Press Briefing: How to Pre-bunk Climate Disinformation

Three leading experts discussed how to prepare and inoculate audiences against climate disinformation

Past event: April 11, 2024

Researchers studying climate disinformation agree: “Inoculation” is one of the most effective options for countering it, and the first step toward inoculation is “pre-bunking,” or warning audiences in advance. In this webinar, co-sponsored by Climate Action Against Disinformation, panelists discussed ways journalists can get ahead of climate disinformation and “pre-bunk” it to avoid amplifying the disinformation or causing unnecessary alarm. All CCNow Talking Shops and press briefings are for journalists only, and are recorded and published on our YouTube channel.


  • Ketan Joshi, communications consultant & author
  • Phil Newell, Director of Science Defense, Climate Nexus
  • Dharna Noor, Fossil Fuels and Climate Reporter, The Guardian

Amy Westervelt, investigative climate journalist and executive editor of Drilled Media, moderated.

Key Quotes

“A quick plug for Phil’s very quick and easy definition of disinformation… ‘wrong on purpose for money’… If someone’s doing that, then it’s probably worth looking into.” – Amy Westervelt

“Be skeptical of any corporation that has a profit motive… There’s always going to be that profit incentive for them to hide and be sneaky and cut corners and get every penny they can and cover it up with advertising and disinfo to make it look like they’re being a good corporate citizen.” – Phil Newell

“The [fossil fuel] industry obviously is very well coordinated. There are things like ALEC and the State Policy Network, which both have deep ties to the Kochs who in turn made their fortune in fossil fuels… Look at the coordination that happens when different bills are introduced in different places or when different groups are obtaining the same messaging from the same sources.” – Dharna Noor

“Greenwashing is actually a message that a lot of people do want to hear. It’s not a scary message, it’s not a sad message. It sort of eases this pressure we have in our minds about the anxiety, about climate action… It’s a real challenge because you then have an extra layer of resistance. Because people would prefer to believe the sort of greenwashing message. It’s a popular one, that’s why it works so well.” – Ketan Joshi

11 Takeaways

  1. Pre-bunking is proactively debunking misinformation by getting ahead of it and “inoculating” audiences. This helps audiences anticipate falsehoods and encourages critical thinking.
  2. How to pre-bunk? In a story, start with the truth, then address and debunk the false claims, and conclude by reinforcing the facts. Think of it as constructing a “truth sandwich.” Two slices of truth bread with baloney in the middle.
  3. Examples exist for how to effectively handle misinformation. This story, “False rumors in the wind,” is one; it begins with the fact that whales are dying due to fishing lines before addressing the falsehoods.
  4. The fossil fuel industry is well-coordinated, using repetitive tactics, especially during new policy introductions. Recognizing these patterns is important. William Lam’s research on “Discourses of Climate Delay” is helpful for this.
  5. Fossil fuel industry narratives often follow predictable patterns, like advocating for more domestic drilling after Russia invaded Ukraine or conflicts in Gaza.
  6. Campaigns, such as anti-wind efforts, may seem grassroots but often mix industry-backed disinformation with legitimate local concerns, influencing policy making.
  7. Follow the money to understand motivations. CEOs and others working for or with the fossil fuel industry are motivated by profit, which influences the information they share. Understanding this gives audiences context. Databases at DeSmog Blog and OpenSecrets can provide insight.
  8. Be skeptical of fossil fuel industry’s renewable energy projects, which could be small scale projects started to create goodwill among the public.
  9. When covering disinformation, paraphrase it instead of quoting directly from PR professionals, and share it within a “truth sandwich” to provide context and clarity.
  10. If mis- or disinformation is being spread by an individual with limited reach, there is no need to pre-bunk. However, if the person is a professional spreading lies for money, then it’s time to take action.
  11. Artificial intelligence poses new challenges for climate misinformation, including fake scientific papers and imagery.


Below are stories and resources that were shared during the briefing. 

US oil lobby launches eight-figure ad blitz amid record fossil fuel extraction” – Dharna Noor, The Guardian

Could clean energy replace Russian oil?” – Dharna Noor, The Boston Globe

False rumors in the wind” – The New Bedford Light. Phil Newell shared as an example news article that handled misinformation well.

Editor of scientific journal says fake study linking whale deaths to wind farms is ‘deliberate misinformation’” – ABC News (Australia). Ketan Joshi shared this story of a fake academic study that was widely circulated.

The U.S. Anti-Wind Movement, Explained” – Drilled. Ketan Joshi recommended Amy Westervelt’s interview with Isaac Slevin, lead author of a Brown University report on the people and organizations fighting US East Coast wind energy.

Discourses of Climate Delay” – Cambridge University Press. Dharna Noor encouraged people to read this paper on how the fossil fuel industry messages itself “as either a fossil savior or as the protector of American interests.”

How ‘discourses of delay’ are used to slow climate action” – Carbon Brief. A shorter version of the above by the lead author of the study.

DeSmog Blog Databases and OpenSecrets. These databases can help journalists find the connections between fossil fuel companies, politicians, and more.

tofology” – Researcher Abbie Richards has a tiktok that Ketan Joshi says is doing “great work” on general misinformation.

Sparks fly over electrification plans” – Ketan Joshi shared this story about Norway’s controversial plans to electrify a gas plant.

Additional Resources 

CCNow’s Disinformation Disrupter. CCNow’s Slack channel for journalists has a dedicated disinformation channel moderated by CAAD, where journalists can ask questions about disinformation in real time. To join CCNow’s Slack channel, apply to become a CCNow member journalist.

Journalism guides on mis- and disinformation:

Rebutting 33 False Claims About Solar, Wind, and Electric Vehicles” – Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

CCNow’s Resource Hub and sign-up page for our newsletters, Climate Beat and Climate on the Ballot


Kyle Pope: Hey everybody. Welcome. Very happy to have you here. I’m Kyle Pope. I am one of the co-founders of Covering Climate Now, and really, really, really happy to have you on this press briefing. Amy Westervelt, who I guess a lot of you already know is going to be leading this conversation, but before I turn it over, for those of you who don’t know, Covering Climate Now, we’re a collaboration of about 500 newsrooms around the world. We’re a nonprofit for journalists, by journalists, and our job is to help people do a better job of covering what we see as the defining story of our time. This year, this conversation is particularly apt. We’re in the middle of this massive election year all around the world, and disinformation is a key part of that, and it’s going to become more intense as the calendar moves forward. So this is really, really apt.

