Now more than ever, journalists need to be aware of coordinated efforts to misinform the public on climate change. Not only is it journalists’ job to help the public sort fact from fiction but, also, no journalist wants to find themselves an unwitting accomplice to a disinformation campaign.
In a press briefing co-hosted by Covering Climate Now and Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of NGOs tackling mis- and disinformation on climate, journalists learned how to cover a disinformation campaign without amplifying it, think through ways to inoculate their readers against misinformation, and explore the spectrum of trends we’re seeing today.
The panelists included:
- Melissa Aronczyk, professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University
- Jennie King, head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and co-founder of Climate Action Against Disinformation
- Marco Silva, senior journalist for BBC News, specializing in climate change disinformation
Amy Westervelt, award-winning investigative climate journalist and founder of the independent podcast network and production company Critical Frequency, moderated the conversation.
See CCNow’s guide “10 Climate Change Myths Debunked” for more.
Summary and Takeaways
The briefing kicked off with an explanation by King of the key difference between misinformation and disinformation: intent. Misinformation refers to the accidental sharing of false information without intent to harm, while disinformation is “deliberately created to deceive people or to give them an inaccurate understanding of an issue,” King said.
Here are five key takeaways from the event:
- Converging crises are causing climate mis- and disinformation to rise
Climate mis- and disinformation have spiked in recent years, in part because mis- and disinformation thrive in moments of crisis, King said. Recent events like the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “[create] fertile ground for these kinds of narratives, not only to spread and become mainstreamed, but also for them to resonate with ordinary members of the public.”
- Journalists underestimate public relations’ impact on climate reporting
Journalists routinely underestimate the impact of PR on climate change reporting, Aronczyk said, stating that these tactics go well beyond spin and disinformation. “We have to remember that PR is a very well-developed and coordinated system of influence and legitimacy-making that shapes how people understand the climate crisis and what to do about it,” she said. These are major longer-term campaigns backed by significant financial resources. “The time horizon of PR strategists is much longer than that of journalists. That means they’re thinking about a problem long before journalists are, and normally long after, and from a lot of different angles.” One key sign of public relations influence? The coordination of messaging across various platforms and sources, such as consistent language, numbers, or framing.
- Corporations are engaging in “solutions denialism”
Aronczyk emphasizes that while corporations may present their own climate “solutions,” they often engage in “solutions denialism” by discrediting proposals put forth by climate advocates, saying, for example, that they are too expensive or not feasible. She warned that corporations’ climate fixes “are usually solutions to problems that those corporations themselves can solve, which may not be the solutions that we need or want.” She encouraged journalists to dig deeper into the motives and interests behind industry narratives, understanding who is promoting them and who they will benefit.
- Pitching climate disinformation stories can be challenging
As Silva pointed out, journalists face challenges in pitching climate disinformation stories because editors may not fully understand how misinformation spreads online. When pitching, it is important to explain the story’s relevance to the average audience member and highlight the impacts on people’s lives. Silva suggested highlighting the “links between climate change, extreme weather events, [and] manipulation of information online, [and to] make the effects visible to not only your editors, but of course your audience as well.”
- Companies are engaging in greenwashing tactics, a vital area for reporters to investigate
The discrepancy between public claims made by companies in the fossil fuel, agricultural, automotive, and other sectors about their investments in renewable energy and their actual financial commitments suggests that some are misrepresenting their efforts to look like climate champions. “The vast proportion of what they’re talking about is how they’re supporting wind and solar, or how they’re helping develop innovation in carbon capture and storage,” King said. “So even if the individual adverts themselves do not contain falsehoods, what is important is to report on that discrepancy because it shows that there is a very clear influence operation that doesn’t tally with their activity and behavior.”
Below, see resources shared by panelists and journalists during the event:
Guides for journalists: CAAD published a field guide for journalists called “Navigating Climate Misinformation.” Marco Silva wrote “How Journalists Can Tackle Climate Change Disinformation” for the BBC.
Media framing: ISD’s report “How Mainstream and ‘Alternative’ Media News Headlines Frame Climate Activism” analyzes the prevalence of anti–climate activism narratives across media outlets.
Social media: “The Climate Change–Denying Tiktok Post That Won’t Go Away,” by Marco Silva and Maryam Ahmed for the BBC, investigates TikTok’s efforts to combat climate misinformation. ISD’s report “Deny, Deceive, Delay” identifies misinformation tactics used across social media during and beyond the COP26 and COP27 summits.
Climate Disinformation Database: DeSmog has published research about the efforts of hundreds of individuals and organizations pushing climate misinformation, including COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, former US president Donald Trump, and other leaders.
Climate and Covid-19: During the press briefing, Jennie King pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic as a “turbocharging event” for the spread of mis- and disinformation. An ISD analysis highlights the links between misinformation about both Covid-19 and climate on climate denialist websites.
The role of PR: Melissa Aronczyk wrote “How PR Firms Captured the Sustainability Agenda” for Foreign Policy and co-authored the book A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism, with Maria Espinoza. “The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change” is a US House of Representatives hearing report on PR firms’ campaigns for fossil fuel companies. ISD’s Jennie King testified before the European Parliament at a hearing on climate disinformation in 2023.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello and welcome to another press briefing from Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now and the environment correspondent for the Nation Magazine. Our subject today, The Ever-Shifting Landscape of Climate Misinformation.
