebook, it received almost 2,000 comments on Breitbart’s own website, and the news was followed up and discussed in many other media. The message ‘Global warming is fake news’ had now spread across the United States and the rest of the world, but something was entirely wrong. It soon turned out that both Breitbart’s article and the actual scientific study was wildly misleading and manipulating. It was in fact fake news.
Unfounded accusations on climate date corrections
This was revealed five days later by one of the United States many fact-checking organisations, Snopes.com, which tries to keep a watchful eye on what’s right and wrong in the public debate. Snopes.com found several flaws. First, Idso’s investigation is not, as reported by Breitbart, published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but rather only in one of the researchers’ own blog. And the so-called peer review covers that seven other researchers – including an economist, a retired space engineer and the leader of the Christian organisation ITEST, which equates science and religion – have declared their agreement in the conclusions. It has nothing to do with peer review, so the claim to legitimize the study as credible is false.
The study’s accusation that the historical climate data has been deliberately manipulated also proves to be highly misleading. Over the 120-year period, the established climate researchers have properly adjusted the collected data, but it is done, for example, to compare temperature measurements previously made with a mercury thermometer in the evening, but now measured with a digital thermometer in the morning. It is such absolutely necessary corrections, which are referred to as manipulation, and Idso is not pointing out why the corrections have been made. Breitbart’s review of the study also claims that the corrections consistently make the most recent temperature measurements higher, while the older ones are getting lower, which overall gives an enhanced impression of global warming.
The assertion is based on a graph that is shown in the article, but which actually shows something completely different than the journalist apparently believes. The graph does not show, as stated in Breitbart’s article, the difference between the original and corrected measurements, but on the other hand, it shows the differences between two sets of corrected measurements. Comparing the original and corrected measurements reveals out that the corrections actually make the old measurements before 1940 a little higher, while they do not change significantly on the measurements in the last 70 years. In this way, the corrections actually make the global warming look smaller, which is directly against Breitbart’s accusation, and thus cancelling out the entire basis for their claim that climate scientists manipulate data.
Popular mantras backfire
Common to many of the fake news abounding on the internet is that they often take off from a single detail that might be correct, but which is taken out of its proper context and blown up so that the overall picture gets distorted. The practice applies to both sides of the debate and can be exemplified by the well-known claim that “97 per cent of researchers agree that global warming is man-made.” The problem with the assertion is that nobody really knows where it comes from, who those referred to as climate scientists actually are, and what they really agree on. The claim does not refer to a particular study, which can be subjected to a critical review, but rather to a kind of average of a large number of unspecified studies on various scientist’s opinion about climate issues.
Some of them have exclusively questioned dedicated climate experts in meteorology, while others have included, for example, general meteorologists, geologists, physicists and hydrologists. And they each have operated with their own limits for when the researchers agreed in the statement – e.g. wether mankind is responsible for all global warming or just half of it. On such an undefined and vague basis, it doesn’t make sense to talk about 97 per cent consensus, and the climate change defenders – those who believe people have a responsibility for global warming – are thus nourishing an undocumented assertion in their efforts to win support for their cause. Such weak arguments, however, can easily cause backslash because they are easy to peel apart by climate change deniers.
To that end, the climate sceptical website Natural News in 2016 took a closer look at one of the above mentioned investigations that dated back to 2008 and argued that it was the original source of ‘the 97 per cent claim’. In the study, Maggie Zimmerman of the University of Illinois in Chicago found that 82 per cent of 3,146 climate-related researchers subscribed to the notion that humans carry a significant share of responsibility for climate change. But in her conclusion, she chose to ignore researchers in fields such as meteorology, geology and hydrology. Instead, she only took into account a very small group of 79 – out of the originally 3,146 respondents – who represented the most ‘specialized, active and knowledgeable’ climate scientists. With that small trick of data filtering, she managed to get over the magic border and land on 97.4 per cent support. Natural News argued – with good right – that this was gross manipulation, and in an article on their website, they used the study as proof that ‘the 97 per cent claim’ is fake news. The article was viewed 58,000 times by readers who were met with the captivating headline: “The REAL FALSE NEWS revealed: ’97 per cent of researchers agree on climate change ‘is a fabricated fraud number”.