Just a quick plug, at Covering Climate Now we’re doing a lot of work around the election. We have a weekly newsletter called Climate on the Ballot that gives you reporting ideas and helps you navigate what’s coming up. We have our regular newsletter called The Climate Beat. You’re going to hear a little bit later about a project that Amy and Phil especially have been working with us on, aimed at helping you target disinformation, aimed at journalists, deal with it, figure out what to make of it. We’ll talk a little bit about that later. At the end of the webinar, please join all of the panelists on our Covering Climate Now community Slack, where they’re going to continue the conversation. But for now, let me turn it over to Amy, who all of you know is the executive editor of Drilled Media. Amy, over to you.

Amy Westervelt: Thank you. Thanks for having me and doing this webinar. I’m excited. Can I have all of our panelists, our genius panelists introduce themselves please? Phil, let’s start with you.

Phil Newell: Hello, Phil Newell, director of Science Defense at Climate Nexus and the co-chair of the research working group for the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition.

Amy Westervelt: Dharna.

Dharna Noor: Hey, I’m Dharna Noor. I’m the fossil fuels and climate reporter at the Guardian.

Amy Westervelt: You have to unmute. There you go.

Ketan Joshi: My turn?

Amy Westervelt: Yes.

Ketan Joshi: Hi, I’m Ketan Joshi. I’m a climate communications consultant, and I formerly worked in the renewable energy industry back in Australia, and I now live in Oslo in Norway.

Amy Westervelt: Excellent follow for all things renewable energy and energy in general. Okay. I wanted to kick us off with just defining some terms here. We’re talking about pre-bunking, not everyone knows what that is or what it looks like in the context of climate disinformation. So Phil, can you give us that definition and sort of why we’re talking about it in the context of climate disinfo?

Phil Newell: Sure. So pre-bunking is like debunking, only you do it first. A prequel is the beforehand of a sequel. So the idea is generally before your audience is necessarily exposed to some piece of disinformation, you get out ahead of it and you say, look, you might hear some weird things that wind turbines cause cancer, and that’s not true. And so it’s a way to sort of, in the same way inoculation exposes you to a weakened form of a virus. Pre-bunking essentially presents a weakened form of the myth so that people can build a resistance to it and sort of know that it’s coming and it primes them to think critically about issues that might be complicated. And it really sounds a little complicated. It’s very straightforward in practice of just facts. You say the reality first so that when people only see the headline, they see the reality.

And then you get into the sort of the myth and the fallacy and why it’s wrong and how it came to be and sort of what cherry picking tactics might’ve been used or like that. And then you close again with the facts, so that the myth is sort of carefully contained within the reality so that if readers just see the headline, they see the reality and the last thing they see, and the last thing they’ll remember is that conclusion that states the reality. And then in the nitty gritties where you get into the back and forth of why and how something is wrong. And so I think for journalists, you will talk a little bit more about the renewable energy front because that’s a real prime place for it.

But in general, I think anytime you as a journalist get a pitch and a press release from a company and it sounds like it might be something shady that’s potentially an opportunity for you to say, well, what’s the reality of this claim? Because that company is going to be promoting that product or sort of greenwashed idea to your readers. Maybe there’s a way you can talk to experts about it ahead of time so that when the embargo lifts and they’re happy to promote whatever it is you’re there to say like, Hey, not so fast. Here’s the reality. And you arm your readers with that sort of critical thinking context before they’re necessarily exposed to the false information.

Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Okay. This is a group that’s by and for journalists, and we all know it can be a hard sell for editors to convince them to let us write about something A, that’s not real, B, that hasn’t necessarily happened yet. So yeah, have you successfully pitched an editor on a pre-bunking story and then yeah, let us know how it went either way.

Dharna Noor: This is such a good question because it’s really true that by design so often pre-bunking stories come before there’s a news hook, but they’re also really important because so many of us are so deeply inoculated with fossil fuel industry narratives. But once you start to follow those narratives closely, you can see that they follow these kind of distinct and really discernible patterns, which I think can make it easier to preempt the kinds of lies, frankly, that they’ll tell before they even start to tell them.

So I guess one recent example of this is the way that the oil industry talks about war, whether that’s the war in Ukraine or the war in Gaza. So when the war on Gaza began, I immediately started looking for industry messaging showing up because when Russia invaded Ukraine, the industry immediately started to try to use it as an excuse to increase fossil fuel production here in the US to replace the assets that were lost due to the conflict. I figured that this might be something that they would be doing around the war in Gaza because that’s also obviously a place where there are a lot of fuel assets. And sure enough, I think before I even expected that they would be peddling out this message, the American Petroleum Institute, the world’s largest oil and gas trade group, a few months ago launched this massive ad blips focused on dismantling policy threats that could inhibit its ability to extract fossil fuels.

And it said that the flow of oil, or that the inhibited flow of oil rather, out of the Middle East amid the war could be a real concern to Americans. And because I’d already done this reporting on the narratives that were used around the war in Ukraine, before the ad blips even reached American televisions, I was able to talk to folks about the issues with their messaging. Obviously, one big thing is that the industry will always claim that it can boost exports overnight. The US simply cannot do that overnight. We learned that very well during the war in Ukraine. And so I think being able to sort of preempt what patterns of rhetoric are going to be used can make it really easy sometimes to know what to expect from the industry and know who to talk to before those messages even reach the American public in many cases.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, awesome. That’s a great example. Okay, Ketan, I want to talk to you about the renewable energy space. It is an area that we’ve seen really heating up with lots of fun new stories and old ones. So yeah, I’m curious what you’ve seen happening, what you think is driving it, and any ideas you have for people to try to get ahead of that and pre bunk stuff.