For those who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a voluntary global consortium of some 600 news outlets reaching a total audience of more than 2 billion people. We’re organized by journalists for journalists to help journalists and newsrooms everywhere do better coverage of the defining story of our time. It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now. There’s no editorial line to follow except respect for climate science. And you can visit our website to find out more, coveringclimatenow.org. You’ll find a list of our partners. You can sign up for our excellent weekly newsletter, the Climate Beat, join our Slack channel, learn about our climate journalism awards, and apply to join Covering Climate Now.
Today’s briefing has gotten an enormous response from you, our fellow journalists. Perhaps because so many of us recognize that dealing with climate misinformation is an increasingly important part of our jobs. I’m happy to say that CCNow has assembled a stellar group of experts today, starting with our esteemed colleague Amy Westervelt of Critical Frequency and Drilled News, who will serve as today’s moderator. Amy, take it away.
Amy Westervelt: First gaffe, didn’t unmute. Hi, everyone. I’m Amy Westervelt. Thanks, Mark, and thanks, Covering Climate Now. I am a climate reporter, I have been for a long time. In the past decade or so, I’ve been very focused on this question of climate disinformation and especially how various extractive industries spread it.
Today, we have an excellent discussion. This is obviously a discussion that could go in a lot of different directions, so we’re going to keep it focused on the basics this time, but Covering Climate Now plans to do more of these, so don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to get into all of the areas.
I want to introduce our panelists who are going to speak for about 30 minutes and then we’ll get into Q&A. So we have Jennie King, head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She’s leading efforts to translate digital research into frontline programming and response. Through ISD, she helped found Climate Action Against Disinformation, CAAD, that’s a coalition of over 50 organizations working to identify, analyze, and counter this issue worldwide. She has spearheaded investigations on climate denialism and discourses of delay in various contexts, including Australia, Canada, Central Europe, Germany, South Africa, the US, and the UK, as well as co-authoring ISD’s flagship reports such as Deny, Deceive, Delay, Volumes 1 and 2. Jennie also designed and leads the COP Intelligence Unit on behalf of CAAD, super useful resource for journalists. They’re leading over 15 partners to produce realtime monitoring of mis- and disinformation around the annual climate summit.
We also have Melissa Aronczyk here. Melissa is a professor of media studies in the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University. She’s the co-author, with Maria Espinoza, of A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of Environmentalism. I cannot recommend that book enough for journalists that want to understand this stuff, it’s really, really good. Her research on greenwashing, climate obstruction and disinformation has been featured in news outlets throughout the US, Europe and Canada. And she has also written stories about PR and sustainability for The Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine.
Marco Silva is also joining us from the BBC. Marco is a senior journalist with BBC News specializing in climate change disinformation. He’s the first reporter I’ve seen with this title, so it’s very exciting to have him here and hear about how the BBC is prioritizing this beat. Marco spends his days monitoring how false or misleading information about global warming spreads online. In the last year, he exposed how TikTok is failing to remove climate change denying content off its platform. He has investigated how the fossil fuel industry spent millions of dollars in misleading digital advertisements about natural gas, and he’s also explored how traffic reduction schemes across the UK became embroiled in conspiracy theories.
This is an excellent, excellent panel. So let’s get going. Okay, Jennie, I think it’d be great if you could kick us off with the number one question I always see on this topic, and that is, what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?
Jennie King: There is a crucial difference, and I think it’s one that is absolutely critical for anyone reporting on these issues. And the difference is around intent. When we talk about misinformation, that is generally the accidental sharing of false information, probably something that we’ve all done at one point in time. What that means is that there’s no intention to harm, but the negative consequences can be just as powerful. The COVID-19 pandemic is a very good example. Thousands of people unwittingly sharing what they thought was good faith advice or how to avoid catching the illness or how to treat yourself could still have really serious public health impacts, even though they weren’t intending to increase confusion or mislead friends and colleagues.
Disinformation is a term which needs to be really carefully applied because it refers to content that has been deliberately created to deceive people or to give them an inaccurate understanding of an issue. So it’s something that is presented as being fact-based, but in reality is intentionally false. And the reason why I say you need to be careful around it is because you need to be able to prove or substantiate that intent. And in reporting or in the research that we do, we are very cautious about when we use one term versus the other.
The final thing I’d say about disinformation is that there’s an assumption that it’s always ideological, so people are spreading falsehoods in order to push a political agenda or enact a worldview, but actually there are lots of forms of disinformation that are just around commercial profits. And I’m going to put a link into the chat around an explainer the ISD just put out this week, which takes you through the dynamics of commercial disinformation as it has flourished online.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome, that’s so helpful. Thank you. Okay, so following on from that, I think those of us who cover this topic have seen a real uptick in it in the last few years, and I wonder if you could walk us through why that’s happening and how it’s happening, what you’ve seen on that front.
Jennie King: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we get asked this all the time. It feels as though climate mis- and disinformation is at a fever pitch, but it’s existed since the 1970s. So why is it having its moment now?
And what I would say is that mis- and disinformation thrive in moments of crisis, and it doesn’t matter if that is political crisis, economic crisis, sociocultural crisis. It creates fertile ground for these kind of narratives, not only to spread and become mainstreamed, but also for them to resonate with ordinary members of the public. And hopefully people can see on the screen now that we are existing in a moment where there are a number of intersecting crises all happening in tandem.
