A climate for mis- and disinformation in Australia - First Draft
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Climate images of floods and bushfire

Image: First Draft Montage / Photography: Unsplash (Karsten Winegeart), Unsplash (Kelly Sikkema)

A climate for mis- and disinformation in Australia

A summary of climate-related online narratives in the lead up to Australia’s 2022 federal election and the rise of weather-related conspiracy theories in the years prior.

By Anne Kruger, Julia Bergin, Esther Chan and Stevie Zhang

Introduction

Climate denialism is not a new phenomenon, but with extreme weather events becoming the “new normal”, these crises and their causes are increasingly being used to push climate mis- and disinformation. Australia’s catastrophic bushfires in 2019-2020 and the 2022 flooding have caught global headlines, however, in the lead up to the May 21 Australian federal election, both major parties, Liberal and Labor, campaigned lightly on climate policies.

Labor eventually won the election and secured a majority win against the Liberal-National (LNP) Coalition. However, a “tectonic shift” towards the Greens and a band of independents known as the “teals”, who campaigned on the climate crisis, was striking. The Guardian reported that “a record one in three Australians voting for minor parties or independents” took place in what was dubbed a “greenslide” and a “teal bath”.

This report begins with a summary of climate-related online narratives in the leadup to the 2022 Australian election, demonstrating how extreme weather events fuelled conspiracy theories about the weather and against the government. Also outlined here are context from events just prior to the pandemic, as well as mainstream and online reactions to climate change protests. As a result, this article helps track the growth of environment-related conspiracy theories in Australia and can be used as a blueprint for other countries.

A comparison of climate misinformation circulating online in the leadup to the 2022 election with pre-pandemic climate-related narratives shows while conspiracy theories did emerge in the 2019-2020 bushfires, the 2022 floodings saw an uptick in the localisation of international narratives. Examples are given to illustrate how weather events are particularly susceptible to misleading, or false interpretation. This can then easily be picked up and turned into disinformation, which can in turn be shared by audiences who may unwittingly believe this to be true — creating a cycle of Information Disorder.

Climate change is a topic vulnerable to misperception, misinterpretation, as well as mis- and disinformation. Problems such as “false equivalence” in reporting are outlined, but at the same time strong solutions are provided that show how journalists and communications professionals can help audiences recognize tactics of disinformation in order to empower citizens. The report explains how to take a pre-emptive approach when reporting on weather events to develop proactive ‘prebunking’ rather than a reliance on reactive ‘debunking’. This approach is also useful to inform policy makers and public communications professionals.

 

Campaign or scare campaign?

The LNP Coalition opened their term in office with a horrific bushfire season and concluded with devastating floods across southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales (NSW). These natural disasters were a grim testament to the innumerable reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned the scale and frequency of natural disasters would only intensify. As the 2022 election drew near, the Coalition rolled out a series of scare campaigns on issues that included carbon taxes, electricity price hikes, and industries that would be left out cold should Australia commit to capping heat under a Labor (and what they termed a ‘default Greens’) government. Meanwhile, Labor launched a series of online ads, seen here, here and here, stating that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for then Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and his “climate change denial”. Many of the “teal” independents received some campaign funding from a group called Climate 200, established by clean tech investor and philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court. However, they were heavily targeted — not so much for their climate credentials — but as “fake” Independents or Greens in “hiding”.

 

Climate of conspiracies: opening the floodgates for misinformation

Climate denialist narratives old and new emerged throughout the campaign, which included unverified claims that linked extreme weather events to the so-called globalist agendas, purported plans by domestic governments to land grab, vaccination conspiracy theories, as well as narratives about voter fraud. Meanwhile, a national conversation about action on climate change mitigation and prevention was reignited by unprecedented mass flooding events. At the same time, conspiracy theories quickly resurfaced on social media and other online forums.

Flash flooding on election day made it difficult for voters in parts of northern NSW to access polling booths. People took to Twitter to voice their frustration, and in some cases accused the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) of blocking the right to vote. Falsehoods often start with a kernel of truth. In this case climate events did have an immediate impact on voters, but they were not orchestrated by the AEC. The Commission explained, “There comes a point with a manual, in-person event to the scale and complexity of a federal election where people’s circumstances may prevent them from voting.”

