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New Study Reveals Link Between Climate Change Misinformation and COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

London – 27 October 2021: Published ahead of COP26, a new report by Logically and APCO Worldwide found a worrying link between climate change misinformation and COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

The research was conducted by Logically, a tech company using advanced AI, open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigators and expert fact checkers to fight misinformation at scale, and APCO Worldwide’s digital team, who have expertise in understanding complex information spaces, and helping clients to develop communication strategies to counter online mis- and disinformation.

World leaders, the business community and civil society will convene in Glasgow next week to measure progress against the 2015 Paris Agreement commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and countries’ moves towards a net zero economy. But one topic of conversation not on the agenda is climate misinformation and the impact this may have on countries’ ability to deliver against these targets

The report, a detailed review and analysis of climate change misinformation narratives and their relative influence, highlighted key findings in online conversations:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the nature of climate change misinformation narratives.
    • The rise of QAnon and the growth of conspiracy theories during the pandemic has had a profound and lasting impact on the climate misinformation landscape.
    • Since 2020 climate change misinformation has increasingly shown up within broader conspiracy narratives such as The Great Reset and anti-vaccine propaganda.
    • Traditional denialist narratives such as humans not being responsible for climate change or climate change not occurring at all are a negligible proportion of online conversations.
    • Climate change misinformation has evolved away from denialism into a complex set of narratives, the most prominent being scepticism about the necessity and cost of political action and doomerism about what can be done.
  • International events and major government policy interventions are key drivers for spikes in climate change misinformation.
    • International events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) are drivers for spikes in engagement with climate change misinformation. This is likely to become more widespread as climate change becomes more noticeable in its effects, and climate policy becomes a more salient political issue.
    • The 2020 WEF meeting titled “The Great Reset” was inadvertently responsible for the creation of a major new climate misinformation conspiracy.
  • Top-down communications are the principal drivers of climate change misinformation.
    • We found no evidence of an organized online grassroots climate misinformation movement.
    • High-volume climate change misinformation talking points (3000+ mentions) tended to occur in direct response to major political events, notably the Davos summit, the UN Climate Action Summit and the US 2020 presidential elections.

Dr Al Baker, Managing Editor at Logically, said: “COVID-19 showed us the very real dangers of misinformation and how mistakes in communication can cost lives. This research shows that many of the same causes of COVID-19 misinformation are also present in misinformation around climate change. We should learn from the challenges faced during the pandemic and ensure communication around climate change is tangible and unambiguous. Climate change misinformation is complex and evolving, with ties to a number of broader conspiracy narratives, and we should not underestimate the harm it can cause.”

The report makes several recommendations for how to combat online misinformation. These include planning for spikes in climate misinformation around global events, otherwise known as countermeasure planning; using online intelligence platforms to help identify, analyse and choose the most appropriate countermeasure strategies to address harmful content, otherwise known as intelligent listening; and message testing, which involves developing countermeasure messaging and testing the efficacy of these against different climate misinformation narratives.

Commenting on the report, Daniella Lebor, Director at APCO Worldwide said: “Our research reveals how propagators of climate change misinformation use conspiracy theories and manipulative rhetorical devices to advance their narratives. We believe that the communications industry can do more to counter misinformation by deploying countermeasure strategies focused on addressing false content. At the highest-level, we advocate for unapologetic honesty, transparency, and evidence-based communication.”

The report also suggests that if we are to successfully tackle climate misinformation, it is essential to view it as part of the wider misinformation framework. Large scale interventions such as public awareness campaigns, improved data sharing between social media platforms and researchers, and investment in high quality media literacy practices are vital components to successfully addressing this current information crisis.