The first kind of turbocharging event was the COVID-19 pandemic. And we really see that and talk about that as being a radicalizing moment against a number of different policy areas, not just public health, but actually having knock-on effects in the way that other issues like climate or sexual and reproductive rights or gender identity are also discussed. On top of that though, we then have the aftershocks of the pandemic, in particular, the cost of living crisis, spiraling inflation, and all of those things being compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which again sent these shocks through global supply chains, international diplomacy, foreign affairs, et cetera.
So those are some of the kind of immediate factors that have created this fertile territory. But at the same time, we’re also living through some generational crises, including the increasing gap between rich and poor in many societies, and alongside it, a historic erosion of trust in institutions. So people losing faith, not just in governments or elected officials, but also in the idea of international cooperation in media outlets and the role that they play in educating the public, losing trust in even academia and so-called experts. And what that means is that you have entirely new gatekeepers flooding into the space and becoming the way for people to learn about key policy areas. So really, we are just living in the perfect conditions for this kind of content to thrive and to have impact on public debate.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Melissa, your work looks at sort of how this whole system got created and how it targets and manipulates the media in particular. And I was thinking you could walk us through some of the structural issues at play here and how this all works, especially for journalists that are working on the Climate Beat.
Melissa Aronczyk: Yeah. You know what? As you say, I’ve spent the last few years getting inside the public relations industry trying to understand how fossil fuel campaigns and other polluting industry campaigns get created and spread in the media and what influence these PR campaigns have on the public conversation about climate change.
And what I found, first and foremost, is that journalists really underestimate the impact of PR on their stories. And this is because it’s about much more than just spin or even disinformation. We have to remember that PR is a very well-developed and coordinated system of influence and legitimacy making that shapes how people understand the climate crisis and what to do about it. And there’s a long list of ways that this influence manifests. I’m going to just talk about three. I’ll try to stay compact.
The first is about the time horizon. So the time horizon of PR strategists is much longer than that of journalists. That means they’re thinking about a problem long before journalists are and normally long after, and from a lot of different angles. So for instance, I spoke to a journalist a few weeks ago who was covering an upcoming ballot initiative in Maine over an alternative energy supplier. And they had discovered that there’s been a lot of lobbying in state government by the existing power companies trying to prevent this. But the thing is, the PR firm that’s orchestrating that lobbying for the power companies is almost certainly doing four, five, six other things to drum up support for their clients and to diminish the legitimacy of the referendum.
There was a committee established months before called Maine Affordable Energy. It has a website, it has a set of fact sheets on their website. It has a bunch of social media handles that are promoting the point of view they want to get across for their clients. The committees organized a petition trying to get local citizens to write to their representatives and say they don’t support the ballot initiative. They’ve probably trained a number of so-called experts on the issue to meet with journalists or to hold press conferences to provide their view of the ballot initiative for your story. They might even have worked with the Chamber of Commerce or local businesses to organize a concert, a rally, a big sale in nearby communities to show how the power companies care about their local residents.
At the same time, they are actively trying to suppress pushback on the campaigns. So PR firms closely monitor their opposition and they’ll sometimes go to very serious lengths to prevent opposing viewpoints from coming out, whether that’s through social media or sometimes by going after activists or petition signers or others. They’re at the journalists’ conferences listening to the conversations that take place. They’re at the press briefings gathering information. I wouldn’t be surprised if many PR people were on this call right now.
So what we’re talking about is a structure of disinformation that’s much more than just an ad or single campaign. It’s a coordinated, medium- to long-term, very well-resourced set of efforts to influence the decision around a policy that will have real material impacts on energy consumption in that state and anywhere else.
The second thing I want to talk about is the disinformation campaigns, perhaps counterintuitively, are not very creative. The strategies of disinformation have stayed remarkably the same over decades. And sometimes what I found is that journalists, they want to focus on a very specific, especially kind of up-to-date tactic. And they sometimes don’t take into account that longer history for obvious reasons. But for example, again, recently a journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle asked me about this network of fake front groups that have popped up in California last month trying to defeat the governor’s new measure to limit the profits of oil companies.
And without even knowing very much about that particular campaign or that particular case, I was able to guess what tactics they’re using, what messages they’re using, and how the campaign watered down the bill that eventually got passed because it’s happened dozens of times over many, many years. So I really want to remind journalists, the playbook is thin, much thinner than you’d think. And once you start to detect this pattern, you will start to see it everywhere. And it’s just a very important way to try to detect how disinformation spreads.
The third and last thing I’ll say for now is that journalists are often looking for controversy in their stories, we all do. But one of the most effective maneuvers that public relations professionals use to promote clients who are anti-climate in their efforts is to promote what they’re doing as being in line with climate initiatives. So you’ll see climate champions or climate supporters, or even the instigators of climate solutions coming from corporate leaders. A lot of that can be called greenwashing. So it is. It’s greenwashing, which is a form of disinformation. But I think sometimes it gets even more complicated than that. I think to give one example again, at the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in April in the US, I was on a panel about solutions journalism.
And we talked about how industries like the tech industry and the energy industry are now in the business of coming up with and promoting climate solutions. Now, first of all, those solutions are often very partial. Sometimes they’re misleading, sometimes they’re outright disinformation or greenwashing. But the other piece of this is that climate solutions by corporations are usually solutions to problems that those corporations themselves can solve, which may not be the solutions that we need or want.