Misleading narratives can spread on social media to an extent that can hinder people’s access to emergency information and assistance. New South Wales State Emergency Service (NSW SES) rely heavily on their social media accounts to distribute alerts, including urgent advice like evacuation orders issued during the March 2022 flooding. Anti-vaccination groups and individuals were, however, more interested in drawing attention to the requirement that all volunteers must be fully vaccinated. Posts on Facebook and Telegram were littered with comments and complaints that mandates were to blame for a perceived lack of resources for flood-stricken areas. Deputy Unit Commander of Wyong SES Tim Keown clarified that vaccination requirements were “solely a health issue” and online criticism was “interfering with our ability to maintain this page and get messages about urgent matters.”

 

Flying under the radar: misinformation through visuals

The increasing intensity and frequency of wild weather events prompted the conspiracy community to misreference Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) rain radar maps in an attempt to substantiate (unsubstantiated) narratives about manipulated weather and government agendas. During the 2022 flooding, a moving trough or a simple system glitch led to rhetoric ranging from climate denialism to false claims that extreme weather was being beamed into target locations by the Australian government as a means to grab land and force communities out of rural settlements. The perceived lack of government support in flood-affected regions had also fed false narratives that communities were being deliberately neglected as part of a broader agenda.

Collage of three overlaid climate change misinformation

Screenshot by First Draft of climate change misinformation

Unverified claims stated that “geoengineered floods” and “beamed energy bushfires” (see below) are “no accident”, while an anti-vaccine activist asked her tens of thousands Instagram followers if it was a simple “coincidence that the region with the most free-thinkers in NSW has been almost completely wiped out with the biggest floods in history”. The purported “weather manipulation” was linked to food shortages in some flooding zones, pandemic measures, as well as “lethal sprays, rubber bullets, foreign mercenaries” — all said to be part of a mechanism to depopulate and allow the government to fulfil the UN-led global plot known as “Agenda 21” or “Agenda 2030” under the guise of climate change. Some conspiracy groups also likened the conflict in Ukraine to the ‘rain bombs’ in Australia declaring World War III to have arrived here.

 

A downpour of man-made narratives

Flight tracking apps have been misused in a similar way as meteorological maps, with Telegram groups citing abnormal activity as evidence of weather manipulation and cloud seeding, a technology that has been around for decades. These posts believed bushfires and floods were artificially created and questioned why populations were forced to endure drought if weather modification is possible. Data from flight tracking website Flightradar24 explains certain flight tracking patterns, such as those in parallel lines, is a standard aerial surveillance mission likely conducted by “large online mapping services like Google Maps and Bing or for more specialized purposes like agricultural inspection or real estate development.” Evidence aside, a 6000-strong Telegram poll conducted in a conspiracy-prone group found that a majority of respondents believed “weather engineering, cloud seeding or weather modification technology was used to cause or increase the flooding in the norther [sic] rivers”.

These messages and posts are shared to other Telegram groups with tens of thousands of subscribers, with the posts themselves receiving just as much engagement.

Homegrown narratives spread overseas

Climate denial commentary on mainstream media channels (including television, radio and online) is regularly re-posted to the channels’ social media sites. This agitates high volumes of online comments. The messages and rhetoric are further spread when noted by ‘supporter’ groups on social media locally, and can be recycled on the platforms of prominent pundits elsewhere in the world.

Inaccurate information about Australia’s environment, agriculture and vaccination policies have been amplified to the world in this fashion by some US figures in the past. For instance, US show host Joe Rogan shared a false claim in a May 2022 episode of his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience that “they were trying to pass a bill that would outlaw you growing your own food in Australia.” Similar false claims about Victoria’s Agriculture Legislative Amendment Bill 2022 had been shared on social media in the week prior to Rogan’s comments. This had been debunked by Agriculture Victoria: “The amendments will not result in the destruction of crops, nor will they prevent people growing their own food. Information circulating online misinterprets and misrepresents amendments in the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill.” Rogan’s remarks have an outsized influence globally as his show consistently tops Spotify’s podcast chart in multiple countries, including Australia, the US and UK.

Another perhaps more harmful example of homegrown disinformation being promoted around the world involved videos purportedly from Indigenous community leaders about vaccination in the Northern Territory (NT) and US right-wing personality Stew Peters. Videos from November 2021 featured Aboriginal elders who claimed the government was physically forcing vaccination on Aboriginal people. Claims were made specifically about the Binjari, Rockhole and Katherine communities which were at the time in lockdown, but had been refuted by NT authorities, the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), the Wurli-Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service in Katherine, as well as local residents. Despite the clarifications, the damaging claims had been spread further overseas by Peters, who discussed the videos in a segment titled in part “Aboriginals HUNTED BY MILITARY, Kids JABBED BY FORCE”. Peters has shared in the past disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines and conspiracy theories over the antiviral drug remdesivir and Covid deaths.

