A quarter of all tweets about the climate crisis are written by bots, and the majority of computer-generated posts on the issue are geared to deny climate science.
The troubling finding comes by way of a yet-to-be-published study from Brown University that was obtained by The Guardian. “These findings suggest a substantial impact of mechanized bots in amplifying denialist messages about climate change, including support for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement,” the study reads.
Researchers examined 6.5 million tweets posted in the period surrounding President Trump’s 2017 announcement that he planned to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. They found that nearly 40 percent of tweets about “fake science” were generated by bots, while only five percent of tweets supporting climate action were artificial. Researchers were not able to ascertain the source of the computer-generated tweets.
“More often than not, they turn out to have all the fingerprints of bots,” Stephan Lewandowsky, an academic at the University of Bristol, told The Guardian of climate-related messaging on Twitter. “The more denialist trolls are out there, the more likely people will think that there is a diversity of opinion and hence will weaken their support for climate science.”
“In terms of influence, I personally am convinced that they do make a difference,” he added, “although this can be hard to quantify.”
Disinformation is a growing problem on social media, and both Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the spread of deliberately false messaging. Though Facebook has openly condoned the Trump campaign’s ability to lie in its advertising on the platform, Twitter at least seems be making an effort to tamp down the influence of bad actors.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that Twitter is considering implementing a community-based points system that would flag certain types of disinformation. From NBC News:
“Disinformation or misleading information posted by public figures would be corrected directly beneath a tweet by fact-checkers and journalists who are verified on the platform and possibly by other users who would participate in a new ‘community reports’ feature, which the demo claims is ‘like Wikipedia.’ “
Bots, which can post and retweet autonomously, are super-difficult to manage, and as The Guardian notes, Twitter does not prohibit the dissemination of climate science denialism. This means it’s up to Twitter users to keep in mind that any backlash to climate action they may be noticing on the platform is largely, as Trump might put it, a hoax.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that Stephan Lewandowsky co-authored the Brown University study. Lewandowsky co-authored separate research published in 2019.