March 5, 2024

Amid swirling questions about the politics and platforms of presidential hopefuls, the veracity of promises made by tech leaders, and the influence of AI, one fear underlies it all: that growing misinformation could seal the fate of the American population. 

On Jan. 16, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (a nonprofit tracking online hate speech and disinformation recently subjected to the ire of X CEO Elon Musk) released a new report chronicling the rise of new forms of climate-based misinformation, also known as denial content, specifically taking over YouTube. 

According to the report, titled “The New Climate Denial,” the past five years have witnessed a rise in less on-the-nose forms of climate change denial, which the CCDH dubs “New Denial.” These kinds of claims avoid arguing against the existence of human-caused climate change, and instead focus their attention on disputing the motivations of scientists and politicians, seeking to discredit possible solutions and split populations against action. 

Around 70 percent of all climate change denial claims made on YouTube are New Denial claims, the center found, an increase from 35 percent just six years ago.

“Scientists have won the battle to inform the public about climate change and its causes, which is why those opposed to climate action have cynically switched focus to undermining confidence in solutions and in science itself,” explained Imran Ahmed, the CEO and founder of the CCDH. 

The amount of YouTube videos arguing these claims as fact is a million-dollar business, the center also found, reporting that predictive models of total ad revenue show monetized new climate denial channels rake in $13.4 million per year. 

Also particularly unsettling: a separate poll conducted by the center and a partner polling agency Survation found that these videos (and their place in the attention economy) are particularly appealing to young people. More than 30 percent of 13 to 17 year olds believed the impacts of global warming are relatively harmless and that climate policies are doing more harm than good. 

“Climate deniers now have access to vast global audiences through digital platforms,” wrote Charlie Cray, senior strategist at Greenpeace USA, in the report’s press release. “Allowing them to steadily chip away at public support for climate action — especially among younger viewers — could have devastating consequences for the future of our planet.”

We need to think critically about the content we (and our families, children, or even peers) consume.
Credit: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable

While researchers take on the task of documenting and categorizing this kind of escalating climate misinformation — from watchdogs like the CCDH to those pioneering AI technologies that enable mass surveys — social media and tech companies lag in turning the science into action. 

And until that gap is closed, the burden falls on individuals to think critically about the content they (and their family, children, or even peers) consume. Here’s what you need to know to spot New Denial content — and not fall into the million-dollar trap. 

What does “New Denial” mean?

The CCDH and its researchers utilized an AI-powered machine learning model that sifts through online text to categorize types of climate change denial, a technology known by researchers as CARDS. The model was fed thousands of hours of video transcripts from 96 YouTube channels dating back to 2018. 

The videos had accumulated 325 million views in total. 

John Cook, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change, is one of the minds behind the original CARDS model, which was used in a robust 2021 study on climate misinformation trends from 1998 to 2020. CARDS takes researchers one step closer to what Cook calls a “holy grail” for fact checking, or something that can automatically and quickly detect false content.

“AI is useful for big data solutions, and climate misinformation is a big data problem.”

Cook was not consulted for the nonprofit’s report, but spoke to Mashable about the new usage’s implications. “AI is useful for big data solutions, and climate misinformation is a big data problem,” Cook explains. The AI model was trained on content pushed by conservative think tanks and climate denial blogs, which makes it particularly good at spotting specific linguistic arguments made by political and social actors. 

How climate change denial has changed over time

The original CARDS study classified climate denial content into five main categories, which Cook explains can be boiled down simply as:

  1. It’s not happening. 
  2. It’s not us. 
  3. It’s not that bad. 
  4. Solutions won’t work. 
  5. Climate science (and scientists) has ulterior motives. 

These last two are what the CCDH now terms “New Denial” content (a phrase not used by Cook and his team, although not incorrect). Cook notes that the team spotted such transitions from explicit climate change denial to a rise in solutions-based arguments early on in their research, and explains that attacks on scientists and policies have been around since the very “beginning” of climate denial.

Constantine Boussalis is an associate professor in Trinity College Dublin’s Department of Political Science and was also part of the CARDS team.

“This ‘New Denial’ is a form of climate change contrarianism that we have been tracking among various actors for some time now,” Boussalis told Mashable. “Our analysis of tens of thousands of documents produced by leading conservative think tanks over the past 20 years shows how these ‘elite’ contrarian organizations have steadily been backing away from outright denial of climate change (that it is happening, caused by humans, or that it is harmful). However, ad hominem attacks on scientists, scientific organizations, and general skepticism of scientific best practices continues to be prominent among these organizations.”

The original CARDS study documented a high spike in climate denial beginning in 2007, most likely due to a rise in political interest in climate change following the debut of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the release of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth climate assessment. 

