In September 2019, Science Alert declared that they would no longer ‘feed the climate trolls’. These trolls had a right to hold their views, but those views would not be showcased on said publication’s social media channels.
Several months later, and in the wake of the devastation wrought by the recent Australian bushfires, that article deserves revisiting. Specifically, some questions must be asked: who are the ‘climate trolls’, exactly? How do we best respond to them? Will not feeding them really do the trick?
Put simply, the term ‘climate troll’ refers to an individual who takes to the below-the-line comments sections of online publications or to social media platforms to either deny or at the very least trivialise the damage caused by climate change in its myriad forms. These interjections are designed to enrage and distress readers who hold differing opinions. This is what makes climate trolls deserving of the name, for trolling entails the posting of content with the specific aim of generating heightened, and usually adverse, reactions from those to whom that material is targeted.
Science Alert take aim at the climate trolls who had been ‘polluting’ the publication’s Facebook page with misinformation. There are of course many other examples. In January this year, climate trolls (including more than a few bots) jumped onto Twitter to blame the Australian bushfires on an ‘arson epidemic’. These conspiracy theories were posted alongside the #arsonemergency hashtag, as well as the more politically neutral #australiafire and #bushfireaustralia hashtags.
Climate trolls don’t exist in a vacuum but thrive in the context of a broader climate science denial movement. Certain members of that movement – such as coal advocacy groups – have a strong financial interest in maintaining the status quo. And, of course, this movement has the ear of the Murdoch media. The Australian op-ed branding climate change as a ‘socialist plot’ is a highlight of climate science-denying discourse Down Under.
Climate trolls also reflect a trend of publicly discrediting scientific information as elitist, ideological and downright toxic. A useful point of comparison is the anti-vaccination movement. Media scholar Mark Davis argues that anti-vaxxers are key exponents of what he terms ‘anti-public discourse’. This kind of discourse has no time for facts, much less for listening to views different to one’s own, or treating those views with anything approaching respect. Rather, anti-public discourse is antagonistic, and its key rhetorical mode is a mishmash of culture wars battle cries from the past thirty years. Davis writes:
Such discourse in general understands itself as being engaged in an ideological war, expressed through its extreme hostility to democratic processes and institutions and their managerial ‘elites’ who are regarded not as democratic adversaries but as enemies to be vanquished.
He further proposes that anti-public discourse ‘is in general intended to mislead rather than inform’. This discourse isn’t new but has flourished in the era of social media. In this era, everybody can have their voices heard in the digital public sphere and everybody can be an expert. This sounds like democracy in action, until you consider that the modus operandi of these self-appointed experts involves discrediting other, more appropriately qualified experts – including (or perhaps especially) scientists.
The ‘anti-public discourse’ described by Davis is stock in trade for climate trolls, as even a cursory glance at social media attests. For example, a recent Facebook post by non-profit organisation Climate Council received one particularly lengthy comment. It read in part:
There is much more to say about bringing sanity back into discussions and I have my own opinion that if you believe the science of global warming, stick to the science and ignore the fanatical self-professed experts, like some of the current crop of Green Party politicians and shrieking media, self-appointed, experts.
The author proceeds to label those who hold opposing viewpoints as ‘sheep’ unthinkingly following the climate change-fixated mob, and the ‘shrieking’ media commentators and politicians who have a vested interest in that movement.
They have a point. It’s every organisation’s right to set their own online community standards and to enforce those standards as they see fit. Deleting comments from a Facebook wall is not ‘censorship’, in spite of this accusation being routinely hurled by right-leaning politicians and media pundits against those who speak out against racism, homophobia and just about every other social ill.
Equally, Science Alert are correct in stating that climate trolls aren’t interested in reasoned, evidence-based debate. Nor are they interested in ethics. They are out to ‘sow dissent’ and generate ‘ideological battlegrounds’ that will rile up their enemies and distract from the issue at hand.
Case in point: the aforementioned comment on the Climate Council page provoked outraged responses from those who agreed with the substance of the original post. This outrage is understandable, as is the perceived need to counter such dangerously misleading views. Nonetheless, the subject of the actual post – that is, the relationship between climate change and the Australian bushfires – became temporarily sidelined. In such situations, Science Alert encourages its Facebook followers to tag the moderators instead and not respond. This is sensible advice, but refusing the feed the trolls won’t necessarily make them go away.
So, again: what should we do?
The answer might lie in intensifying our efforts to bring climate change and its damages to public consciousness. These include initiatives such as Climate Council and Covering Climate Now to educate the broader public about climate change what it is, the science behind it, the ways in which climate change can be addressed on a personal and collective level. These amount to what is sometimes known as prebunking or, in the words of climate change researcher John Cook – who advocates the practice – ‘refuting misinformation before it is received by recipients’. In the case of climate change, prebunking would have to include greater efforts of educating primary and high school students about climate change (which in some countries have become mandatory). The good folk at News Corp will have a field day with this – you can just hear the cries of ‘education, not indoctrination’. So let them cry: better some lurid headlines than failing to arm the public against denialism.
Ultimately, education and public awareness are more productive than sparring with sock puppets. It’s best not to give the climate trolls the discord and division they crave.
Image: ‘Follow the leaders’ by Isaac Cordal, London.