Ketan Joshi: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll just start my answer with an amusing anecdote. So I worked through about six years in this wind farm company in Australia, and I started right when it became a politically hot issue, the development of wind farms because there was a new government policy center left government, and they had a new policy basically to directly promote the growth of renewables in Australia. And wind was the cheapest at the time by a decent margin. Solar was a fair bit more expensive. This was sort of around 2010, 2011, and we were going around to communities finding that whenever there was friction, whenever there was bubbling pre existing distaste for the development we were doing, that what was happening was this sort of wave of disinformation would come into the community. And at that time it actually really centered around health impact.

So people were being told that the infrasound from wind turbines was causing a range of symptoms and diseases, and it was all based on really classic tropes of disinformation. So I think it links in really closely with all this climate science disinformation. So there were sort of false experts and messages of uncertainty and all that sort of thing. And they really hit home because of course everybody is worried about their health and they were sort of preying on a preexisting concern. And around that time, I think it was maybe 2013, 2014, I read about pre-bunking and inoculation. I think it was like a skeptic science post or John Cook or something along those lines. And I was amazed by it. I was like, “This is incredible, I really got to try this.” Because we were doing these community meetings in these sort of fresh communities, if that makes sense.

And then we had developments where there were no wind farms or anything like that. And so we tried it one day. We thought, let’s just try and present people with the science and the facts and at least what we had at the time. And what we discovered afterwards is that an anti-wind group had actually visited that community about a month before and had pre-bunked our pre bunking. So it was a double, it was pre-pre-bunk. And so we had people coming up to us saying, oh, we had a doctor come to our community and say that you might say that this Federal health authority says that there’s no problem. And she told us why that was wrong. And so we were totally unprepared for that. And it was a real, I guess, introduction to this whole information battle around these projects and sites of friction.

And hopefully before I left the company, I tried to suggest maybe there’s a better way to do it than just sort of fighting around information. But I think it’s still a really useful thing to do. I think that if we’d done it properly in those instances, we would’ve catered it to each community a lot more closely. We would’ve actually tried to empower local community members and sort of empower some experts rather than telling ourselves that we could be the ones as the developers to come in and say, Hey, we know what’s good for you. So there was just this sort of socio-political context to those projects as well. And then one thing that’s worth mentioning, if you want to know more about this, Amy, your interview with Isaac from, I think it was Brown University recently.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah.

Ketan Joshi: I’ve just been really fascinated by the rise of disinformation around offshore wind and whales because it’s very unusual to have a new thing in this space, particularly with wind and have a lot of very old and repeated mythology flying around. But this is a really new one. And there’s a lot of stuff going around in Australia on this, including a bunch of software generators. There was a fake scientific paper that was generated by a large language model. There’s a bunch of imagery that’s been generated by a journey going around these groups. So I just raised that as an interesting challenge around pre-bunking because how do you pre-bunk something that’s generated using this sort of sentence generator tool.

Amy Westervelt: Fake scientific papers. Oh God.

Ketan Joshi: Yeah. Well, I’ll post a link in the chat so other people can read about that one. Yeah.

Amy Westervelt: Wow. Phil, what about you? What have you seen in this space? And if you have a good example of pre-bunking, one of the anti-renewables disinformation things you could tell us about.

Phil Newell: So the time element of pre-bunking is always a little squishy in that you’re always going to be responding to something doing it. So whether or not it is fully before anybody has seen it, the idea is before it’s a super popular idea that everybody has seen. So as just mentioned, the offshore wind and whale stuff has been really ridiculous and new, just posted in the Slack here, or sorry, the chat, a link to a piece that I think handled it really well and used the fact myth fallacy structure really well and had a lot of length and a lot of word count to really explore that issue. But when you look at that story, if all you can see is the headline, then you get the story because it’s false rumors in the wind, offshore wind opponents spread misinformation about whale deaths, fishing, and more. Boom, that’s it. That’s the whole story in a sentence. But then there’s so much more.

And so then when you go through, it doesn’t start with some people are making fishy claims about wind and whales, it starts with the reality that whales are getting killed by fishing lines and getting hit by boats, and that’s doing it. And everything else comes after that. So it sets that frame immediately of here’s the reality and here’s the truth. What is particularly interesting on the offshore wind opposition is that we’ve seen a lot of this combination of what seems like maybe sort of grassroots opposition of not in my backyard kind of opposition.

And you go in those, or I go in some of those Facebook pages and groups and you look around and some of them are a local county Republican operative runs that anti-wind, and that’s a pretty obvious political play. Some of them do seem relatively organic and grassroots in that it’s not professionals sort of posting and running the groups. But then when you look at the actual content itself, what’s being shared is a majority of sort of fossil fuel derived content and content from groups that have historically received oil industry and other industry funding.

So there’s this idea in public relations called an information subsidy, and that’s essentially what the professional disinformation groups provide, is that sort of base content of here’s a white paper that puts together a science e-argument that you can use to sound like you know what you’re talking about when you’re blaming wind turbines for killing whales instead of fishing vessel strikes and lines, which is much more common.

So that idea that it’s now sort of a combination of grassroots stuff getting fertilized than by the industry BS. And is that astroturf? Not exactly, but they’re definitely getting that information subsidy from the industry and without it, I don’t know what else those Facebook groups would be posting other than the of AI-generated of meme spam images, which they use to get attention and recruit while then working quietly with the lawyers who are generally funded by the industry one way or another by the oil industry or fossil fuels on the legal pushback. And so it’s a two-tiered thing of being ridiculous online for attention while also being really serious and working local city council meetings and organizing kind of write-in letter campaigns to regulators and things like that. That’s the sort of nitty gritty of stopping these projects. And so for reporters, I think it’s sort of the combination of the two. And you talk about you use the ad campaigns or the silly AI images as sort of the news hook to then get into the nitty gritty of how they’re influencing the policymaking and regulatory process.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Dharna, I’m curious what you think about all of this stuff, what you’ve seen, and also I guess just how you think about balancing this thing that Phil just pointed to of there are some people in these communities who have legitimate concerns about whatever development is happening in their area. How do you take that seriously and let people speak for themselves while also getting into how they might be being manipulated or leveraged in this way?