And yet I see them getting a lot of media coverage because those companies’ PR firms are so good at connecting to journalists with press releases, with sources with exciting innovations, very built for stories, kind of information. So we see a lot of coverage of these climate initiatives. And the flip side is that often these same companies are engaging in what some people might call solutions denialism. So they’re proposing their solutions and at the same time, they’re trying to tank solutions proposed by climate advocates as being too expensive, infeasible, invalid, and so on. So I am really urging reporters to try to get past those stories, or at least to try to understand where they’re coming from, who is coming up with them, and particularly who are they designed to serve.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. I know you kind of just did this a little bit, but could you think of any specific examples of either a climate story or a trend in climate coverage that’s come from this? Or any specific things that you would recommend journalists kind of be aware of and immediately clock as PR?
Melissa Aronczyk: Sometimes it is kind of a how do I know it when I see it question. How do you notice that it’s happening and try to guard against it? One thing I always look for is coordination across different voices, like a sort of coherent voice coming from a lot of different places. So if I start seeing the same language or the same numbers or the same framing being used on a website, and then I see it in a Facebook group, and then I see it in a news story quoting a company representative affiliated with that group, I’m going to start looking for how the dots are connected and who’s connecting them.
Because one of the roles of public relations firms is specifically to do that coordinating. So it’s almost certain that there is a PR firm or a public affairs firm behind those initiatives. Sometimes I also look for the presence of PR in stories like profiles, personal profiles, or profiles of corporate leaders or political leaders, or in business stories, even in mainstream publications, because often those stories are quite at odds with some of the reporting going on, sometimes in the same publication on a domestic or international issue.
So one more example, the New York Times ran an interview in May 2023 with the new mayor of Calgary, Alberta in Canada on how she wants to, the lead of the story was how she wants to help the city reduce its dependency on oil by becoming a leader in new sources of energy. And that entire interview, including that quote, is really just a talking point. That’s public relations for probably a group called Pathways Alliance, which is an oil sands coalition based in Alberta made up of oil sands companies, which is incidentally currently being investigated for its deceptive marketing. So anyone who knows anything about the Canadian oil business knows that Alberta is deeply invested in expanding its oil sands infrastructure. And the New York Times itself has covered that. So when I see those stories that seem really at odds with the dominant reporting, that’s usually evidence of some PR influence in the story.
And finally, I just want to say, sometimes we have to think about the stories and connections that we don’t see. Of course, that’s kind of hard to detect, but it comes back to some of the things I mentioned before about a structure of disinformation. A lot of coverage of climate disinformation campaigns won’t account for the big picture for reasons of space and time, but also because the people behind the scenes don’t want you to connect the dots. Because the more we connect the dots, the more we recognize that this structure is really a house of cards. But I think that’s what really needs to happen, is to start seeing journalists connecting the dots in this entire structure of disinformation and not only focusing on one piece of it.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Excellent. Thank you. And that’s a great segue into Marco, who’s our practitioner on this panel. I’m curious to hear what from what Melissa was talking about, kind of resonates with your beat, which is climate disinformation, and what kinds of skills are needed for that bead, what you would recommend people get up to speed on.
Marco Silva: Yes. So first of all, thank you for having me. I feel humbled to be sharing the stage with such level of expertise today. Yeah, definitely. The points that both Jenny and Melissa made resonated a lot with me. When I think about the skills that are required to cover climate change, mis- and disinformation, well top of my head, I would say first of all, you need to understand how social media works. You need to be comfortable online. You need to understand how information circulates and how this ecosystem allows false information, false claims to spread and circulate around.
Jenny was talking about the reasons why climate misinformation appears to have reached fever pitch. Now, I would say that arguably climate misinformation has been around for a long time, for decades, but right now it’s been turbocharged because of this new set of tools that have allowed these false suits to spread so much more quickly. And along the same lines, Melissa was talking about the playbook for the misinformers being thin. I would argue as someone who’s on the frontline looking at what’s happening on social media on a day-to-day basis, that playbook is getting increasingly sophisticated, is getting thicker and thicker by the day. Just thinking, for instance, about the number of users that we could put AI to when we entered the realms of mis and disinformation.
But to go back to the skills, so I would say you really need to be out there thinking about how social media works. You need to understand how this ecosystem works. Scientific literacy I would say is also quite important. My background before I took on this role, I had spent a lot of time covering social media, internet disinformation, but I had no background whatsoever when it comes to climate change. And of course, if you are going to be out there fact checking falsehoods that other actors may be putting out, it is fundamental that you understand or refresh all those scientific concepts that you might have visited two decades ago when you were at school. But now it’s the time to do it. Of course. I appreciate that for the audience that may be listening to us today, your knowledge may already be quite good, but never assume.
I found myself all the time, every time, I get tip-offs from members of the audience sending me potential leads for falsehoods that they spot. I find myself constantly refreshing my knowledge of the basic science of climate change to make sure that if we wage that, if we apply that label, this is a falsehood that indeed science is there to prove that falsehood is indeed wrong. And I would say finally something that I apply very much to the work that I do. I think versatility and ability to address different audiences in different spaces is also quite important. You could certainly argue that often people who follow more closely my work, work about climate disinformation are readers, viewers, listeners who are already very familiar with the topic, who care very strongly about the topic.
