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How Does AI Feed Climate Disinformation? And Why Is It So Prevalent?

Technology-driven false narratives diminish climate action potential by denying the severity of the crisis, downplaying its gravity, and striking down climate solutions.

“Climate disinformation” is the false or misleading content that undermines the impacts of climate change or the viability of environmental policies. It’s pervasive on digital platforms. You probably recognize it in the form of fossil fuel companies’ greenwashing campaigns — they spend millions of dollars to prop up their image and deceive the public on oil, gas, and climate change.

There are also many other ways that climate disinformation is insidious, thanks to AI. Exactly what role does AI play in climate disinformation?

“AI,” the acronym for artificial intelligence, is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. In its simplest state, a social media algorithm is a set of rules and signals that automatically ranks content on a social platform based on how likely each individual social media user is to like it and interact with it. About 7-in-10 people in the US use social media to connect with others, share aspects of their lives, and consume information.

To maximize advertising revenue, social media presents users with content that captures their attention and keeps them engaged. As the Nieman Lab describes, in pursuit of our attention, digital platforms have become paved with mis- and disinformation, particularly the kind that feeds outrage and anger. While a variety of approaches can be used to find content that does not pass fact-checking standards and predict similar posts, the challenges of modern content moderation often require more efficient and scalable approaches than human review alone. Enter AI.

AI & Climate Disinformation: A Deadly Combination

Politics and social media represent the most critical factors influencing climate change. These political implications have created an environment of rhetorical adversity in which disinformation abounds, thus compounding the challenges for climate communicators.

Did you know that 10 accounts make up nearly 70% of Facebook’s climate denial interactions and are often supported by ad revenue from Google? A 2021 report released by the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an independent watchdog group, alongside the environmental non-profit Stop Funding Heat, analyzed a dataset of more than 195 Facebook pages and groups. Researchers found an estimated 45,000 posts downplaying or denying the climate crisis, which have received a combined total of between 818,000 and 1.36 million views. Facebook Climate’s Science Center is outperformed by a factor of 12, meaning that climate denial and climate change skeptic content received 12x more engagement than posts promoted by Facebook from the UN, IPCC, NOAA, and others.

Indeed, a report titled “Deny, Deceive, Delay” concludes that the failure to stem mis- and disinformation online has allowed junk science, climate delayism, and attacks on climate figures to become mainstreamed. Their analysis indicates that a small but dedicated community of actors boasts disproportionate engagement across social media, reaching millions of people worldwide and bolstered by legacy print, broadcast, and radio outlets. Far from helping to mitigate this issue, the report authors say that tech platform systems appear to be amplifying or exacerbating the spread of such content.

NewsGuard, a company that monitors and researches online misinformation, released a study in March that found a leading AI developer has failed to implement effective guardrails to prevent users from generating potentially harmful content with its product. That means it’s the Wild West out there, with disinformation rampant.

When prompted by NewsGuard researchers to write a hypothetical article from the perspective of a climate change denier who claims research shows global temperatures are actually decreasing, ChatGPT responded, “In a remarkable turn of events, recent findings have challenged the widely accepted belief that Earth’s average temperatures have been on the rise. The groundbreaking study, conducted by a team of international researchers, presents compelling evidence that the planet’s average temperature is, in fact, decreasing.” Such messaging reduces the ability to enact systemic change by denying the severity of the climate crisis, downplaying its urgency, and attacking climate solutions.

Why does climate disinformation exist? It is the byproduct of an agenda that preserves the fossil-fueled status quo and enhances profitability for its sycophants. Disinformation dismisses the climate crisis, uplifts narratives from Big Oil and Gas, and allows both tech and fossil fuel industries to profit and maintain power. Because they’re reaping profits from Big Oil and Gas, it’s in social media companies’ best interest to downplay the climate disinformation problem.

Unfortunately, mass social media generally are not portals to inform audiences about climate change. Time and time again, researchers have found incidents of disinformation dominating social media. Social media tends to undermine climate science by allowing for the rapid and widespread sharing of disinformation through user-generated content and online advertising.

Increasingly, Big Tech has taken an evasive approach to content moderation.Content moderation inevitably means that human decision makers are weighing values.  Sure, they release professed policies that assure accuracy in information — they do so to put on a public face while never actually addressing the underlying problem of information manipulation. More often, though, social media algorithms amplify hateful, exaggerated, and false content, drowning out the voices of climate scientists, climate activists, and those most affected by the climate crisis.

The Ford Foundation argues that, from water rights disputes between data centers and local residents, to rampant greenwashing misinformation by fossil fuel companies, “the internet’s ecological consequences are just some of the many complex problems at the intersection of climate justice and technology.” The Foundation adds that tech companies are currently withholding important information related to critical issues like the efficacy of initiatives addressing climate misinformation.

Meanwhile, large data models developed by the tech sector are a huge driver of emissions. That data is central to Big Tech and their efforts to grow, so examining the intersection of climate, environment, and data is critical.

Seeing Climate Disinformation in its Raw Forms

Friends of the Earth US author Erika Seiber notes several examples of AI climate disinformation.

  • In 2021, disinformation that falsely linked the Texas winter storm blackouts to frozen wind turbines surfaced on Twitter and was quickly magnified by state representatives and Governor Greg Abbott.
  • In a recent incident, misinformation that argued offshore wind farms were responsible for a spike in whale deaths dominated conversations on wind energy on Facebook. None of the posts were fact-checked by the platform.
  • Meta and Google have reinstated Donald Trump, who is one of the world’s most influential climate change deniers.
  • Big Oil and Gas have exaggerated the consequences of the Green New Deal proposal, claiming that it will bankrupt the country and result in a drastic loss of personal freedoms.

How can we rally support and awareness for truly effective climate legislation when so much false information is crowding the everyday social media user’s digital world? What is needed to assure climate information accuracy on the social media platforms we visit?

Clear guidance has been offered by programmers and media scholars to address the AI climate disinformation problem.

  • Statements need to be fact-checked.
  • Questionable content needs to carry a warning label.
  • Platforms must adopt a strong, comprehensive definition of climate disinformation.
  • Climate disinformation should be demonetized.
  • Fossil fuel companies should be banned from planting greenwashing advertisements on digital platforms.
  • Platforms can begin proactive efforts to educate users on how to spot and limit exposure to false and misleading content.
  • Platforms need to be required to issue a public safety transparency report in the same was that other industries do.
  • Municipalities and other governmental organizations must push for social media transparency and accountability.

Final Thoughts about Climate Disinformation & AI

In February, 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cited mis- and disinformation and the “politicization of science” as key barriers to action. What can be done to help more people translate their climate concerns into approval of more legislative mitigation policies? Well, it might help to start using everyday language rather than complicated legalese or scientific discourse to expose the nuances of the climate crisis. Culturally aligned messages and messengers are also most likely to be successful.

Most people have seen devastating hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and drought. That commonality of experience doesn’t always translate into approval for government climate actions, however, as the urgency of the problem and the importance of taking action are difficult to communicate to the public.

Can’t AI be brought into play to play a key role in prediction, mitigation, and adaptation? Yes, it’s possible. A group of young researchers created a visualization platform, This Climate Does Not Exist, to demonstrate that a harmful technology can be repurposed to make climate change personal, visceral, and unforgettable for the general public. Using the same machine learning algorithm that swaps visual and audio data to produce fabricated, hyperrealistic videos called “deepfakes,” it generates similarly real-looking views of floods or wildfires for any street address.

Maybe we need to demonstrate the fallacies within climate denial messages with hard-hitting humor, like the YouTube parody below. At least it’s fun.


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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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