Dharna Noor: Yeah, I think it’s such an interesting challenge, also just still thinking about the fake academic papers and the fake AI images, but it really, it’s such an interesting challenge because you don’t want to seem as though you’re just sort of a partisan who’s rejecting any sort of argument against the potential dangers or potential legitimate concerns that people might have around technologies that they might be less familiar with. Not for good reason, but for real reasons there are technologies that people are less familiar with.

Before I was at the Guardian, I was at the Boston Globe for a while, and New England is sort of a major locus of this kind of misinformation spreading both from the sort of NIMBY groups and from the oil tide groups themselves. And I think this is kind of an obvious point, but as Phil you were saying, I think part of the way that you can sort of balance this is just by being really honest about what the economic incentives in either direction are. Again, it seems really obvious, but the purpose of… A CEO of an oil company isn’t merely an evil person. They have a vested interest in making profits, and that’s the same for those who work for the trade groups, those who kind of enable the fossil fuel industry. And so if you start there, if you say, what is your economic interest here?

Well, your economic interest is to preserve the business model that you have, which is based on fossil fuels, then it can kind of throw all information that a group like that is putting out to other citizens who maybe legitimately concerned it can throw it into a different light. And so I think that we shouldn’t be afraid to question economic motives, to be really, really honest about what different players stand to gain. And sometimes what they stand to gain is having a nice view in front of their beach house, but in other times, what they have to gain is a policy landscape that’s really frankly comfortable for their business interests and can help to secure those business interests for a very long time based on other people’s misconceptions. And so I think that it might seem clear to us, but I think for many readers it might not always be so clear what the effects of that money can be.

And so being honest about it can really help. The other thing I guess is just there’s an ever increasingly vast network of groups that are getting fossil fuel industry messaging. The industry obviously is very well coordinated. There are things like ALEC and the state policy network, which both have deep ties to the Kochs who in turn made their fortune in fossil fuels. And so I think that being able to look at the coordination that happens when different bills are introduced in different places or when different groups are obtaining the same messaging from the same sources.

If you look at the way that a policy fight goes in one place, it can be much easier, I think, to know how it could shake out somewhere else. I’ll just kind of mention, I’ve also found William Lamb’s research on Discourses of Delay, very useful for this kind of thing. If anyone’s not familiar with it, definitely check this out. It’s sort of a one-on-one on the different ways that the industry messages itself as either a fossil savior or as the protector of American interests and things like this. The industry is really nimble because it has a lot of resources and a lot of friends in high places, but obviously the tactics that it uses so often are the same ones over and over again. So getting familiar with them and being able to recognize them as you start to see them can be helpful. And it can be helpful too to share that information with people who might be getting this sort of rhetoric from the oil industry over and over again.

Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Okay. I just quickly want to get all of your reactions to something that I’ve seen recently that I was a little bit thrown by. Like how do we deal with this? I have seen now in a couple different places activists who actually their main problem with a renewable energy project is that it’s owned by a fossil fuel company. And that gets really complicated because then it’s like, okay, well the climate movement has been asking oil companies to embrace renewable energy for a long time. So what do we do when now that’s happening? And people are like, I don’t trust this because it’s owned by a fossil fuel company. I find it very interesting and I’m confused about how to address it. So I’m curious what you guys think.

Phil Newell: Be skeptical. I think be skeptical of any corporation ever that has a profit motive, that there’s always going to be that profit incentive for them to hide and be sneaky and cut corners and get every penny they can and cover it up with advertising and disinfo to make it look like they’re being a good corporate citizen. So yes, perhaps to the chagrin of some of my friends in the energy industry, I think be super critical of those attempts because we know the industry uses its renewable projects as greenwashing to continue its social license to operate. So some of what they’re doing there is just buying goodwill from people with a token energy project. And some of it might be real economics, the writings on the wall, they know they have to convert.

And it is confusing that when Exxon knew all those years ago, they didn’t just corner the renewables market. They could have just gone all in and been a renewable energy monopoly with their sort of advanced notice, so to speak, of what they knew and their scientists, and they chose not to do that. And if they’re doing it now, then yes, I think be very skeptical and very critical and look closely because the skeletons are almost always in the closet.

Ketan Joshi: Can I just mention two fun examples that don’t answer your question, but they’re very interesting and basically what Phil said, yes, I totally agree. You should be super skeptical and these two examples will probably enhance that point a bit. So I live in Norway. Equinor is our state owned fossil fuel extractive company, used to be Statoil. It’s now about 70% owned by the government. And our biggest, I’m pretty sure this is our single largest source of emissions in Norway. There’s a gas processing facility called Mongstad up in the sort of northern part of Norway. And for about a decade, the plan was for this facility to switch over to using carbon capture and storage on its gas power generation on site. So this is the electricity, right? They’ve got a gas power turbine in this basically sort of small island that is pumping out massive amounts of emissions to turn gas into a liquid so it can be sent overseas for waste gas export.

And turns out that the CCS is very expensive and Equinor was like, oh wow, okay. So it turns out CCS is very expensive and they’ve changed their mind. And now what they’re doing is they’re developing an extremely large wind project onshore very close to this island, and it requires a very large transmission line as well. So very large wind project, a very large transmission line being developed by Equinor, and they are building this on Sami reindeer herding land. And so basically this issue has been plaguing wind development in Norway for basically three to four years now. Greta Thunberg recently came to Oslo to help the protests by Indigenous Sami people against these wind projects. And she was arrested outside of the Norwegian government house and things like that. And so this is just another project on top of all of that, except this one is run by a fossil fuel company specifically to power a fossil fuel project where they’re preparing gas to export into another country.

And so this project will be added to the list that Equinor put out. They did this last week where they go through their renewables like, look at this shiny picture of a wind farm. Look at this shiny picture of a solar farm. Currently it’s about 0.6% of the total energy that Equinor sells or generates. So they actually heat generate more gas power than they do renewables, but they see themselves as one of the good European companies. And then the other example I just want to bring up is Adani. Adani has an astonishing amount of solar. I think probably one of the leading solar developers in the world of any kind. It is still a tiny proportion of their total because they just sell so much coal. They sell an eye-watering amount of coal.

