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Climate change conspiracies are spreading rapidly during UN's COP26 event

Climate change conspiracies spread amid COP26
Climate change conspiracies spread amid COP26... 04:47

Conspiracy theories that promote climate-change skepticism and denial spread rapidly across the internet ahead of the United Nation's ongoing COP26 Climate Change summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Amplified by bots and influencers, a large volume of climate-change denial content spread on social media starting in June, according to researchers at Blackbird.AI. The technology firm's platform uses machine-learning algorithms to scan millions of posts across mainstream social networks — including Twitter, Telegram, fringe sites and others — and, aided by human analysts, identified four major climate-denial trends targeting U.S. and European climate-change policy. 

Much of that content used mechanisms that were also effective in amplifying COVID-19 disinformation and vaccine hesitancy, said Blackbird.AI CEO Wasim Khaled.

"We found that climate-change disinformation trends on social networks borrow from themes that were effective during the coronavirus crisis," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "The actors appear to direct anger that's already simmering in U.S. politics toward climate-change denial. Our platform indicates this is a coordinated campaign that appears to be a series of overlapping independent campaigns, happening at scale." 

The following are some of the unfounded or otherwise dubious ideas related to climate change that have circulated online ahead of the UN's COP26 event.

Conspiracy: Climate-change lockdowns are coming

Unknown actors are targeting audiences that congregate on social platforms to protest COVID-19 lockdowns with conspiracies that world governments will introduce "climate-change lockdowns" and "herald a new age of social control and political tyranny in the name of environmental protection," according to Blackbird.AI. 

In October 2020 an opinion piece called "Avoiding a Climate Lockdown" that appeared on Project Syndicate, a respected nonprofit media organization that provides commentary and analysis on current affairs, was linked to roughly 3,500 accounts — 498 of which appeared to be bots, and another 49 of which were seemingly linked to influencers.  

"It makes sense that this audience would be used as a springboard for related conspiracy theories," Khaled said. "In a lot of ways," he noted, "the pandemic primed social media users to be more accepting of conspiracies."

Conspiracy: Cryptocurrency is "carbon-neutral" and regulating it is an authoritarian takeover attempt 

In early June, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for policies that reduce the impact of "environmentally wasteful cryptocurrencies." This provoked a slew of misleading posts that dismissed the well-documented environmental concerns about the energy required to mine bitcoin and branded the Massachusetts Democrats an "authoritarian." While the true energy cost of crypto-mining is nuanced, according to Blackbird, many of the social media posts stated that producing cryptocurrency is a "carbon-neutral process" and implied the economic benefits of digital money outweigh the negative environmental impact

Blackbird's social media sample found nearly 3,800 posts that spread rumors or conspiracies about cryptocurrency and the environment, 2,105 of which appear to be inauthentic or manipulated. 

"A lot of climate-change conspiracies are subtle and recruited from groups that are already animated and active," Khaled said. "Unlike a traditional marketing campaign that's designed to capture and convert a wide audience, the goal seems to be to seed doubt with groups that are already suspicious of the government."

Conspiracy: Climate change is exaggerated — and not caused by humans 

More than 14% of the social media posts sampled by Blackbird appear to undermine, rather than directly attack, the scientific consensus that humans have played a role in climate change, seemingly an effort to sow confusion and doubt. Rather than deny the phenomenon, for instance, disinformation ahead of COP26 challenged the mathematical models that link climate change to human activity.

"One theme we see repeated is that harm from climate change is made up or overstated by the mainstream international scientific community," Khaled said. "It's not the most propagated conspiracy, but it's effective at creating confusion." 

Conspiracy: Climate change is the result of secret government experiments

One of the most creative conspiracies circulating on social media during the UN's COP26 event is the false notion that climate change is caused by a state-funded program called the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). This is a variation of the "chemtrails" conspiracy theory, Khaled said.

Blackbird found that the long-debunked HAARP conspiracy theory is still circulated among bots and inauthentic accounts, especially on Twitter. More than 17% of the posts in their sample propagated the theory. 

"Online conspiracies love to assign nefarious motives to banal, real-word research programs," he said, "like the false idea that geoengineering projects are a front for government-controlled weather modification initiatives."

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