“Climate Change is Real”: Exploring counter-narratives to climate denial

Misinformation. The internet is rampant with it. Whether it is climate change, Covid-19 or QAnon supported content, we are being bombarded with fake news everyday. How do we fight against online misinformation?

Quilt.AI conducted a deep dive on who the climate naysayers are online, trying to understand their views, motivations and digital tools and tactics. There are three types of climate deniers: science skeptics, conspiracy theorists, and counter propagandists. Science skeptics do not believe in scientific evidence proposed by climate scientists. Conspiracy theorists think climate change is a fluke created for political and economic means. Counter propagandists use twisted “scientific evidence” from experts to attack climate activists.

The only way to counter online misinformation is to use similar digital tools and tactics, amplifying the positive and legitimate voices of climate activism. Who are the climate allies, actively refuting online opposition? What tools and tactics do they use? How do their behaviors differ?

We studied hundreds of search keywords and social media posts related to climate change to understand levels of interest and activism in the United States. This is what we found:

Yes, I am interested!

Interest in climate policy and action is growing. About 45% of the search keywords were for general information about climate change such as “human climate change” and “about climate change”. A closer look indicates the highest growth in search keywords are:

Searches that emerged in the last year also focused on climate movements. This can be attributed to advocacy around the New Green Deal during the US elections.

After general information, climate action hashtags, such as #climatejustice, made up 35% of the total search keywords. Hashtags such as #noplanetb, #tiredearth, and #savetheplanet grew at 100% each. This could indicate that during lockdown, people took to social media to advocate for climate action instead of mobilizing on-ground.

Science, policy, and grassroots activism is the way forward
There are three types of climate allies in the online space: Science-based, Policy Experts, and Community Warriors.

It’s Science Silly!

Those in the science-based segment believe that the world is changing due to man-made actions. They are armed with technical knowledge and share scientific studies or news along with their insights. They use an urgent tone to break down the impact of climate change (e.g. OMG!, This is Real!) such as temperature increases and melting glaciers. Many posts, however, are laden with scientific terms that make it difficult for others to understand changes in climate. Responses to these posts are then mixed with people expressing confusion or twisting the science against climate change (e.g. Science Skeptics).

In 2020, there was an overall decline in searches associated with evidence and facts on climate change. However, there were certain search keywords that grew:

This indicates that people are interested to learn and root their climate change beliefs in hard evidence.

Where’s the policy action?

Individuals who fall under this segment believe that political action plays an important role in mitigating climate change effects, often citing global agreements (e.g. COP 26) and calling out countries’ leaders for inaction on climate change.

Change starts from the ground

Community warriors post messages on social media, encouraging individuals and leaders to take direct action. They believe that each individual can be a source of impact. This segment is not afraid to “name-and-shame” policymakers who are hindering the progress towards action.

The pandemic limited people from mobilizing on-ground so they amplified activism through online platforms and hashtags. Community warriors were especially active online as the use of hashtags grew by 87%. The most popular hashtag on social media was #climateaction accompanied by demands to implement better climate policies. In 2020, #climatejustice and #climatestrike also grew by 100% . People used the hashtag to share news about climate policies, webinars on climate change, and highlight past and future initiatives (e.g. a community planting trees).

Understanding climate denier and allies’ narratives is a powerful start in building an effective campaign. These insights need to be combined with robust data, a playbook on digital tools and tactics, and effective offline partnerships to create real impact. These profiles along with Quilt.AI’s Climate Change Analysis Tool can help segment people’s behaviors on climate action in different cultural contexts.

Bring on the data.

Quilt.AI developed the first ever Climate Change Analysis Tool (CCAT). The CCAT uses city-level data to investigate links between climate vulnerability and climate denial. Based on these findings, the dashboard provides group-specific strategies and targeted messaging to strengthen climate action.

This interactive world map allows users to look into the climate vulnerability of more than 1000 cities, providing a valuable opportunity to gain insight into the current climate crisis.

A snapshot of cities with “Low” climate denier scores (<50) is shown in the figure above. This means cities such as Quito, Sapporo and Firozabad have activists though some may be unactivated. Cities with unactivated allies means there are higher searches for climate change compared to other cities but uncertainty on how to act on climate change issues. Allies require strategic nudges to craft their response measures, ensuring collective action can be sustained both in the short- and long-term.

The CCAT and profiles of climate allies and deniers’ will help tailor communication messages for certain segments to nudge them towards action.

Activists and Allies Unite!

In order to counter climate misinformation, activists and allies must match the scale and intensity of climate deniers’ voices. Based on our findings, the following digital tools and tactics will reduce, prevent and respond to online misinformation:

There are multiple approaches to counter climate deniers online. First, analyze social media posts to understand attitudes towards climate change in certain geographies or communities. Second, use search behavior to monitor people’s level of interest and awareness in climate-related topics. Third, use the digital insights to segment the target audience based on their knowledge, attitude and perceptions of climate change.

Finally, develop a communication campaign that leverages social media and search platforms. For example, take over social media timelines by dropping content about climate change with pictures and messages that appeal to the target audience. Climate activists can also redirect people using these keywords to websites that are action-oriented (e.g. pledges)

2. Consider Content in Online Posts
It is critical to tailor one’s campaign to the target audience. Activists and organizations can analyze social media and search behaviour to understand attitudes towards climate change. Accordingly, content for campaigns can be adapted to the audience’s interest in climate change or use other issues as a hook for them to act on climate issues (e.g. messages to a make-up enthusiast focusing on microplastic in cosmetics).

3. Share how scientific facts are manifested on-the-ground and how local action is actually helping mitigate the effects of climate change.

4. Amplify partnerships between the scientific community and local communities/groups doing concrete action on climate change. This will not only present a united front but a robust approach against the opposition. It is crucial for us to show those less affected by climate change that this is a pressing issue that is affecting millions of people.

5. The scientific evidence has to be broken down to simple, easily understood information. Also, the data at which the evidence stems from must be highly accessible to the public. This is an essential step to prevent the counter propagandists and science skeptics in spreading their ideology.

Misinformation around climate change is a threat to countries’ fulfilling their global commitments. It is important to understand their tactics and counter them online. Currently, activists and allies must scale up their voices and tools to match and overtake deniers’ narratives. This is possible by amping up their current approach while filling gaps to build a united front. As an organisation that fights climate change in the digital world, Quilt.AI believes that this an opportunity to pave a cleaner and greener future for the next generation.

Write to us at anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai to learn more about our work.

Quilt.AI creates culturally intelligent AI products to drive impact at scale. More here: https://quilt.ai