There was a recent carbon majors report that came out, which I need to put the data together to just demonstrate this, but there is one project in particular that they’re developing, which I think is a really good example of the same problem, which is that they take the attitude of being a fossil fuel company to oversize and not necessarily, well-cited renewable energy projects.

And so basically if you look into a bunch of Adani solar projects, they’re angering local communities, they’re breaching human rights, they’re actually causing real environmental damage. And in doing so, they’re toxifying solar and wind power for other companies that are not doing those bad things. And so what happens is that probably projects like these will become their own sources of disinformation because the real impacts that are caused by bad behavior would then become labels for wind and solar, like solar is being developed badly, therefore solar is bad. Wind and being developed badly, therefore it’s bad. So the behavior of these corporations will lend itself to the generation of disinformation as either exaggerated and misapplied to other projects. Yeah, sorry, it’s not a happy message, is it?

Amy Westervelt: No, that’s so interesting. Okay, I’m putting on my tinfoil hat. Do you think there’s any part of that that might be intentional? If I were a giant fossil fuel company, I might be tempted to do a really bad job with solar and wind, for example. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m asking you purely to speculate here.

Ketan Joshi: Adani, it’s a possibility. I wouldn’t be surprised. But for Equinor, I think it’s just sheer confusion and a lack of a good plan,

Amy Westervelt: A total lack of self-awareness. Okay. Dharna, was there anything that you wanted to add to that? The whole fossil fuels owning renewables thing?

Dharna Noor: I mean, I too think that it makes perfect sense to be skeptical of a company that has a really bad record on environmental stewardship and human rights. I think it’s entirely reasonable to be skeptical of them in another sort of technology field if they’ve got that kind of track record. I think it’s important to be specific about what the concerns are because I mean often even if the company that you are critical of is now moving into renewables, that same company may have had a history of also inoculating people with information that would make them anti-renewable. And so I think that knowing what the actual concerns to look out for are, whether that’s water usage in a particular place, whether that’s actual harms to certain bird species or things like this, I think that knowing exactly what to look for can help people move beyond the sort of vague a company is doing something around me, which I think that’s a legitimate cause for concern.

Again, the profit motive is a thing that does incentivize people to cut corners and harm communities and harm ecosystems and things like this, but helping people know what to actually look out for, the specific things to look out for can I think, to sort of create a better knowledge ecosystem around what the actual effects of what a company is doing could be.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Awesome. All right, Phil, I just want to ask you one last question around there are lots of NGOs working in this space too. Some are very much in favor of say renewables or acting on climate, some not so much. There are new names popping up all the time too, and new think tanks. In fact, actually our reporter in India just told me about a think tank that Adani is creating. One of the things they’re going to focus on is climate and energy transition. So yes, Rishika Pardikar. Sorry, I want to give full credit to her. I had no idea this was happening, and I was like, what? She’s amazing. Anyway, we want journalists to get good filters for all information coming at them. So how can journalists think about being that good filter to then inform the public?

Phil Newell: So there are websites and databases that have some of the financial links to some of the groups. So websites like DeSmogBlog, you can sort of just search a group name plus DeSmogBlog, and if a hit comes up, then you can see that here are the 990s that they got money from Exxon and the Coke and whoever. So just that sort of due diligence of who funds whatever various sources. There’s Source Wall as well, which also gets into some of the tobacco industry stuff. When it’s a politician, who’s funding their campaign finances. So OpenSecrets is a great resource for that because obviously if the fossil fuel industry is keeping your campaign afloat, then that might be a reason why you would be a climate denier. So there are some resources like that. There is also, the right wing has their own version called InfluenceWatch.

So if you are curious about what a sort of green NGOs finances might be, you can go and see. And it’s generally sort of the group of known funders who are not… There’s no big wind funder, there is big oil, there is Exxon and Coke, so it’s not quite the same, but as you talk to people in the field, they can give you the sense of, this group is actively anti-capitalist, this group works with big corporations to green their image.

And so I think as a journalist you sort of do that triangulation where you get quotes from different people and you ask the different groups about different groups and maybe give somebody the leeway to talk on background if you want the real talk about what a potentially allied group, but some of the more science-based groups. Some think some of the more advocacy based groups go a little too far. And some of the advocacy groups think the science groups are a little too reluctant to say how bad the situation is or whatever it may be. The idea is just generally don’t take one person’s word for it and always check and see who’s paying their bills because it’s a little ugly and people like to pretend that that’s not a real easy way to see what somebody’s going to say, but it’s at least a good starting point. It’s at least giving people the benefit of the doubt is, I think not a journalist’s job.

Amy Westervelt: And I just want to give a plug to A, Phil and Ketan are both excellent sources on this stuff. There are many others in this space as well. There are lots of experts in each realm of this. You don’t have to become an expert yourself, although of course always learning things yourself is good too. And we have this Slack channel now within the Covering Climate Now Slack, where you can actually in real time be like, I just saw this. Is this real? What’s the deal? And get an answer. So as you’re working on stories, if something comes up that you really can’t, have a hard time parsing, don’t know where it’s coming from or have a technical question about, there are resources for that and I want to encourage people to use those resources. We have lots of questions and they’re all really good, so let’s see.

Okay, let’s see. Can some of these, this is from Ivan Couronne. I’m sorry if I’m saying your name incorrectly. Can some of the panelists describe the kind of disinfo you see growing on TikTok and Instagram and how you think we should address climate disinformation on those platforms specifically? I also would like to know the answers to this question. Yes. Does anyone want to jump in first?

Dharna Noor: As the young person, yes.

Amy Westervelt: Exactly.

Dharna Noor: As the young person on the panel, I mean the issue with TikTok and Instagram and these kinds of platforms where the whole purpose is to condense information is that no one is citing their sources and that’s true of right-wingers whose entire purpose is to kind of stake out a future for fossil fuels. It’s also true for Zoomers who like to summarize great articles that they’ve read about climate disinformation but might leave some important things out in order to make a 30 second video or might not cite the publication where they obtain the facts that they’re saying and things like this.

