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Published April 2nd 2020

Fake News Week 2020: Exploring the Shocking Scale of Climate Change Misinformation

The top performing piece of content around climate change in the last year is from a known conspiracy site. Read on to find out more about how climate change mis- and disinformation is spreading in 2020.

Fake News Week 2020 wouldn’t be complete without exploring mis- and disinformation around climate change.

The last year has seen mass protests and devastating bushfires. We’ve also seen the debate around the climate crisis continue – it’s an incredibly divisive topic.

Let’s get into the data.

The top performing content around climate change

We’ll start with insights we found using BuzzSumo, that helps us understand which content performs best around a particular topic.

Perhaps the most shocking thing we found out was that the climate change content that got the most engagements in the last year is from a known conspiracy site called Natural News.

The article was engaged with 4.2 million times and was shared more than any of the others on our list on Facebook.

Note: Engagements are defined as shares on Twitter, comments on Facebook, posts on Reddit, and other metrics.

While Natural News has been condemned as a purveyor of fake news for a long time (Forbes 2016Fast Company 2019The Daily Beast 2020), it’s still able to generate plenty of interest across social media.

This links to something Ania Korsunska, who studies fake news from a structural perspective, shared with us in Fake News Week 2019:

“Recent research has showed that misinformation spreads far and wide, and corrections kind of limp behind, but never catch up. People never spread corrections – they’re never going to go as far as the original story.” – Ania Korsunska (read the full interview here).

No matter how many times something is debunked, it seems misinformation continues to spread faster than truth.

This is also demonstrative of the power of networks built around a particular belief. Without a strong support network, Natural News would not be able to achieve numbers like this.

The spread of questionable information on social

At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, the world was shocked by the raging Australian bushfires.

But beyond the goodwill gestures and stories of bravery was a political battle about the causes of the fires.

To simplify the debate (recognizing that there is more nuance to it than this), one side believes the primary cause of the fires to be the climate crisis which created the conditions for the devastation. The other side believes the primary cause of the fires is arson, perhaps even by climate activists looking to dial up fear around climate change.

The debate was spreading fast on social media. At one point in January, we found 23k unique authors discussing the arson vs climate change debate.

But the stats used to back up claims like this were dubious. As this article from BBC Reality Check shows, there seems to be some cherry picking and overstating going on.

Misleading stats even made their way into a UK House of Commons speech, prompting a group of scientists to write in the Guardian:

“The claim that arson is a primary cause of this season’s bushfires has been comprehensively debunked: fire officers report that the majority of blazes were started by dry lightning storms. Nevertheless, social media is awash with false claims about the role of arson, obscuring the link between climate change and bushfires”

Looking ahead

Scrolling through the mentions of this issue, we found a lot of abusive commentary.

While Covid-19 is the primary concern for the world right now, we wouldn’t be surprised if there are more fiery (and potentially nasty) exchanges both on and offline over climate change in 2020.

If you’d like to read more from Fake News Week 2020, click here to find links to all the relevant content.

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Robert Matney

Managing Director of Government Affairs

Gemma Joyce

Head of Content

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