Research Identifies Origins of Climate Misinformation Crisis: Fossil Fuel Companies

Across the world, scientists agree: energy emissions affect climate. And yet despite that broad consensus, the topic of climate change has become one rife with dispute. According to a significant BU research effort led in part by Professor Irena Vodenska, this is no accident, but rather the direct consequence of false claims and misleading information promoted en masse by the very stakeholders responsible for the pending global disaster, intended to cloud the issue and sow discord.

During a “Taking on Climate Lies” symposium recently held at BU’s Center for Computing & Data Sciences (CDS), Professor Vodenska, Associate Professor of Emerging Media Studies Chris Wells, of the College of Communication, and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Sarah Finnie Robinson presented the findings of their year-long research endeavor, “Data and Misinformation in an Era of Sustainability and Climate Change Crisis,” which was designated as one of the year’s Focused Research Programs by the Hariri Institute for Computing and Institute for Sustainable Energy.

The team tackled the nature, origins, spread, and impact of misinformation and disinformation as it relates to climate change, identifying potential remedies as well. And while a significant amount of the research focused on the role social media has played in today’s climate discourse, as Dr. Vodenska explained, the origins of misinformation related to climate began long before those platforms emerged.

There’s little disputing that modern technology and communications platforms have accelerated and amplified the prevalence of misinformation. But what Professor Vodenska pointed out is that when it comes to misinformation, the first responsible party was fossil fuel companies, who decades ago began to flood the public arena with specious science that directly contradicted the findings of their own in-house scientists, who had come to understand the negative impact their product had on global climate stability.

Today, Vodenska said, spreading misleading information online via popular social media platforms is an explicit element of coordinated corporate strategies. After analyzing more than 22,000 Tweets that advanced misleading climate information, her team identified 60 different accounts that were funded and backed by oil titan Exxon. They also crunched the data on climate-dedicated Reddit community discussions, dating back to 2008.

Vodenska’s research found that there were two primary messages being propagated by the climate-denying accounts: first, that climate change is a nonthreat; second, that the Biden Administration’s energy policy was to the detriment of economic growth.

While the focus of this research is the impact of misinformation campaigns on redressing climate matters, its leaders hope that the issues and solutions they identify can be of aid to combatting other methods of malign confusion.

“Climate change should not be a political issue,” Vodenska, MET’s chair of Administrative Sciences and director of finance programs, including the Master of Science in Financial Management, told The Brink. “It’s an issue that impacts the place we all live, whether you’re Democrat or Republican.”

Read more at The Brink.