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How you can help to keep Climate misinformation on Twitter in check

Posted on 2 November 2020 by Guest Author, BaerbelW

This is a guest article written by Yann, a biologist with a special interest in climate change and bats. During his free time, he is a climate activist namely with Scientists For Future. You can find and connect with him on Twitter at @Bat_Yann.

Discovering climate trolls and bots

This blog post provides information about climate change misinformation, specifically on Twitter. I have been using the Twitter social media since July 2011 to communicate with the public about my interest in bats. Following my discovery of the importance of climate change awareness, I joined Scientists For Future - a group of scientists who support the climate activists of Fridays For Future. Since then, I have been engaging regularly about climate change on Twitter. I have discovered (to my concern) a high level of false information about climate change being spread there by both people (trolls) and bots (trollbots). The tweets of climate researchers and climate activists are very often the targets of such misleading disinformation. In this blog post, I want to give you an introduction to the world of climate trolls and bots on Twitter and how YOU can help stop their damaging activities.


The diversity of trolls and bots

Those who spread climate disinformation on Twitter fall into two categories: public profiles and anonymous accounts. Many public individuals and organisations involved in the climate change denial industry are listed in the DesmogBlog research database or on SourceWatch. Alongside these public profiles, many accounts which spread misinformation are anonymous (fake profiles). A common way to tell such accounts apart is in their profile name, which often consists of a word followed by a series of random numbers, or an unusual handle such as ‘ClimateChangeIzFake’ and so forth. Furthermore, such accounts are usually non-personalised: they have little to no personalization (i.e. a blankbanner and bio). Another hint that an account may be a fake is that it is relatively new (a month or so old) but has already posted several hundred (or thousand!) tweets. NOTE: if a month-old account has posted thousands of tweets, it is VERY likely automated (ie. a bot).  Last, but not least, old forgotten accounts created by other people can be hacked and given “a new life” by the trolls.

The free browser extension from @botsentinel is a very useful tool that checks how a given account is engaging, comparing behavior to what might violate Twitter rules. You can use it to determine if an account is potentially spreading disinformation (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot from the website botsentinel. Twitter accounts are automatically analysed and their activity is categorised as “Normal”, “Questionable”, “Disruptive” or “Problematic”.

The behavior of trolls and bots

Scrolling through the replies of accounts from climate activists and climate researchers, you will discover a wide variety of tactics employed by trolls and bots to disrupt useful discussion:

  • Trolls and bots often attempt to discredit science, such as the peer-reviewing system (and the people in the scientific community) via ad hominen (personal) attacks. One of their goals is to create distrust in science in the public mind by presenting scientists as “money-grubbing shills” and otherwise attacking their reputations as scientific experts.
  • Trolls and bots often share blog posts, youtube videos, graphics, and reputable-seeming citations. However, they virtually never refer to full, peer-reviewed scientific publications! Asking for a peer-reviewed scientific publication is often a simple but efficient manner to reveal a troll/bot, as the trolls know the full paper will show them to be lying about its contents.
  • Trolls often claim to be climate experts. A very simple way to check this is to ask for their list of scientific publications: an actual scientist will be happy to provide such to the public.
  • Climate change deniers are also specialists in cherry-picking.  In other words, they select specific data that supports their argument, but do not mention the big picture (see video below).  Such cherry-picking uses those small sections of papers or quotes out of context to twist the meaning in support of disinformation.

To learn more about the misleading techniques of science denial, the Cranky Uncle website and the book Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change by John Cook are a great place to start.  You can also find this initiative of The School of Thought with a list of such commonly-used fallacies to familiarize yourself with.

How to counter trolls and bots

To learn more about climate trolls and bots, you should definitely follow @GeraldKutney@ScienceNotDogma and @MichaelEMann on Twitter. In particular, you should follow the many friends of #climatebrawl, a community brought together by Gerald Kutney, to counter misinformation about climate change on Twitter. Other useful tags for learning about trolls are #ClimateTip (for climate-specific trolls), #TT_Tip (common troll examples) and #TrollTactics (as the name implies: examples of such).

You can adopt different strategies when dealing with climate trolls and bots on Twitter.

First, you can block (permanently ignore) or mute (they can still see your tweets!) specific accounts. You can also mute specific conversations where trolls/bots get too annoying. This is especially relevant in the case of  “climate dismissives”, as defined by Professor Katharine Hayhoe in a tweet:

“My personal definition of a dismissive is someone who, if an angel from God with brand-new tablets of stone reading "Global Warming Is Real" in foot-high letters of flame appeared to them, would not change their minds. So why would 10000 scientific studies do so? They won't.“

Such trolls, who will argue against man-made climate change while they suffer dangerous heatstroke and water rising around their ankles, should be ignored.

As a complement to blocking and muting, you can also engage in various ways:

  • you can show your support to people fighting climate trolls via follows, likes and retweets.
  • you can check suspicious accounts via the browser extension from @BotSentinel and post a screenshot to warn other people of that account’s dishonest intentions
  • you can reveal the number of fake followers of a given account via the Audit from SparkToro (Figure 2) and post that screenshot to warn others

Figure 2. Screenshot from the Fake Followers Audit of one of the most influential climate change deniers of our times (25th October 2020). The Audit estimates that the account has 70.2% of fake followers.

As well, you can check the credibility of a source of information you do not yet know via these reputable sites: Media Bias/Fact Check, SourceWatchAd Fontes Media or FactCheck. These sites will tell you if a source is biased or lacks factual accuracy in its content.

