The Twitter acquisition raises fears of mounting climate misinformation

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The Twitter logo is seen on a sign on the outside of the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California, US, October 28, 2022. - AFP
The Twitter logo is seen on a sign on the outside of the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California, US, October 28, 2022. – AFP

PARIS: Analysts have warned climate deniers looking to derail and “greenwash” companies on Twitter after Elon Musk’s power grab, as leaders press ahead with efforts to combat global warming at the COP27 summit.

The Tesla billionaire and self-proclaimed free speech advertiser has fired thousands of employees — with sustainability executives Sean Boyle and Casey Junod among those who signed off on the platform last week.

Musk promised to reduce Twitter’s content restrictions and after the acquisition announced plans to create a “content management board” to review policies.

It’s not clear what Musk really plans to do, said Naomi Oreskes, a professor. However… from the history of science at Harvard University who authored groundbreaking studies on climate disinformation.

Greenwashing means companies that mislead the public about their impact on the planet through symbolic messages and gestures.

“We may also be seeing an increase in hateful comments directed at climate scientists and climate advocates, particularly women,” Oreskes said.

After the takeover, one climate journalist tweeted that he had received death threats on the platform. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sustainability executives excluded

Researchers and activists say that despite the measures announced by social platforms, climate misinformation is thriving, undermining faith in climate change and the actions needed to address it.

Twitter and other tech giants such as Facebook and Google said they are acting to make the false claims less visible.

But the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank, said in a detailed study this year that messages aimed at “denial, deception and delay” regarding climate action were prevalent across social media.

Under Twitter’s policy prior to the acquisition, it said, “Misleading ads on Twitter that contradict the scientific consensus on climate change are prohibited.”

“We believe climate denial should not be monetized on Twitter, and this misleading advertisement should not detract from important conversations about the climate crisis,” Boyle and Junod wrote in an Earth Day Twitter post.

Both sent out two messages on November 4 with the hashtag “LoveWhereYouWorked,” indicating that they were among those laid off after Musk’s $44 million acquisition. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scientists are in danger

Misinformation aside, some specialists have warned that climate scientists themselves face threats if the moderation falters.

The upsurge in hate speech prompted Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, to respond, trying to calm concerns. He tweeted that the platform’s “core moderation capabilities are still in place.”

Twitter’s “strong commitment to content moderation hasn’t changed at all,” Musk wrote on November 4.

“I fear scientific falsehoods will find an even bigger platform on Twitter under Musk’s leadership,” said Genevieve Ginter, founder of the media activism group End Climate Silence.

“But I am most concerned that the site will begin to alienate climate scientists and advocates who are critical of right-wing views, preventing them from communicating with each other and with decision-makers in the media and government.”

Blue tick in the COP?

Among Musk’s plans is an $8 monthly fee for users to have a blue tick in their name — currently a sign of authenticity for officials, celebrities, journalists and more.

“To me, this opens the door to highly coordinated misinformation and manipulation,” said Melissa Aronchik, associate professor of communications and information at Rutgers University.

Musk said the move is meant to reduce hate speech by making it too expensive to have multiple troll accounts.

Aronczyk argued that the system would give a mark of authenticity to those willing to pay a blue-label price for advancing the agenda.

She pointed to the controversy surrounding Hill + Knowlton Strategies — a PR firm that works for major fossil fuel companies — reportedly hired by host Egypt to handle PR for the COP27 summit.

“Imagine that every Hill + Knowlton employee working at COP27 creates a network of blue check accounts to promote initiatives led by entrepreneurs at the summit. Or downplay conflicts. Or ignore protests,” Aronczyk said.

“It’s basically allowing companies to become the default mode of communication about climate change.”


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