Political messages are sold as advertisements
Headlines like that say the whole thing, so if you are already sceptical about the man-made climate problems, you are immediately confirmed in your opinion, whether or not you read the article. If you then choose to share the article on facebook or twitter, it begins a journey into cyperspace, which in many cases is anything but random. If the news had referred to an ordinary product such as diapers, the manufacturer would make sure that it was promoted as an advertisement. This will make it appear on more peoples feed and make it more visible. But it will not appear on just anybody’s feed but instead on the feed of carefully selected individuals.
Facebook collects a wealth of information about its users and advertisers can utilize that information by asking the social media to preferentially display the post to a carefully selected group that might be interested in the product. A diaper manufacturer can e.g. promote an add to young women with small children living in countries, where the company sells its products. But it can also further narrow in on women with a relatively high income and preference for organic products because the diapers are organic and therefore a little more expensive than other diapers. This type of targeted marketing is used all the time on social media, and that’s why you typically get ads for things you really care about and that you’ve just seen online. But targeted marketing is also widely used for political messages on facebook.
During the election campaign of the US presidential election in 2016, the Trump campaign used the majority of the $90 million digital advertising budget to display a daily average of 50,000 different variants of facebook ads tailored to individual users. On facebook, it’s easy to blur your identity so the sender of the advertisement isn’t always obvious. In September 2017, facebook announced that a Russian company was behind 3,000 political advertisements in the US election campaign worth $ 100,000 and seen 10 million times. A climate critical think tank may use exactly the same approach to promote a post that reveals man-made climate change as a scam. They can target people with a specific political affiliation, education level, job situation etc, and thus increase the likelihood that it will be well received and get shared a lot.
Electronic snitchers pursues you online
Fake news can therefore be sold and marketed as any other product. Like any other marketing, it’s not free, but costs around $ 1 each time a facebook user engages in the post by e.g. liking, sharing or clicking a link to the article. Therefore, organisations or companies with pockets full of money are always behind when false news is spread on the web. And when the topic is man-made climate change, the oil industry is very often involved. One of the most cited and prominent climate sceptics, Pat Michaels from the American think tank Cato Institute, acknowledged in CNN on 2010 that he gets about 40 percent of all of his funding from ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil is the world’s largest oil company and has for decades had many climate sceptics other than Pat Michaels on their payroll list. Justin Farrell of Yale University in the United States surveyed the entire climate sceptical movement in 2015 and found that it was composed of 4,556 people with connections to 164 organisations. Together with a fund associated with another large oil company, Koch family foundations, ExxonMobil supports about half of these organisations, and specifically this half is considered to be the most active and influential. Another study has shown that among the ten most influential climate sceptics, all are affiliated with organisations funded by ExxonMobil.
Facebook, of course, keeps an eye on what messages you read, like and share on the social network, and with the help of so-called cookies they also keep an eye on what other websites you visit online. Cookies are a kind of electronic snitch, and if a website collaborates with facebook – for example, have ads with them or have a ‘like-button’ on their website – they are used to tell the social media that you have visited the site. This way, facebook and other social media as well as their political advertisers can lure your attitude to topics of the climate debate that you are presented with during the day.
One might imagine, for example, that a colleague during the morning coffee expresses his scepticism regarding a new report on alarming climate change. You get interested and find the report online, and at that very moment facebook register you as interested in the climate debate. To follow up on your colleague’s scepticism, you visit the critical website he has mentioned, and the social media registers you as a potential climate change denier. It will therefore target climate sceptical lookup to you, and during the day you will see more of that type on your feed. Gradually, it can give you the feeling that climate sceptics are all over and that there are many good reasons to doubt whether global warming is due to human CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
If you intend to spread fake news, it’s about getting your story out to as many as possible in a short period of time. Several researchers have used mathematical models to calculate what is needed for an article to go viral on social media. First of all, it must get peoples immediate attention with either a provocative headline or a brilliant picture, so people will find it in their feed. But even if users share it, it will almost always die out quickly and not get shared a lot. Researchers such as Filippo Menczer of Indiana University in the United States have shown that if the probability of a post being shared is 1:10, then there is a probability of only 1:40 that one of those who received the shared post will share it themselves. And for being shared at the third level, the probability is only 1: 360. In order to go viral, something very special is needed and that is a so-called super sharer.