 

Prior to the pandemic

Hyperpartisan divisions and protests

Hyperpartisan climate denial and divisions in Australia were evident on social media during the 2019 wave of climate protest strikes and direct action. Some of these politically-driven claims about the climate crisis also included false and/or misleading claims as well as personal attacks. Founder of the climate strike movement ‘Fridays for Future’, Greta Thunberg, was the subject of international mockery and disinformation. Not only was a similar trend against Thunberg observed in Australia, but ordinary, everyday protesters advocating for more rigorous climate policies were also targeted. Themes used to negatively characterise Thunberg were applied to protesters young and old. Social media posts denouncing the climate protests included the hashtags #ClimateCon #ClimateFraud #ClimateHysteria and #ClimateCult. Comments discredited the protesters as being “paid” or belonging to a “cult”. Similar comments were made on memes posted by then Liberal MP Craig Kelly. Older, as well as more radical participants were portrayed by then Nationals MP George Christensen as bludgers. Meanwhile, the fraught political debate on climate change in Australia and the government’s response to “indulgent” environmental groups during the protests captured global headlines.

The reaction in Australia to Thunberg’s September 2019 speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, where she condemned international responses to climate change, was punctuated by outrage over high profile figures such as columnist Andrew Bolt. Bolt wrote in a blog for the Melbourne newspaper Herald Sun that Thunberg was a “deeply disturbed messiah” — comments which received a response from Thunberg herself. An unofficial Facebook fan page for former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott with over 36,000 followers at the time shared an image on September 26, 2019, of a Hitler Youth member as an attempt to compare likeness with Greta Thuberg. The same page also refered to the Sydney Climate Strikers who marched in September 2019 as “reminscient of Hitler’s Nazi Youth,” and as tools in the dissemination of “climate change propaganda”. Meanwhile, a post by the Facebook page NSW Patriots Against the Extreme Left demanded the firing of “all Teachers [sic] and Professors [sic] who pushed communism & climate change ‘scam’ onto kids. In this vein a number of other pages also shared negative media commentary about the student protesters.

The Australian Youth Coal Committee shared an image falsely claiming to be of rubbish protesters had left behind in Sydney’s Hyde Park. The post was shared at least 36,000 times as of September 2019, however, visual verification found the photo was not taken in Sydney, but rather showed rubbish at London’s Hyde Park. Additionally, the piles of rubbish were the aftermath of an unrelated marijuana legalisation rally back in April 2019, which coincidentally had been falsely blamed on climate activist group Extinction Rebellion at the time.

One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson previously shared on her Please Explain Facebook page a photo with the hashtag #auspol, of rubbish supposedly left by local climate protesters in Brisbane in March 2019. A reverse image search revealed that the photo was — like the Hyde Park image — originally taken in London. First Draft used Google Maps’ geolocation tools to ascertain that the photo was taken in London’s Parliament Square Garden.

Bushfires: an information disorder treasure trove

Weather and environmental events are quickly susceptible to mis- and disinformation. This has the capacity to not only stop quality information flow about the environment, but can also be potentially dangerous during an emergency. After Australia’s ‘summer of bushfires’ just prior to the pandemic, First Draft’s Australian Bureau provided examples of how maps and images were shared alongside misleading claims about the fires. It included a summary of advice for journalists and the public on how to avoid falling for, or even contributing to the creation and circulation of misleading maps.

Emergency services were also the subject of online misinformation. As AFP reported, false claims swirled on Facebook that yellow and orange ribbons tied to front fences as part of a gratitude campaign for firefighters confused search and rescue efforts. Social media posts alleged that NSW first responders used these ribbons as a mechanism to locate persons in distress and mark fire hydrants. While that particular claim was false, different states across Australia do use ribbons and similar markers to track potential hazards. This example demonstrates how heightened confusion during times of crisis could facilitate the spread of misinformation.

Arson misinformation and disinformation feeds climate denialism

As well as misinformation, the bushfires were prone to disinformation. Timothy Graham and Tobias Keller from the Queensland University of Technology studied 300 Twitter accounts driving the #arsonemergency hashtag and found that it was rife with “inauthentic behaviour” — more so than the #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia hashtags. The inauthentic behaviour comprised both bots and trolls spreading disinformation online. It began in November 2019 when the hashtag #ClimateEmergency began trending during the first round of bushfires. The researchers documented a rise in accounts attempting to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The hashtag didn’t pick up in usage until early 2020 when the researchers found it was pushed in a sustained effort by around 300 accounts. From here, it was adopted by genuine accounts as the narrative was pushed further into mainstream conversation.