Researchers now spot cyclical trends like this each year, Cook explains, including an increase in climate denial posts around the end of the year, aligning with the annual U.N. COP climate conferences. 

These patterns are extremely relevant for 2024, as well, in that more bad actors will be rallied by the electoral cycle and candidate’s climate platforms, and more voters (mainly younger) may be interested in placing their vote on a candidate that agrees with their climate stances.

The prominence of social media platforms in circulating news and educational content is also impacting the spread of this kind of content. In 2021, Mashable covered the CCDH’s report on the “top 10” spreaders of climate change denial misinformation, which included far-right outlet Breitbart, cable news channel Newsmax, and Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire. These outlets were also generating ad revenue from unlabeled climate change denial videos on both Facebook and through Google Adsense. 

In the new report, some of the biggest actors include YouTube channels from conservative thought leaders like Jordan Peterson and Alex Epstein, which each boast tens of millions of followers. Other accounts include popular “education” accounts like PragerU, the Heartland Institute, and the Oppenheimer Ranch Project

Over time, the amount of YouTube videos categorized under “??Climate solutions won’t work” has grown 21.4 percent and videos that claim the “Climate movement or science is unreliable” have increased by 12 percent. Meanwhile, videos classified as old denial content — claiming things like “Global warming is not happening” and “Humans are not the cause” — have dropped from 65 percent of all content in 2018 to just 30 percent in 2023.

The center found that videos entertaining New Denial claims have increased on Peterson’s channel in particular every year since 2020. Traditionally conservative outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax have simply been replaced by the rise of similar anti-climate action social media influencers.  

New Denial content as it appears on your feed

Once you know what to look for, New Denial claims start to appear everywhere. Scrolling through the X accounts of known climate deniers like Peterson, for example, is a crash course in New Denial speak. 

In a post from Jan. 17, Peterson responded to a U.N. Development Program post about the increasing overconsumption of clothing and its production with an implication that the science was part of a “fascist” takeover. He writes: “How about three items per person per year. You bloody fascists. That’s what the C40 tyrants are aiming at. You’d control everything in the name of the planet.” 

In another, Peterson claims that the term “ecocide” (defined by activists as intentional acts to inflict mass ecosystem damage) is now being used to blame working class citizens for climate change, rather than industrial actors. 

Both of these posts exemplify New Denial attacks on both the efficacy of climate solutions and the motivations of climate policy leaders. Comment sections are rife with similar kinds of thinking. 

How social media is proliferating “New Denial” content 

YouTube is prone to these kinds of posts and comments, according to the new survey of the site’s most popular channels and videos. Plus, the video-centric nature of the site is particularly engaging for young users. According to Pew Research Center data, YouTube is the most popularly used site among 13-17 year olds, and 77 percent of teens say they visit it everyday.

Climate change deniers have transitioned their content from insulated blogs into viral video essays and live podcasts published directly to the platform. According to Social Blade (a social media analytics site) data collected by researchers, the 96 YouTube channels studied in the report received 3.4 billion (3,356,433,249) views on their content between December 2022 and December 2023.

In response to similar rises in misinformation and political events that warrant intervention, many social media companies have added climate change-specific policies. In 2022, Pinterest became the first social media platform to completely ban climate misinformation, releasing a comprehensive content removal policy that covers posts denying climate change, refuting scientific consensus, or misleading users. These policies also applied to advertisements spreading misinformation or intentional disinformation.

Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable

In Nov. 2023, TikTok announced a new commitment to addressing climate misinformation on its platform, part of the U.N.-backed Verified for Climate program that seeks to stop such digital content. A few months earlier, TikTok ramped up its policies to completely ban these kinds of posts from the app. 

But researchers have found the popular app is struggling to enforce its policies

Meanwhile, X has ranked the worst among other social platforms in its policies stopping the spread of climate change denial. 

For years, Google has reportedly failed to enforce its own policy, and New Denial content is slipping through the cracks even more. 

Google, YouTube’s Big Tech parent company, has outlined its own stance on climate misinformation, stating that it prohibits:

“ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change. This includes content referring to climate change as a hoax or a scam, claims denying that long-term trends show the global climate is warming, and claims denying that greenhouse gas emissions or human activity contribute to climate change.

But, for years, Google has reportedly failed to enforce its own policy, and New Denial content is slipping through the cracks even more. 

“Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition found 200 videos on YouTube containing disinformation about climate change, with half of them directly breaching Google’s policy,” the report details. “In total, they were seen 73.8 million times. Tests indicate that 63 percent of popular climate denial articles still carry Google ads. Google allowed Daily Wire to run ads on searches for ‘climate change is a hoax.'”