But arguably, scientists would say that for effective action to be taken against climate change, we need to involve as many people as possible. And as such as journalists, I think it is of paramount importance that we try to address as broad an audience as possible. And we can do that by using what I said, their versatility. It’s important that you try to repackage stories for different mediums to different media to reach different audiences. Give almost as much importance to the content that you produce for social media as to the report that you put out on the radio. When I approach every single of my stories, I try to think of various platforms across the BBC where I can put them so that, again, I can serve different audiences. And the points that my journalism is trying to make are indeed conveyed to as much of a broad range of people as possible.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. And I’m hoping you could walk through something I think all of us face when we’re covering this topic, which is how do you bring it to your editors? What are some of the challenges in those conversations? And also how do you handle it when there’s backlash to a story? For example, if people are like, “Oh, handling disinformation is censorship.” That’s a thing that comes up a lot. So yeah, how are you handling that? And maybe walk us through one story that you had to package and sell.
Marco Silva: Yeah, absolutely. I think those two points are very, very interesting points to raise. In terms of the challenges that I face, I am very, very lucky in that I’m one of the few journalists around the world, who can exclusively think about climate change mis- and disinformation. And of course that means my organization appreciates the importance of having manpower just focusing exclusively on the subject. But I know that out there, not many other journalists have that privilege. That said, of course, when I approach editors within the BBC, which is of course a huge organization, not everyone, not every single editor has the same level of knowledge when it comes to such a niche subject.
And so I think a challenge that I face that will certainly be shared by many other colleagues in the profession is that sometimes these stories are difficult to sell to editors who may not understand necessarily all the science involved or who may not have such a solid understanding of how these falsehoods spread online. And so a good tip that has served me well, and I hope that serves many of you as well on the call today, is bring it down to the most common denominator. Explain the story in a way that would make sense to the average punter in the street.
So when you approach an editor, when you’re trying to think of the best way to pitch the story, think if I had to persuade someone that I randomly stopped in the street, how would I make them care about this story? Why does this affect them? Why is this important to them? And I think that has served me rather well in the past to explain about, talk about particular impacts in people’s lives, making those links between climate change, extreme weather events, manipulation of information online, make the effects visible to not only your editors, but of course your audience as well.
Now, the other on the second part of your question in terms of the response that you get from the audience, I’ve just finished an investigation into TikTok’s handling of climate change mis- and disinformation, and pretty much with every other story that I do, I received a lot of abuse on social media, by email. It’s a regular feature, especially I know speaking to other colleagues who’ve covered the same beat, it’s inevitable that backlash comes from the audience. Some people will say, “You are stifling free speech. What you are advocating is to censor a part of society that has a different view to us.” To that I say, “I’m not here to make anyone’s minds.” As a journalist, whether I cover climate misinformation or any other beat, the way I see the profession is we’re out there not to make people’s minds for them. We’re there to provide the facts so that they can have informed conversations about issues that matter to them.
In my case, when it comes to climate misinformation, what I try to do when I spot, say a falsehood that has gone viral on social media, I don’t want as a journalist covering this piece, I don’t want people to be making decisions based on a falsehood that they spotted on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. I want them to have the facts. And so for every person who accuses me of trying to stifle debate or censoring or restricting freedom of speech, no. I’m not doing such thing. I just want to make sure that people have the facts when they talk about this incredibly important story, the most important story, I’m sure we would all agree that we will cover in our lifetime.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Yeah. Excellent. Thank you. Okay, we’re going to open it up to Q&A. There are a bunch of questions in the Q&A tab already that we’ll start with, and just a reminder for folks to put their questions in there and that the Q&A is reserved for journalists. Okay. So Melissa, from an anonymous attendee, could you cite examples of misinformation campaigns from decades ago that show how old misinformation strategies are… Oh, sorry. How the old ones are so similar to what we’re seeing today.
Melissa Aronczyk: I guess, I can’t just say they’re all in my book. That would be my cop out answer.
Amy Westervelt: True. That’s–
Melissa Aronczyk: One example that comes directly to mind is the use of third party spokespeople. So in the 1930s, already you had public relations firms working for extractive industry representatives who were paying, I was going to say paying journalists. They weren’t really journalists, they were kind of press agents to go on the radio to ghost write and to otherwise act as sources in news stories and appear to be independent third party experts. But actually they were paid for by the PR firm. So that’s just one. But the strategy too of claiming that you are the bearer of facts, so you have your fact sheet, it’s always about facts versus fictions. The creating of facts, the creating of numbers and statistics. Actually, some of the earliest public relations agents in the 1920s and ’30s were already very, very devoted to that idea of facts and of providing their own set of facts to a particular problem. So that’s just a couple, but there’s many more.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Thank you. For Marco from Andy Revkin. Does the BBC have a misinformation reporter for public health, war, peace, all of these other areas that it crops up in? And if not, why is your beat limited to climate?
Marco Silva: We do have a broader team that covers all things misinformation. We have regional experts that cover particular regions around the globe, and we also have subject matter experts. I can think of colleagues who work specifically on health mis- and disinformation. I, myself, am one of two people who work on climate mis- and disinformation, and we have open source specialists who, as you can imagine, have been extremely busy with war in Ukraine. So yes, we have a broad team. I’m lucky to be covering this very, very exciting bit myself.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Thank you. Okay, this is kind of thrown out to everyone. How would you all approach covering new scientific studies that show climate and environmental impacts? Anyone want to jump in there? I mean, I will say I always look at who the authors are, what their affiliations are. I try to figure out what the funding is of every study that I’m going to cover before I cover it. Look at what the journal that it’s published in and what the peer review process is for that. All of those kinds of things are just the sort of standard things that I do before I would cover a study. I don’t know if there’s other stuff that you guys would recommend or that you do.