Research by First Draft found attempts by disinformation agents to link the topic of arson in Australia to anti-Islam conspiracy theories. Some theories accused Islamic State of ordering its followers to set fires in Australia as part of a jihad. Prominent international far-right anti-Islam activists and commentators further picked up and spread these messages. First Draft has provided guidelines for reporters on covering extremism and how to avoid amplification concerns. The question of a ‘fire jihad’ was amplified by an Indian news outlet, which speculated on the possibility but with no data research, and this story was syndicated and further distributed internationally. Headlines are often the only thing a person will read before making up their mind, so care needs to be taken so that important context is not missing.

Confusion over the term ‘arson’ was further exacerbated after a New South Wales Police Force media release was misconstrued by some mainstream media as explained here by public broadcaster SBS. This had the effect of amplifying misinformation. A keyword search on Google for Australia and bushfires in that same week returned headlines from Australia and internationally that focused on the ‘arson crisis’ topic. Some of these reports further pitched this to question climate change.

Vox promptly debunked this: “What the release actually says is that legal action was taken against 183 people since November 8, 2019, for fire-related offences, including things like improperly discarding cigarettes or not taking enough precautions around machinery, i.e. not arson.” The importance of corrective information was evident, as later that week, Google searches returned quality information reports that put the “arson” claims into context. However, by then, the damage was done as the false claim was amplified on the international stage. This included being referenced and recirculated by Donald Trump Jr., Fox News, as well as famous far-right figures and websites.

These news debunks were crucial, and a keyword search on Google for Australia and bushfires later that week returned these news reports (as shown in the screenshot below).

Screenshot of bushfire debunks

Screenshot by First Draft taken in January 2020

Other conspiracy theories drew on the arson theme to allege fires were deliberately lit in order to develop a high-speed rail corridor. A map of a blaze running between NSW and Queensland was cited as evidence that so-called shadowy elites were clearing land for a high-speed rail network between Brisbane and Melbourne. The conspiracy theory falsely claimed the non-existent train line was then tasked with forcing rural communities into urban centres. High profile US-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his InfoWars program pushed this theory and alleged the rail construction was financed by the communist Chinese. His program included callers who were purportedly ordinary citizens of Australia to discuss this as part of a New World Order conspiracy theory. The program had been reposted at the time on YouTube by the channel Free Focus (account now terminated) with an additional 770 views.

Fire memes were also used as a means to share disinformation as part of viral climate-denying strategies on Twitter, BitChute and Facebook pages. For example, Buzzfeed Australia noted at the time, posts “pegged to the Australian bushfires” had been among the best-performing posts on the “Climate Change LIES” Facebook page through 2019.

 

Problems and solutions

Climate change reporting has long been plagued with issues of false equivalence, likely due to a misguided attempt at objectivity by some journalists. But Australia has also seen this used widely as an editorial approach for media organisations leaning on the side of climate denialism Research has shown a “both-sidesism” approach to reporting has led to messages against climate change being given an outsized proportion of coverage. This fallacious attempt at objectivity occurs when journalists focus on balance — equality between the totals of the two or more sides of an account, rather than fairness — which is marked by impartiality and honesty, and is fair to the evidence. This has been particularly noticeable in climate change coverage, for example, upon the release of IPCC reports and UN conferences with global stakeholders.

Comedian John Oliver illustrated the problem of climate change false balance in media reporting in his 2014 episode Climate Change Debate: Last Week Tonight. He used the then established figure of 97% consensus among climate scientists (which is now above 99%) who endorsed the evidence for human-induced climate change. Oliver invited expert guest Bill Nye (known as Bill Nye the Science Guy) to go “head to head” with a climate sceptic. In this segment, “in the interest of mathematical balance”, Oliver brought in two extra people who agreed with the sceptic, and 96 other scientists who agreed with Bill Nye. The latter filled the studio space to overflowing, and thus showed the fallacy of “both-sidesism” in television and media reporting.

 

Disagreement over the climate consensus has however, also been used to spread disinformation. As explained by Vox, the famous “Oregon Petition” argued that because a large number of scientists — some 31,000 apparent signatories — rejected the hypothesis of human-caused global warming, there is no scientific consensus. However, the list contained no verification of the names and their affiliations. It included prank names, and the minimum qualification to be on the list was a Bachelor’s degree in science — not climate expertise. While this consensus questioning provided the foundation of climate mis – and disinformation, research has provided guidance on how to effectively combat this technique, as explained in the next section.

