The greatest threat to U.S. climate change reform is neither the cutting down of trees, nor the flood of carbon emissions — it is the systematic, deliberate provocation and trolling of the American people. Those working in climate policy and reform are losing an online cultural war, and badly. The Internet has been successfully weaponized to spread extreme views on climate change; and this propaganda, rooted in partial facts, preys upon pre-existing biases and distorts public opinion. Fortunately, we can win this war of words (and memes) if we harness our people power in a different way.
“The Internet has been successfully weaponized to spread extreme views on climate change; and this propaganda, rooted in partial facts, preys upon pre-existing biases and distorts public opinion.”
Recent polls suggest that climate reformers are winning the debate on the matter in the U.S., where 60% of registered voters feel that they have personally experienced the effects of global warming, and 60% of all Americans think climate change is a major threat to the well-being of the U.S. These percentages are up more than one-third from a decade ago. And, two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more in dealing with the climate crisis. However, these polls are misleading.
Here are the more salient facts . There are 19 times more conservative local news outlets than liberal ones, according to Harvard’s Nieman Lab. According to our own internal research at Main Street One, the volume of negative expressions online about issues such as climate change are seven times higher than positive ones. By the dozens, climate scientists are personally and professionally bullied into silence in order to suppress those ready to fight the climate crisis. Step out of the echo chamber and you’ll see the deluge of both coordinated disinformation and organic misinformation online, and how it outperforms messages based on science across demographics — on climate change, COVID-19, or virtually any other topic.
“…the volume of negative expressions online about issues such as climate change are seven times higher than positive ones. By the dozens, climate scientists are personally and professionally bullied…”
Part of this disparity is explained by the presence of bots, software programmed to imitate human behavior and post on social media. For example, bots are responsible for 25% of all tweets about climate and 38% of tweets about “fake science.” The day after CNN’s town hall on the climate crisis, coordinated bots and trolls ran a campaign to target and discredit the keywords “climate change.” The past few years have shown that tech platforms clearly won’t stop the threat or spread of disinformation, and that the U.S. government is effectively propagating mistruths on climate. So, it falls to groups that can combine both cyber and narrative solutions to reduce the impact of these pervasive lies.
Sadly, truth and facts about climate change do not win hearts and minds online. The majority of climate content from established organizations relies heavily on statistics and science, making rational arguments based on sound facts and critical policy initiatives. It is good and right that they do this. However, the reality is that the people don’t understand the science, and they don’t understand the policy, so they aren’t persuaded. Instead, they are influenced emotionally, driven by stories from people within their network
“…bots are responsible for 25% of all tweets about climate and 38% of tweets about ‘fake science.’ The day after CNN’s town hall on the climate crisis, coordinated bots and trolls ran a campaign to target and discredit the keywords ‘climate change’.”
We are losing the cultural information war online because persuasion is not achieved through polls and facts; rather, it is gained through peer-to-peer communication online. “Peer” is the key word because bluntly, American don’t trust institutions much anymore. Americans are rapidly losing trust in the media, ads, corporations, and the government. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans, although Republicans are more deeply distrustful.
When institutions weaken, who do people trust? Well, people trust each other, and increasingly online. We are seeing this now, in our current public health crisis and racial justice revolution, where power is shifting from top-down institutions to bottom-up people power. Another example is the success of Greta Thurnberg’s speech to the U.N. It did not succeed based on climate science or presenting new research; her message resonated because she was authentic. She was real. Few remember the facts outlined in her speech, only how she delivered it and who the messenger was. The most persuasive climate messages come from real people sharing real experiences. Climate change reformers must embrace this shift before the climate deniers grab even more digital land.
“…the U.S. government is effectively propagating mistruths on climate.”
In response, we propose a new kind of climate movement relying on the synchronization of highly personal, emotional, and visual peer-to-peer content at unprecedented speed and scale. The first step in this movement is to continuously map opportunities and risks emerging in the discourse online through readily available machine intelligence. This data is then packaged into briefs and shared across a human network of messengers: thousands of opt-in creators, influencers, and supporters. Each messenger translates the brief into their own voice, vernacular, and local story. These messengers are trusted because they match audiences who need to be persuaded across locations, professions, ages, races, genders, and the ideological spectrum. In this way we drive the volume, frequency, consistency and quality to outcompete the climate deniers. One message. Thousands of stories.
“We are losing the cultural information war online because persuasion is not achieved through polls and facts; rather, it is gained through peer-to-peer communication online.”
Real people are more persuasive and powerful than bots and trolls — and the infrastructure to empower them exists now. It’s time to tell our own coordinated stories about climate at the same speed and scale as the climate change deniers. There are more of us. If we focus on what our audiences want to hear instead of what we want to say, and change our messengers, we can successfully reframe the debate on climate to create a better outcome for our communities and our world.
This piece was originally published World War Zero Magazine. Curtis Hougland is the CEO of Main Street One.