Marco Silva: Well, I suppose I could say I’m going to be humble here and admit that when I feel that I don’t know enough about the publication, about the field of study, there’s nothing wrong in approaching experts. That’s what we do as journalists. And again, as someone who hasn’t necessarily, in my case, who hasn’t spent years covering climate change, specifically the number of times that I’ve called experts to ask them really basic questions, there’s no shame in that. From my point of view, there’s far more shame in publishing something that is half baked where you haven’t done your homework, you haven’t done your research. No. Scientists get those questions all the time. So yeah, ask away.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, totally. And I would say just a shout out to social scientists, Melissa’s one, there are several. Everyone talks all the time about how political will is the big problem with climate, and yet I think we woefully underutilize social scientists as a resource in covering these stories. So reach out to those folks too. They’re helpful. Okay. Could the panelists classify the ubiquitous use of net zero in corporate and government PR as disinformation? Sorry, would the panelists classify this as disinformation? I worry that net zero claims are too often used to distract us from the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and what’s needed to achieve that halving emissions by 2030? Yeah. What do folks think of that? Is that disinformation?
Jennie King: I could maybe feel that. I mean, the field of greenwashing is difficult to neatly categorize sometimes within the mis and disinformation terms, which is why I think it’s really useful to use the phrase influence operations and information operations. Because there is a broader spectrum of tactics here, some of which Melissa has laid out very clearly that go beyond just mis- and disinformation. There are forms of cherry picking data. There are forms of kind of emotional manipulation and public influence, which are absolutely vital for reporters to investigate and to shed light on and educate the public about. So if you are always shackled to these terms of mis- and disinformation, you can miss a big part of the picture. However, what I would say is that there is clearly a fundamental gap or discrepancy between the amount of investment that is being put by not just the oil and gas industry, but big agriculture, the automotive industry, et cetera, into campaigns in legacy and social media that present themselves as climate champions versus what you actually see in their investment portfolios.
And there was a great report that was brought out by, I think the International Energy Agency last week, and we’re talking about a difference of maybe 5% of future investment planning from the carbon major companies is going into renewable energies or green initiatives. Yet if you look online or if you look in the advertising on traditional media, the vast proportion of what they’re talking about is how they’re supporting wind and solar, or how they’re helping develop innovation in carbon capture and storage. So even if the individual adverts themselves do not contain falsehoods, what is important is to report on that discrepancy because it shows that there is a very clear influence operation that doesn’t tally with their activity and behavior.
And there’s one really interesting case study that I would highlight from the UK, which is that the Advertising Standards Regulator, the ASA has had a couple of cases now where they have forced companies to remove live campaigns that were either on broadcast, or print, or digital media for exactly this reason, not because the substance of the adverts themselves were actively false, but because they lied by omission and therefore constituted a form of consumer deception. And so far, there have been examples involving HSBC Bank, more recently involving Shell, I believe, and I can post an article in the chat that goes through that. But that sets a very interesting precedent, not just in the UK, but I think there’ll be more movements internationally to say, actually this form of content shouldn’t be allowed to happen with impunity, even if the advert itself is not false. It is creating a false image and is legitimizing companies or industries that are clearly perpetrating harm. And as a result, regulators and the media should be reporting on that or indeed creating criteria where that is no longer possible.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Okay. For Melissa from Emily Gerts. Hi Emily. What impact will consumer fraud lawsuits have on fossil fuel or utility climate disinformation. Based on how big tobacco is defrocked in the US, do you think the fossil fuel sector will be held accountable in this way?
Melissa Aronczyk: I mean, that really is the $64,000 question. I know that a lot of-
Amy Westervelt: Or the billion dollar question.
Melissa Aronczyk: I know that researchers are paying very close attention right now to the role of strategic consultancies specifically. And by that I mean public relations firms, lobby groups, strategic consultancies like McKinsey and so on, they’re paying very close attention to how some of the existing lawsuits and settlements are implicating those strategic consultancies. Because once we understand the role that these intermediaries are playing in the disinformation, we can start to then have that precedent to go after them more carefully. And as you pointed out, in the tobacco case, in the discovery with all of the truth tobacco documents that were then made available to the public, we were able to very clearly see the outsized role that these strategic consultancies played in not just being the mouthpieces or amplifiers for the tobacco companies, but in actively creating, coming up with and engineering the strategies themselves.
So therefore, they needed to be held accountable. And as I say, as we’re seeing that happen in the case of opioids, as we saw that happen in the case of tobacco, we’re paying very close attention to how that might then implicate these groups going forward in some of the climate accountability lawsuits.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Jennie King: Can I add just a couple of small points on that, Amy, about how this is sort of metastasizing or distorting because of what’s happening in the online space. I think it’s really interesting if you look at the congressional hearings that were held by the House Oversight Committee in the US last year around big oil and the role that they have played historically in misleading the public. Because a number of members of that committee, mostly coming from the Republican side of the House, the arguments that they were making in defense of the companies were highly emotive and were very much around the idea that big oil in the US context at least relates to national identity in some form, that they are the pillar of American society, and that by challenging their role or by asking them to be subject to greater scrutiny, you are somehow breaking down the good working people of the country and that you are ceding economic dominance to China.