One very important action to counter the misinformation for silent readers is to share the full, accurate facts to counter any misinformation spread by trolls and bots. The list of myths listed here on Skeptical Science is a good place to look for resources based on the scientific literature.

To counter the current ‘infodemic’ of false information about vital issues, Twitter has recently updated their approach to the problem with labels and warnings. Such actions have been especially visible in the context of COVID-19 and the current presidential elections in the U.S.A. Now that we know that it is technically possible, we can (hopefully) expect Twitter to act on false information about climate change soon. We have already lost too much time in acting effectively on the climate crisis due to fossil fuel companies like Exxon that knew about the problem but still misled the public. Before Twitter acts responsibly on the problem, we can all do our bit to spread facts about climate change on Twitter and social media in general.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. I don't think Sentinelbot is of much use for this at all! I put myself @NickAPalmer into Sentinelbot and discovered that I was "questionable". I'm currently in a very active Twitter group of 49 that sometimes includes Robert '1000frolly' Holmes (questionable) and Ned Nikolov (normal) also the highly deceptive 'Friends of Science' is, unbelievably, 'normal'. Skepsci's own Rob Honeycutt is 'disruptive'. Most of the actual scientists, or those who quote them are 'disruptive' or even 'problematic'...

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  2. Actually should have written 'BotSentinel'...

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  3. The public get bombarded with messages on the climate issue with some being sceptical, and people are trying to sort fact from fiction while living busy lives. I can appreciate its frustrating.

    This website gives some good tips on logical analysis, but if people are too busy to do this,  its worth noting that the sceptical material most probably comes from a small group of hired guns. Its not coming from hordes of climate scientists. Studies show between 90 - 95% of climate scientists say we are warming the climate, eg Verheggen et al., 2014, Powell, 2013, John Cook et al., 2013 ,Farnsworth and Lichter, 2011 Anderegg, Prall, Harold, and Schneider 2000, Doran and Kendall Zimmerman, 2009, Bray and von Storch, 2008, Oreskes, 2004.

    So any climate scientists tweeting scepticism are in a very small minority if there are any at all. Instead its more likely that the scepticism originates with lobby groups with powerful vested interests in keeping fossil fuels going, people whos self worth is very much tied to status and making money at all costs, people with libertarian very small government views, and scientific cranks. They certainly dont seem worried about distorting the truth. 

    The people who actually tweet sceptical information could be hired guns desperate for money, and with personalities that are not troubled by distoring the truth or they just dont know much about the issues. They remind me of the internet and phone scammers / fraudsters.

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  4. Ermm... The climate scientists I mentioned, that Botsentinel identifies as problematic or disruptive, are not tweeting 'sceptic' stuff! They are defending the science against deniers! That's why I suggested that Botsentinel is next to useless - it identifies 'Friends of Science' as 'normal' fer chrissakes...
    link to wiki on FoS

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  5. I don't "do" Twitter, Facebook or any of the so-calld "social" media so can't comment on those. However the anti-science brigades are pretty active on online newspaper comments columns, which amounts to the same thing.

    Frankly I think it's pointless entering into debates in any internet sites: because you are not face to face any debunking you put forward is either ignored, the subject is changed to another and/or often a heap of abuse is thrown.

    A TV debate is better - but even here it's usually the science versus (for balance, you understand) an equal number consisting of of a genuine scientist denier and a crowd of pseudoscience deniers.

    Even then you can see how rational argument is up against ignorance: Brian Cox talking to Malcolm Roberts on Australian TV's Q and A is a good example.

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  6. Nick Palmer @1, I wasn't responding to you Nick. Neither did I say climate scientists are tweeting sceptic stuff. In fact I explained why its very unlikely they would be tweeting sceptic stuff!

    My comment was because many people I come across still mistakingly think about 50% of climate scientists are in the sceptics camp so they probably mistakingly think some of these tweets come from climate scientists, or their allegedly evil minions wanting a new world order in partnership with the Illuminati. (sarc, please dont take that literally).

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  7. I also avoid social media like Wol does. We still get a lot of climate denial in our general media. It looks very organised, like it comes from lobby groups. It has a certain polite tone and structure that is consistent with a lot of public relations input.

    Some of the angry hostile stuff looks more like it comes from lone operators with an axe to grind. Some is just pure trolling and some is clearly coming from people who are on medication :)

    Many people say ignore the denialists, dont feed the trolls, and facts dont convince people anyway. However I'm inclined to think if we leave incorrect assertions unchallenged, they are likely to gain traction with the public. People who dont defend themselves in court usually loose. I see no reason why the climate science community would be different. Of course we also need a positive messsage, and to not always be defending and explaining.

    And the claim fact's dont convince people is a little bit too simplistic for me. I'm sure most of us became convinced about the theory of evolution and plate techtnics for example based on considering the factual evidence. Screaming at people or calling them names doesn't usually work and I dont like manipulating peoples emotions.

    That said, its unlikely you would ever convince a denialist troll, so its only really informing other people reading the page. And theres a risk of engaging the troll and giving them a platform to spew more nonsense.

    I think how one responds might depend on the nature of the particular forum. If a climate denailist annoys me on general news media websites, I tend to respond with just a very short strictly facts based response, often only one or two sentences, and with a single link to the relevant science or graph,  and I mostly avoid getting into lengthy, impassioned debates with these people. Never let them provoke you into calling them idiots, even although its tempting and often true.  It's not a good look.

    On websites like this it sometimes instinctively seems more useful to go into more detail. Sometimes it generates interesting discussion.

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