Inoculation theory

Similar to the age old advice from a doctor that ‘prevention is preferable to cure’, so too a proactive approach to preventing misinformation, or curbing its effect, is recommended as a more effective way to stop the spread. As the Australian scholar John Cook explained, psychological research known as inoculation theory “borrows from the logic of vaccines: A little bit of something bad helps you resist a full-blown case.” First Draft also explored the theory in detail in this 2021 guide: “Much like vaccines train your immune response against a virus, knowing more about misinformation can help you dismiss it when you see it.”

The Oregon Petition discussed above has remained an effective rhetorical argument and tool for disinformation. Research by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich K. H. Ecker into misinformation on climate change “found that false-balance media coverage (giving contrarian views equal voice with climate scientists) lowered perceived consensus overall, although the effect was greater among free-market supporters.”

The good news was, however, that the research by Cook et al “found that inoculating messages that (1) explain the flawed argumentation technique used in the misinformation or that (2) highlight the scientific consensus on climate change were effective in neutralizing those adverse effects of misinformation”. The research recommended “that climate communication messages should take into account ways in which scientific content can be distorted, and include pre-emptive inoculation messages.” The research also gave hope that regardless of political persuasion, “no one wants to be deceived by misleading techniques”.

This is useful research for reporters so that they not only debunk, but prebunk — as a form of inoculation. It is important for journalists to be aware of possible problematic narratives, get ahead of the curve with quality reports and make use of the findings from inoculation research to help protect the general public. Journalists should draw upon reliable and authoritative sources to assist their climate reporting, including Australian publications such as The Climate Council, Climateworks Centre and Cosmos magazine, and apply the following prebunking principles:

  • Figure out what information people need. Don’t assume that your questions are the same as your audience’s.
  • Choose your example carefully. If you can explain a tactic that is being used to manipulate, it will help build more general resilience to misinformation.
  • Wrap it in truth. Lead with the facts or a clear warning of how information is being manipulated. Remember that it is common for people simply to read a headline and move on. Use your space and words efficiently.
  • Warn your audience. Before you repeat the falsehood, warn your audience. This increases your audience’s mental resistance to misinformation.
  • Explain why something isn’t correct. This helps increase belief and arms your audience with counter-arguments they can use to debunk the misinformation the next time they see it.
  • Explain how you know what you know (and what we don’t know yet). Explanation and transparency help build trust.
  • Make them shareable. If you want your prebunk to go far, design it to be passed on. Think about which social media platforms your audience is getting its information from and how you can use those platforms to their fullest potential.

 

Conclusion and recommendations

This report began with a summary of climate-related online narratives and issues in the leadup to Australia’s 2022 federal election. There was a muted climate dialogue on the hustings from the two major parties, but in the final tally, there was a historical move towards the Greens and a band of independents known as the ‘teals’ who campaigned on the climate crisis. With meteorological catastrophes on the rise, this report illustrated how such weather events can swiftly attract a flurry of dangerous conspiracy theories which can undermine the work of climate scientists. The report included context from pre-pandemic weather events, as well as mainstream and online reactions to climate change protests. This provided a useful summary for journalists to consider not only issues of interest to voters, but a knowledge of how climate change issues can be vulnerable to mis- and disinformation. As First Draft observed throughout its coverage of the Australian election campaign, key policy issues such as climate were readily exploited by actors seeking to make political gains.

As noted in the introduction, weather events are quickly susceptible to mis- and disinformation.This has the potential to not only stop quality information flow about the environment, but can also cause harm during an emergency. Headlines are often the only thing a person will read before making up their mind, so care needs to be taken that important context is not missing. Further training and research is encouraged as a next step to equip journalists on how to inform audiences by taking a pre-emptive approach to reporting on weather events and climate issues. This includes the development of proactive ‘prebunking’ as a normal reporting process, rather than relying only on reactive ‘debunking’ reporting. Prebunks can be quick and cheap for reporters, fact checkers, governments or organisations that need to communicate important public messages. They can take the form of an online game, or simply be an article that prebunks key claims and techniques. The inoculation theory experiments by Cook et al, showed that when people who were informed about misinformation strategies or techniques prior to being shown the misinformation, then the misinformation was neutralised. Even better, the experiments — focused on climate misinformation — gave hope that regardless of political persuasion, “no one wants to be deceived by misleading techniques”.

 

Jack Berkefeld contributed to this research. 

This research is made possible with support from Meta Australia.