And I think looking at those strategies is really important because in the work that we did around COP27, we found that a lot of the advertising coming from these dark money groups, these front and lobby groups, they are using exactly the same kind of rhetoric. They’re talking about human flourishing, fossil fuels being essential for human flourishing. They’re talking about freedom oil or freedom gas, the idea that fossil fuels enable some form of sovereignty or of individual empowerment. And at the same time, you see that the names of these entities are increasingly using that kind of language and are trying to present themselves as citizen or grassroots entities. So some of the top advertisers around COP were energy citizens, the Empowerment Alliance, I don’t know, New Yorkers for a Positive Future. That one is not a direct example, but it’s those kind of names.
And that alongside the use of digital influencers, I think some people have been mentioning in the chat the way that people are using the aesthetics of social media to make things not look like industry talking points and to launder them into the mainstream. All of this makes it a lot harder in certain contexts to enact regulation and policy against big oil, because not just in the US but in Canada, in Australia, in Poland, in a number of other countries, those industries have become woven into ideas around national identity and what it means to be a citizen of that country. And that’s been a very successful coordinator communication campaign by industry actors.
Amy Westervelt: That also is another one that is just as old as the hills. I mean, attaching fossil fuels to national identity is their original story that they go back to over, and over, and over again. Okay. I want to get to a question from Al Ortiz from CVS News that I’ve seen echoed by maybe four or five other people in the Q&A as well, which is I’m very concerned that AI is ripe for abuse in this area. Marco touched on this. Is there anyone starting to focus on how to detect AI manipulated mis- and disinformation? Great question.
Marco Silva: I could go in. I can tell you that for me, for my colleagues, it’s something that we are paying a lot of attention to. I don’t think… I mean, I haven’t spoken to anyone in this space in our industry who already has answers, ready answers on how to deal with AI. Because every week some new massive leap seems to be happening, a massive technological leap seems to be happening. So I think we’re all still trying to get the best feel possible of how things are going to work and how AI may be used in the realms of mis- and disinformation. At the BBC, yes, it’s something that we are already thinking about looking into. When it comes to climate change specifically, it’s not something that I’ve seen yet, and I stress that yet. Because being a technological tool that is available out there, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be put to use by any bad faith actor who’s set on promoting falsehoods about climate change. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. What is the big risk, this is for anyone who wants to field it. What is the big risk that you see for journalists in African countries like Mozambique facing emergency on environmental issues and a lot of sources to deal with? How do you prevent disinformation in those kinds of contexts? Anyone have insight on that?
Jennie King: I am most certainly not an expert on the reporting environment across the African continent, although I actually did a similar event to this this morning with a number of East African journalists. I do think that the context there is incredibly fraught, not least because Sub-Saharan Africa is a target for information operations from a number of actors within and beyond the region.
There is an incredibly well-developed industry lobby that I think has been connected with the political architecture in the region for a long time. And therefore you will see the same kind of arguments coming out of both government actors, fossil fuel companies, their PR entities, but also it is a target for foreign state actors. So we see, for example, Kremlin-linked campaigns or Chinese state media and CCP-linked campaigns, which are very clearly trying to influence public opinion within Africa because of their trade and diplomacy goals, and also because they want to try and create a division between the African continent and Europe or North America as partners.
So one really good example of that is around COP27, we saw a number of state-linked media outlets and their affiliated networks implying that net zero as a whole, or the climate agenda as a whole was a form of Western imperialism, and that it was reproducing neocolonialism in areas of Africa and other parts of the global South.
And that is an unverifiable statement. You can’t call it mis- or disinformation because there’s nothing that you can prove or disprove. What it is doing is trying to exploit and weaponize traumatic historical realities in order to oppose climate action. And many of the actors behind it, if you dig in a little bit, are connected to the fossil fuel industry.
So what I would say as a broad piece of advice is any source, the due diligence needs to be very high in terms of really trying to dig into, can you evidence their affiliations to any particular entity? Has there been reporting that’s done? Are any of the key personnel within this entity also appearing on the board of an NGO or acting as an advisor to an oil company? And I realize that can be incredibly time-consuming, but it’s absolutely critical because one of the main ways that these ideas get laundered into the mainstream is because the media platform, those who are affiliated with industry or who very clearly have vested interests in influencing public opinion.
Marco Silva: Can I just add a thought there? I think in the course of doing this job now for two years, I should add that within the BBC, part of my role involves working with colleagues from the dozens of language services that the BBC has to produce content that is relevant to their specific audiences. And one thing that I’ve realized pretty early on was that indeed, when we speak of climate change, mis- and disinformation, while it is possible of course to spot similar patterns in the global North, in the global South, in different areas, continents, countries, there is always a layer of nationality, of cultural issues that are relevant to particular areas, particular regions that are difficult to, say, fathom from London.
So I think part of the role, part of the importance of the work that we do also… I suppose what I’m trying to say is I feel that it’s genuinely important that the baton of fighting climate change, mis- and disinformation is also carried by local journalists, because local journalists from all around the world will have an infinitely better understanding of the local issues, the local myths, climate myths that circulate, and even the way climate change is trending, the conversations around it. So yes, I think that local knowledge is a massive asset when it comes to fighting these distortions.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah, totally. I’m going to collapse a few questions into one here so we can get more in here. But effectively people are asking, do climate advocacy organizations or nonprofits use these techniques as well? And what are the ethical questions around doing that? Should they be using these techniques and what do people think about that?
Marco Silva: You go first, Melissa.
