Guest post: How climate change misinformation spreads online

The rapid rise of social media over the past two decades has brought with it a surge in misinformation. 

Online debates on topics such as vaccinations , presidential elections (pdf) and the coronavirus pandemic are often as vociferous as they are laced with misleading information. 

Perhaps more than any other topic, climate change has been subject to the organised spread of spurious information. This circulates online and frequently ends up being discussed in established media or by people in the public eye. 

But what is climate change misinformation? Who is involved? How does it spread and why does it matter? 

In a new paper, published in WIREs Climate Change , we explore the actors behind online misinformation and why social networks are such fertile ground for misinformation to spread.

What is climate change misinformation?

We define misinformation as “misleading information that is created and spread, regardless of whether there is intent to deceive”. It differs in a subtle, but important, way from “disinformation”, which is “misleading information that is created and spread with intent to deceive”.

Hierarchy of information (green), misinformation (yellow) and disinformation (red). Credit: Treen et al. ( 2020 ) In the context of climate change research, misinformation may be seen in the types of behaviour and information which cast doubt on well-supported theories, or in those which attempt to discredit climate science. 

These may be more commonly described as climate “scepticism”, “contrarianism” or “denialism”.

In a similar way, climate alarmism may also be construed as misinformation, as recent online debates have discussed . This includes making exaggerated claims about climate change that are not supported by the scientific literature. There is a negligible amount of literature about climate alarmism compared to climate scepticism, suggesting it is significantly less prevalent. As such, the focus for this article is on climate scepticism.

Who is involved?

Our review of the scientific literature suggests there are several different groups of actors involved in funding, creating and spreading climate misinformation.

A schematic illustration of the climate change misinformation network. It shows the actors (purple) and producers (orange), as well as the echo chambers among influencers (blue) and the public (green). Credit: Treen et al. ( 2020 ) Our findings, shown in the graphic above, highlight that the misinformation network begins with funding supplied by corporate and philanthropic actors (see purple sections) with a vested interest in climate change – particularly in fossil fuels.

This money goes to a range of groups involved in producing misinformation (orange). These groups – referred to variously as the “ climate change denial machine ” and “ organised disinformation...