And so I think that honestly there’s some really great work that can be done in the comment sections on those videos in a way that I think is maybe less useful on news publications and things like that. I also think that as quick as these ecosystems are with content, we run through a constant mill of content on these platforms, but I’m always surprised to see how outdated data can kind of stay on them. Maybe in part because the form kind of cycles through so quickly what’s actually being said, the information sometimes can take longer to catch up. And so I think if you hear somebody saying something that seems incorrect, I would say just do a quick Google search for where their information may have came from and how old that information might be.

For instance, I’ve seen continually not only from sort of oil industry sources and their allies, but also from I think well-meaning people on the internet. I’ve seen recirculated over and over again these claims that actually gas stoves are still much cheaper to run than electric ones, which just ignores the kind of vast cost benefits that can come from newer induction models and things like this. And so I don’t know, if something seems outdated, it really might be you can Google it and see where people get their numbers pretty easily in many cases.

Phil Newell: Yeah. I would say TikTok and Instagram have not necessarily been colonized by the fossil fuel back actors in the same way that YouTube and Facebook definitely were.

Amy Westervelt: They’re really bad at it. They’re quite bad at it, I would say.

Phil Newell: Yeah. And there’s a researcher named Abbie Richards who has done great work specifically on TikTok disinfo. And what we’re seeing there is more of what I call disinfluencers who are just… There’s a demand now for kooky disinfo content and the attention economy allows them to monetize that. And so it turns just saying whatever goofy stuff in a disorganized way into essentially a viable career option. And so it’s not the same sort of top down messaging that we see come from the fossil fuel industry and spread through think tanks and university funded centers like that, it is more of a weird bottom up, but what it serves to do is it does sort of radicalize and cultivate this conspiratorial mindset within audiences that just so happen to also be the same audience that the fossil fuel industry is trying to reach with this info.

And so it has created sort of this own self-sustaining ecosystem because of the ad funding that’s available, but it is a little less dangerous and then it’s not directly related to policy, but it’s in some ways more dangerous because it’s cultivating that whole, you can’t trust anyone mindset among a whole new group of people and that tracks to COVID and it tracks to climate and it tracks to all sorts of other political issues.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. There’s another really great question here, Ananiya Alick, and again, I’m sorry if I’m butchering your name. Based on the assumption that disinformants know they are engaged in disinformation, wouldn’t pre-bunking give them an opportunity to reorganize their narrative so that they can maintain the disinformation trajectory in a way that will be believable.

Ketan Joshi: I might just mention… Oh, sorry Dharna, you go ahead.

Dharna Noor: No, I mean I am curious to hear from your perspective as somebody whose pre-bunking has been pre-bunked.

Ketan Joshi: That question just immediately reminded me of my experiences as to why I started writing in the first place, which is I started blogging while I was doing night shift monitoring these wind farms. And articles would come out, they would get published live on more right leaning news media sites. They would go live at midnight after most people were asleep. And then I would have a seven hour stretch where I was kind of just sitting there glancing occasionally at these seven wind farms in my monitoring screens where I could read this article and sort of pre-bunk it because people would read my blog posts before they would actually even get to the articles themselves because I was posting my article from 5:00 A.M. 6:00 A.M. onwards. And I always expected them to update, because they were digital. So these articles, I would kind of expect them to look at my blog and go, this cheeky little Ketan has debunked our thing.

I better change it and change my argument or change my data. And remarkably, I did this for years and they just never adapted. It was so strange. They wouldn’t change the post, they wouldn’t change the tactic in the next post. They were just remarkably unreactive and they just never really adapted. They just had an idea or a concept and they kind of stuck to it no matter how effective the rebuttal or the pre-buttle was. So I mean, they just made it very easy. You knew exactly what they were going to do. So an example was in 2016 there was a map of blackout in South Australia which got blamed on wind farms, and it just became this sort of disinformation model in the sort of hour darker of blackout, you should get out there, you should find some random charts of wind power or solar power and then try to blame the renewable energy on that blackout.

And it hasn’t changed. If there were to be a blackout today, they would probably just try and do exactly the same thing. So yeah, it’s strange. I would have the same thought. You would kind of think like, oh wow, they’ve given away the criticism here, so I’m going to kind of adapt to it. But it just weirdly didn’t happen. I guess they couldn’t be bothered.

Amy Westervelt: That’s so interesting. Okay, Sami Grover asked, do panelists have advice for how to track or anticipate the types of disinformation that may be coming down the pipeline? Sami. A new metaphor. I’m just kidding. I use that all the time too. I find that some disinformation is very predictable but comes totally out of left field. So what do we do? How do we try to get better at predicting that stuff?

Phil Newell: I like to say that disinfo only works if people see it. So it’s on social media. You can create an account and follow some of the people that are terrible and follow some of the people that are then suggested to follow, and essentially you create kind a dummy denier account and then you can more or less operate online in that same information environment that they are, and you start to see those things bubble up in comments and like that. And some of it is like, yeah, you might have to go to 4chan and see where some of this is coming from, but a lot of it percolates around a few different spots and that’s really how it’s going to be trouble if you see it in a YouTube and in a TikTok and on a Facebook page. That’s probably about to break through.

So it really is just sort of putting yourself in their mindset. At least that’s what I found. You can also pay tech providers lots and lots of money to do that kind of advanced monitoring. So if you have a big budget because you’re a corporation and want to find people talking smack about your product, that’s an option. Otherwise, yeah, I go old fashioned and just sort of manual user experience based.

Dharna Noor: Those are all good answers. I’m just going to put in another plug for the really boring answer, which is just get familiar with the market. Honestly, I think sometimes the easiest way to know what kind of misinformation is coming down the pipe, is the price of gas cheaper or more expensive than it was last month, or who are the major players in the renewable space right now who are up for big contracts and where then does that mean that you should be looking for misinformation? That’s nowhere near as I think interesting as doing the go undercover on four channels stuff, but I think it can be just as useful sometimes to, I don’t know, just know why it is that the misinformation might be useful to any particular actor at any particular time.

Amy Westervelt: Totally. Okay. This was asked from an academic researcher and I put it in the chat to get other journalists’ input too, but Dharna I’m curious to hear what you think. Tobia Spampatti asks, one thing we pre-bunk on is how misinformers use psychological techniques, for example, fear mongering to misinform. Do you think a pre-bunk about big oil psyops rather than anticipating specific claims would be an easier sell to editors?