Melissa Aronczyk: I was just going to say that first of all, yes, climate advocates, activists, others, use public relations. Everybody uses public relations or other types of promotional techniques to get their message out. Very often the reasons provided, when we’ve done interviews of climate advocates using PR, are that it’s a necessary tool in the toolbox. It is the way to create a coherent campaign, develop a solid set of messaging, establish your so-called brand values, and then you develop a media strategy to get the word out.
One thing that we did notice though in our research on this topic is that PR is not itself neutral. And I would say this about all other types of promotional interventions like lobbying; public relations is itself a kind of value ideological tactic because of the way that we understand who we are trying to reach and what it means to reach those people, how you can tell your story and to whom you’re telling that story.
So already there’s a kind of built in set of boxes that you have to fit your messaging into often when you’re trying to disseminate your sound bites or your quick headers into the media.
And in the case of climate change, which as we know is an incredibly complex, very difficult abstract concept for a lot of people to wrap their minds around, I think sometimes PR really does a disservice. As much as it is trying to get the word out, it can sometimes really just narrow the way that the climate issues get talked about.
So I wish I had an easy fix, or I could snap my fingers and say, “Do this instead of doing that,” again it’s not that easy, but I just keep talking about the importance of looking to patterns, looking to what has happened before and allowing that to inform stories. It’s often just so important to kind of understand this bigger picture and to situate whatever story you’re talking about into an existing context so you can see what’s been taking place before.
Marco Silva: I would add to that wonderful answer, just a brief point, which is when you asked me, Amy, about accusations of censorship, yes, people who often hurl abuse at me and all the colleagues who cover misinformation, they say, “What, you are trying to censor a point of view, and you wouldn’t, in fact, check a climate activist, would you?”
And the truth is, the honest answer is, of course I would. For us at the BBC, for me as a BBC journalist, I’m concerned about… my job involves correcting falsehoods. If I see a falsehood coming from whatever field, whatever actor it is, whether it is from a climate activist or a fossil fuel interest, I will address it equally. And as an example of that, I would quote perhaps a story that I did last year about climate doomism. Climate doomism is this new and emerging trend, especially visible on places like TikTok where you have younger generations, real young people who very, very passionately believe in the basic science of climate change in general, but are so worried about what we’re doing about climate change that they work themselves to a stage of defeatism and saying, “It’s a lost battle. There’s nothing we can do.”
And the science, again, taking it back to the facts, what the scientists are telling us is climate change is already happening. We’re already feeling its effects, but, and this is fundamental, it is still possible to prevent some of its worst impacts. That’s what science tells us. So again, even if the false story is coming from someone who believes and agrees with everything that climate scientists are saying, I have no problem in debunking those too.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, that’s a great point. Thank you guys. That’s it for Q&A, and I’m going to pass it back to Mark Hertsgaard. Don’t worry, there will be more of these so we can ask more questions. Okay, thank you. Oops. Mark, are you there? There he is.
Mark Hertsgaard: I’m here, but I’m waiting for my video to come.
But while I wait, let me just say a deep, deep thanks from all of us at Covering Climate Now, to Amy of course, who is our long time, very esteemed colleague, so thrilled to have you playing the moderator role today. And to Melissa, Jennie and Marco, it was really just such a fantastic sharing of information. We’ve done a lot of these press briefings at Covering Climate Now.
I can say, honestly, I really can’t think of another one that has been of higher quality. I think everyone got a lot out of this session today. And as Amy said, don’t worry, there’s more to come. Please realize there’s a whole recording of this. There were 750 people signed up for this, about half that many showed, which is always what happens. The other half will be getting this information and you can share the recording with all of your colleagues.
One quick thought from me, having been on the climate beat for so many years about the pushback that you’re going to get when you do this kind of reporting, just remember that the people, the trolls out there, and the people who are still denying climate change, audience surveys show that that is about 9% of the total audience. They are a loud 9%. They are an angry 9%. They say nasty things to you online. But if you let that stop you from doing the reporting that we’re talking about today, you’re letting down the other 91% of the audience.
And whether you’re a commercial outlet or a nonprofit outlet, you don’t want to let that 9% tail wag the rest of the dog. You’re leaving 91 cents out of the dollar on the table. So be strong. That’s part of what we try to do here at Covering Climate Now, is to build a community of journalists on the climate beat so that you realize you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, you’re doing absolutely fundamental work.
Because we believe strongly at Covering Climate Now that more and better journalism is itself an essential climate solution. Because what that does is to arm both the public and policymakers frankly, with a knowledge of what is really going on, what information they can trust, what solutions are real solutions, what solutions are maybe not so real. And in that regard, I will close shortly by saying that please check out today’s Covering Climate Now weekly newsletter, the Climate Beat, some of the themes that we talked about today, you will find discussed there, including our dear friends at Shell who claim to be spending 12% of their capital expenditures on green energy. The real number is, you’ll be shocked to know, 1.5%.
Which is why Christiana Figueres, who was basically the power broker who made the Paris Agreement happen in 2015, she has just broken publicly with oil companies in an absolutely explosive new article in Al Jazeera that we devote the top of Covering Climate Now’s weekly newsletter to this week. So that’ll be out in about, I think, an hour’s time.
With all of that, I’ll just say thank you once again to Amy, Jennie, Melissa, Marco, and especially to all of you who are here, you are what make Covering Climate Now possible, you make us vigorous and you make us proud. So thank you very much. And for all of us at Covering Climate Now, this is Mark Hertsgaard wishing you a very pleasant day.