Bots are the new super sharers of the net
A super sharer is one who, contrary most social media users, doesn’t count its followers in hundreds but in tens of thousands. If a fake climate news story ends up in a super sharer’s feed and she chooses to share it, it will be distributed to a large number ofpeople and it will have a good opportunity to go viral. But precisely because the super sharer has so many connections, she also receives huge numbers of posts herself. Accordingly, there is only a small chance that she will spot the fake climate news in the first place and subsequently share it with her many followers. If you are a big interest organisation with a lot of fake news that you want to spread online, you need a super spreader who is always aware of these news. This can easily be obtained in the form of a bot, i.e. a piece of software or an algorithm that automatically writes, shares and comments on post on social media.
Bots are commonplace on twitter, where they are often used for mass distrubs of useful information such as weather alerts, and it is estimated that about 20 percent of all tweets are created and shared by bots. But they can also be used in more crafty ways. This was demonstrated by researchers at the University of Southern California who showed how so-called twitterbots participated in the debate up to the US presidential election in 2016. The researchers used the BotOrNot computer program to analyse 20 million tweets containing hashtags related to the election. The computer program uses artificial intelligence to assess whether a human being or a bot is behind the tweet. For example, by studying the wording in a tweet, consider when the tweet was made (a tweet sent in the middle of the night is more likely to be sent from a bot than a human being) or checking the sender and his activity on the social media (a human being can’t tweet every minute, but a bot can). The analysis showed that out of the 2,8 million twitter accounts, which had sent the many tweets, 400.000 or about 15 percent were likely to be crafted by bots.
In 2014, Brazilian researchers created 120 so-called twitterbots and set them loose on the internet. Some of them were programmed to search for tweets with a certain content – which could have been climate sceptical messages – and retweet them, while other bots also made comments themselves. The bots are so good at dealing with social media that other users often find it hard to distinguish them from ordinary people. Over a month, twitter themselves revealed only 31 percent of the Brazilian bots, and 25 of them got at least 100 followers over the short period. Only 50% of all twitter users manage to get so many followers in the same timespan. In addition to captivating headlines and slogans, the bot-generated tweets also contain links to websites with more detailed information, and used in conjunction with targeted advertising, they can be an effective tool for spreading fake news. For example, climate sceptics can over and over again publish small shock waves that challenges the credibility of climate scientists.
Fact checking shall restore distrust to the media
In a US survey from 2017, Professor of Communication Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University concludes that about half of the population primarily trust their own gut feeling and do not feel they need factual information to form their own opinion. This group also denounces the established media, claiming they manipulate the news according to their political belief, and it is first and foremost these people whom the false news target. According to a survey of 70,000 people in 36 countries, published by Reuters in 2017, the distrust of the media is greatest in countries such as the United States, Italy and Hungary, where the political debate is highly polarized. Here, less than 40 per cent trust the media, while trust is greatest in Finland by 62 per cent.
The survey also shows that people generally rely more on the media they use and get their news from, while they question the credibility of other media. In most countries, the difference is relatively small, whereas in the United States it is significant. Here, 53 per cent trust their own favorite media, while only 38 per cent trust the media as a whole. It makes the American people an easier victim of fake news because they are not sceptical about media such as Breibart if they normally read it. In an effort to make the climate debate more sober and increase public awareness that global climate change is real and requires us to do something to counteract it, climate scientists are trying to uncover all fake news. Besides Snopes.com, one of the initiatives is the organisation Climate Feedback.
They have a small army of climate researchers with at least a PhD, who searches the internet for articles about climate change and reviews them. Any factual errors and comments are highlighted in the original article on the organisation’s website along with links to credible background information and sources. People who have read a climate article online and are in doubt as to whether the arguments are solid, can then access the website and get answers to their questions. In addition, Climate Feedback also informs the author and editor of the article if they find any problems with the credibility of the content. Facebook and other social media have also gradually started to acknowledge that they have some responsibility for the many fake news that thrives on the internet.
Among other initiatives, they will use advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence to spot and delete fake news, but part of the problem can also be solved by very simple methods. For example, facebook revealed the Russian influence on the American presidential election campaign simply by noting that the many posts came from accounts that were set to Russian as local language, and typically were posted when it was day in Russia and night in the United States.
But until the social media manage to take control of the bots and tiden up the well-organized spread of questionable claims, you must equip yourself with a good deal of critical sense and learn to spot the fake news.