According to the researcher Boussalis, following the money is fundamentally important to understanding continued climate misinformation. “These actors are not behaving in a vacuum, but rather are supported by large conservative funders. The last section of our study shows how conservative think tanks who received the most money from ‘dark money’ sources are less likely to communicate New Denial and are more likely to focus on outright denial and attacks on science. This suggests that organized interests are still supporting the most insidious form of climate change contrarianism — and it is not clear to me that this trend is set to change any time soon.”

Mirjam Nanko, PhD researcher at the University of Exeter and another CARDS model developer, explained that the question is no longer if New Denial content is on the rise, but how a democracy should respond to it. [Editor’s note: Nanko was part of a group that met with the CCDH on the use of CARDS for its new report.]

“The core challenge now is to differentiate between the strategic and systematic use of these claims to delay or prevent policy, and legitimate criticism integral to democratic policy discussions,” Nanko told Mashable. “Raising awareness about these strategies is a key initial step. People should be equipped to use them as analytical tools in understanding the ongoing debate.”

How you can spot and respond to climate misinformation 

The inadequate response from tech’s leaders thus leaves the misinformation fight in the hands of researchers, watchdogs, and individuals themselves. 

“It is vital that those advocating for action to avert climate disaster take note of this substantial shift from denial of anthropogenic climate change to undermining trust in both solutions and science itself, and shift our focus, our resources and our counter-narratives accordingly,” the Center for Countering Digital Hate advises. “This report is a call-to-action.” [moved]

Tackle New Denial with facts

A fact-based approach to debunking climate denial content is the most straightforward way to spot and stop the spread, Cook points out. “Explaining how misinformation is wrong by explaining the facts is really about building climate literacy,” he says. 

Pull in the support of a global network of researchers through official reports, like the IPCC annual climate assessments, science-backed blogs like Real Climate, or officially sanctioned websites like NOAA’s Climate at a Glance or NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet.

Just as important: It’s never too early to start building climate literacy, perhaps even more pressing as teens engage with New Denial more and more online. Many school districts and childhood educators have advocated for the inclusion of climate change science in core educational curriculum, and organizations around the world are sharing child-friendly lesson plans and curriculum guides. 

Appeal to those at risk with logic 

Both Nanko and Cook also point to knowing the specific rhetorical techniques used by climate denial actors as crucial for spotting and avoiding the content. Cook calls this a “logic-based” approach to tackling misinformation. 

“A consistent and practical way to deal with [climate denial content] is just identifying misleading techniques or logical fallacies across all these different types of misinformation,” said Cook. “Once you can spot those patterns and fallacies, then you become immunized or less likely to be misled by those arguments — and not just in climate misinformation, but across any topic.”

According to Cook, some of the most common patterns found in climate denial content include: 

  • Fake experts: presenting an unqualified person or institution as a source of credible information.
  • Logical fallacies: arguments where the conclusion doesn’t logically follow from the premise.
  • Impossible expectations: the demand for unrealistic levels of certainty before acting on the science. 
  • Cherry picking: carefully selecting data that appear to confirm only one position.
  • Conspiracy theory: arguments that a secret plan exists to implement a nefarious scheme, including covering up the “truth.”

He also notes the rise of ad hominem arguments, or attacks on the person sharing information rather than the content itself. 

Educating individuals on these techniques can get around the limitations of fact-based approaches. “When people are presented with climate facts and at the same time they’re shown climate misinformation  —and they don’t have the tools to tell the difference between them — they tend to just disengage and believe neither. It can cancel out our attempts to communicate facts,” Cook says. “Whereas if you explain the techniques of misinformation, that’s effective regardless. It’s a more robust way to inoculate people against misinformation. I recommend a combination of the fact-based and the logic-based approaches to build people’s climate literacy but also build their critical thinking skills.”

Cook developed the online resource and game Cranky Uncle, which helps build these types of critical thinking skills on the path towards fighting misinformation. 

Media literacy groups, like the News Literacy Project, offer digital tools that teach people how to fact check sources themselves, including its misinformation blog RumorGuard and online quizzes

Remember your resources 

Numerous other organizations offer an assortment of climate literacy resources, as well.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, one of the authors of the federal government’s annual climate report, offers a long list of resources on her personal website, including advice for speaking to people who have fallen into climate denial conspiracy. 

Hayhoe points to her own YouTube series, Global Weirding, that addresses common questions and misconceptions. 

Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of climate and anti-disinformation organizations, publishes insights and reports on ongoing efforts to stop climate misinformation.

Additionally: read through more of Mashable’s extensive coverage, including our How To Change a City video series exploring the ways urban environments can better adapt to our climate future.

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