Dharna Noor: That’s really interesting.

Amy Westervelt: I thought so too. I was like, I think maybe it would be actually. Yes.

Dharna Noor: Yeah, totally. And I mean also I could see a sort of hybrid form where you obviously draw on examples of previous sort of forms of misinformation and the psychological techniques that they use. I would honestly also be really curious to hear from folks in the industry to ask about how much they even know about why the things that they’re putting out there work. If you end up writing that, please hit me up. I’d love to check it out.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Okay, these are kind of two questions asking the same thing from Drew Saunders and Ben Adams. The first is we’re living in a hyperpolarized era. How can we deal with partisan bear traps while pre-bunking? And the other is, what do you do about the fractured media landscape? How do you pre-bunk for audiences with very different biases?

Basically, what do we do about this, that people are in their little groups and they’re consuming a very particular type of information that they want, and how do you reach those people or how do you pre-bunk in a way that the most people will take to heart, I guess? Yeah, I think right wingers also don’t like to be taken advantage of by big corporations, and so sometimes I think reminding people what the motives are of the people who are putting the information out there can be just as important as engaging with the specific claims. I do think it’s really hard in this landscape to engage with disinformation in a way that’s productive for all kinds of readers, but again, no one wants to be taken advantage of.

Phil Newell: Yeah, I think that’s a real big key. When the tobacco industry anti-smoking campaign came out, they had a lot of money from those tobacco industry settlements to spend on what kind of research really, or what kind of messaging really reaches people. And what you saw was exactly what Dharna just said of nobody likes being tricked, so it’s not easy, but we know that disinfo is part of the political playbook now, and we would know one side is using it a whole lot more than the other. That’s an objective reality that all the research shows, and so how you deal with that is definitely going to depend exactly on your audience and your local.. who exactly your audience is.

On the mass media side, there’s only so much you can do to sort of persuade or debunk things to people who are already entrenched. What you can do is reach their family and their friends and the people around them who have not yet fallen all the way down the rabbit hole and give them the tools to sort of softly be like, yes, somebody might have been a let us stray, but here’s the reality that we can start to bring them, try and bring them back. But it is relatively intractable to do on a mass media level versus just having that one-on-one conversation with the person that you love. That is unfortunately down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Can’t really do that through a screen.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. Neal Romanek from the Flint asks, any ideas on how to take other publications to task who might be unintentionally spreading disinformation or just doing bad fact checking or I would say no fact checking because there’s a lot of that happening too. A recent example we’re looking at now is a major publication whose emissions figures for a given industry are absurdly inflated. Could just be a math error, but it’s now part of the public record. What do we do about, yeah, I guess holding media itself to account on this stuff too.

Ketan Joshi: As someone who, I’m not a journalist, but I do media engagement semi privately for an NGO, and I found in contrast to what I used to do, which is do a snarky tweet, getting on the blower, getting on the phone, it always seems like the best first option and just having a chat. I found that to be about 5,000 times more successful than doing a very showy, or this is incorrect in a public post, which took me a long time to learn. That’s bit of a crappy thing to do.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Dharna, what do you think?

Dharna Noor: I agree that getting on the phone is probably the more productive thing to do, obviously. Sometimes we all got to fire off the mean tweet. Knowing about how journalism works I think can be really helpful here. If a story has one byline on it and it’s about something that happened two hours before the thing got published, I think it’s pretty safe to admit that this is a journalist who’s not actively seeking out bad information, they’re just on deadline. And so if you know that and that that’s the journalist that put the bad fact out there, then maybe reach out to them specifically. Whereas if you see the same figures show up over and over and over again, that might be a bigger editorial issue. It might be something that’s gotten passed down the pipe for other kinds of reasons, and not to say here that, oh, they’re all in cahoots with the oil industry.

There are many reasons this can happen, not least of which often the one paragraph of economic context in a story about wind or something like this can just end up getting republished over and over again because nobody like you has come out to fact check it. So I mean, do it for them. It’s a sad reality that news networks and organizations have smaller budgets to do this stuff, but don’t be afraid to reach out. And if they want to tell the truth, then they will engage with you whether they agree with you or not.

Amy Westervelt: There we go. I’m very good at technology. Okay. Chris Bolt at WAER Syracuse public media says most of our stories are local and they’re often about NIMBY arguments against especially larger wind and solar projects. Is there a way to debunk the negative impact on property values argument or this very subjective, it’s hurting the view shed statement.

Ketan Joshi: Before wind turbine syndrome became the main thing, property values was the main thing. This was an era of basically quite rich landholders in rural Australian states and property values was always the thing that was sort of put forward, and unfortunately, we found that there was really no way to pre-bunk it because a thing we were debunking had no shape or form. It was kind of just this mysterious effect. In fact, sometimes we would hear it stated both ways. Sometimes we would hear people say, oh, you’re going to make the housing crisis worse because property values will go up because there’s more power or something near this project, or there’s more facilities and other people would say prices will go down. And we really struggled with it. We didn’t really know what to do about it. It’s just a weird informational thing to sort of pre-bunk an argument in both directions or a very nonspecific argument. We had trouble, sorry to give another vague answer.

Amy Westervelt: No, that’s great. I think it’s helpful to hear. Yeah, it’s hard and this is why. Yeah. Anyone else want to weigh in on that? Okay. Tom Spencer, this is a great question. Increasingly PR has become about blocking legitimate inquiries. How do we increase accountability from companies when we’re blocked by their communications teams and when 99% of the time, we can predict the response from companies. Do we still need to give the old school reply when it’s used to platform more disinformation? I would say to the last part of that, yes, you always have to give right to reply and fact check and then, but you don’t have to repeat disinformation. Those two things are not connected.

I actually just had this conversation with a reporter that I was working with who quoted a statement from someone that was false, and I was like, either don’t quote it or you immediately talk about how it’s untrue. It’s another chance to debunk what someone’s saying. Yeah, I don’t know. Dharna, what do you think?

Dharna Noor: As a very boring technical point here, I found it really useful to, I agree with you. First of all, I think you always do need to ask for the right of reply. That does not mean obviously, that you need to quote the long soliloquies about how must be the future of every economic system. It does not mean you need to quote them in full. And so just as a very basic technical point, I think that paraphrasing can be really useful here. There’s no reason that you need to give industry representatives the opportunity to lie to your readers.

And also here too, I think that pre-bunking can be really useful. I have found it really effective, for instance, to say, industry interests here, here, and here have used this incorrect piece of data in a statement. Blah, blah, blah, person from blah, blah, blah. Industry said this, where they too use this incorrect piece of data. So I think that, again, doing the sort of truth sandwich where you’re starting with the truth can be helpful here too. Also, yes, I think it’s really difficult to cover companies that refuse to engage with you, but you can always talk to people who work in adjacent industries. You can talk to people who quit. There’s always other people you can talk to.

Amy Westervelt: Subsidiaries. I’m a big fan of international partners that don’t know to be skeptical of you.

Dharna Noor: Yeah, absolutely. Might not know your name. They’re folks. They’ve got a big network.

Ketan Joshi: Amy, can I just add one tiny little extra point on top of that?

Amy Westervelt: Please. Yeah.

Ketan Joshi: Just another little interesting thing is basically I’ve kind of switched my career from being a renewable energy advocate into being a sort of critic of greenwashing, like corporate greenwashing, particularly around fossil fuel companies. And one real challenge with this, particularly with pre-bunking, is that greenwashing is actually a message that a lot of people do want to hear. It’s not a scary message, it’s not a sad message. It sort of eases this pressure we have in our minds about the anxiety, about climate action. It makes everything seem a lot more possible. And so it’s a real challenge because you then have an extra layer of resistance. Because people would prefer to believe the sort of greenwashing message. It’s a popular one, that’s why it works so well.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Interesting. That’s really interesting. Yeah.

Ketan Joshi: Something to remember. Yeah.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. Mandy Henk asks, how can we decide what is and isn’t worth pre-bunking? Phil, I feel like you get asked this question all the time, and then also relatedly, what are the panel’s thoughts on geoengineering and how to inoculate the public to arguments coming from some of these shadier parts of that conversation? So maybe Phil, if you want to take the, how do we decide what’s worth pre-bunking?

Phil Newell: Yeah, so there’s a book that John Cook, I think it was mentioned elsewhere, but did his whole PhD basically on climate disinfo and debunking things. So the debunking handbook has a great little graph. It’s a little flow chart, but the idea is basically if it is just one weirdo on the internet saying it, you probably don’t need to elevate it. If it’s a professional saying it, if that weirdo happens to be an employee of the yay free market think tank that’s getting fossil fuel money, and you see them start saying it, that’s when it’s probably worth it. So the diagram breaks down whether or not the myth is totally set yet in people’s mind, whether it’s super popular, it’s gotten traction yet, then it’s probably too late.

And if it’s off the wall and not going to get traction, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But if it’s in that sort of sweet spot of like, oh, that sounds real enough to be true, it seems like something that’s going to really tick people off, and you’re seeing it from not just one weirdo, but a couple of different people who are doing this professionally. That’s really when you get those professional signals, and that’s when I think it’s time to hit it. Yeah, I might let others answer on geoengineering.

Amy Westervelt: I just want to give a quick plug for Phil’s very quick and easy definition of disinformation at the SEJ conference last week which was, wrong on purpose for money. I feel like that’s really good. If someone’s doing that, then it’s probably worth looking into. Yeah. What about this geoengineering thing? Anyone have thoughts?

Phil Newell: Working definition of disinfo: just to triage. That’s the important–

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, exactly. I know it’s not your scholarly definition, but it’s a helpful framing. Yes. Yeah. So geoengineering, mirrors, cloud seeding. Why don’t we do it?

Ketan Joshi: I know we have limited time, so I’ll try and make this super, super quick, but I’ve been trying to develop basically very similar to Will Lamb’s discourse of the climate delay that was mentioned earlier.

Amy Westervelt: Awesome.

Ketan Joshi: I’ve been trying to develop a sort of, I guess, risk factor, the technological greenwashing, and so my early draft of this is generally, it has to be something that’s around the corner, but not immediately available. It has to be a little bit more expensive, but not obviously as cheap as something that is available. And it has to neutralize or undo the ongoing process of fossil fuel emissions. So like the carbon capture, carbon removal, geoengineering fits really neatly into that. So I guess if you were somebody who was setting out to pre-bunk or warn people to be curious or sort of cautious about it, the potential for greenwashing could be something really relevant to people, because I think people instinctively understand this could be something that could get used to justify ongoing emissions instead of bringing them down, which is the important thing.

Dharna Noor: I think also just look for researchers who don’t have industry ties. Again, I can’t immediately think of someone who’s doing this on geoengineering, but on the direct air capture question, which kind of falls into a similar framework, I think, and there are similar concerns there. There are some folks, Andrew Bergman and Toly Rinberg at Harvard, who have looked at publicly owned options for direct air capture and ways to use these technologies in ways that don’t only perpetuate greenwashing. So just look for folks who have grants that don’t leave them beholden to any one industry or the other.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Awesome. Thank you guys so much. I’m going to throw it back to Kyle Pope to wrap us up here. Thanks everyone.

Kyle Pope: Thanks to all of you. That was amazing. There’s a danger that we can feel sort of overwhelmed by all this disinformation. It’s coming at us, it’s so well-funded. It morphs and it shifts and it ebbs. And I know that a lot of people who cover this feel like it’s just super hard to get your arms around and you all did an amazing job of helping us do that and know that there are experts out there, there’s sources out there, and we have each other. Other reporters on this beat who can help each other. So I think it was amazing. I really appreciate all of you. As we mentioned at the outset, some of the panelists will be able to join us for a bit now on the Covering Climate Now community Slack, the Disinfo Disruptor channel. Amy mentioned that earlier. So if you can, hop on over there. We weren’t able to get to all the questions obviously, but whatever we can, we’d be happy to continue the conversation. In the meantime, thanks again everybody, it was fantastic and we’ll see you soon.

Amy Westervelt: Thanks everyone.