Climate Scientists Deserting Increasingly Hostile, Ignorant Twitter

May 25, 2023


Scientists suffering insults and mass-spam are abandoning Twitter for alternative social networks as hostile climate-change denialism surges on the platform following Elon Musk’s takeover.

Researchers have documented an explosion of hate and misinformation on Twitter since the Tesla billionaire took over in October 2022 — and now experts say communicating about climate science on the social network on which many of them rely is getting harder.

Policies aimed at curbing the deadly effects of climate change are accelerating, prompting a rise in what experts identify as organised resistance by opponents of climate reform.

Peter Gleick, a climate and water specialist with nearly 99,000 followers, announced on May 21 he would no longer post on the platform because it was amplifying racism and sexism.

While he is accustomed to “offensive, personal, ad hominem attacks, up to and including direct physical threats”, he told AFP, “in the past few months, since the takeover and changes at Twitter, the amount, vituperativeness, and intensity of abuse has skyrocketed”.

– Climate tweets decline –

Robert Rohde, a physicist and lead scientist at the non-profit environmental data analysis group Berkeley Earth, analysed activity on hundreds of accounts of widely followed specialists posting about climate science before and after the takeover.

He found climate scientists’ tweets were losing impact. The average number of likes they received was down 38 percent and average retweets fell 40 percent.

Twitter has not commented directly about what changes it has made to the algorithms that drive traffic and visibility.

Contacted at its email address for comment, its press department returned its now customary reply, an automated email with a “poop” emoji.

But in a tweet seen as an acknowledgement of a deliberate change, Musk wrote in January: “People on the right should see more ‘left-wing’ stuff and people on the left should see more ‘right-wing’ stuff. But you can just block it if you want to stay in an echo chamber.”

Below, Katharine Hayhoe in 2012. Things have only gotten more automated since then.


Climate denial bots –

In another analysis, prominent climatologist Katharine Hayhoe monitored responses to a tweet on climate change which she published twice, as an experiment, on separate dates before and after the takeover.

She counted the hostile comments and examined them for signs that they came from bots -– automated accounts that researchers say are pushing mass misinformation.

Inauthentic accounts can be identified by analysis tools such as Bot Sentinel.

Replies from apparent trolls or bots increased 15 to 30 times over a two-month period compared to the previous two years, Hayhoe tweeted in January 2023.

“Before October, my account was growing steadily at a rate of at least several thousand new followers a month. Since then, it has not changed,” she told AFP.

– Scientists leaving Twitter –

Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said he was moving most of his climate communication to Substack, a newsletter platform.

“Climate communications on Twitter are less useful (now) given that I can see that my tweets are getting less engagement,” he said.

“In response to almost any tweet concerning climate change, I find my notifications inundated with replies from verified accounts making misleading or misguided claims.”

Others have abandoned Twitter altogether.

Hayhoe said that of a Twitter list of 3,000 climate scientists that she keeps, 100 disappeared after the takeover.

Glaciologist Ruth Mottram had more than 10,000 followers on Twitter but left in February and joined an alternative scientists’ forum powered by Mastodon -– a crowdfunded, decentralised grouping of social networks founded in 2016.

“It’s really been a revelation in many ways. It’s a much quieter and more thoughtful platform,” she told AFP.

On Mastodon, “I haven’t had any abuse at all or even people questioning climate change. I think we’d become far too used to it on Twitter… I had blocked loads of accounts over on the birdsite (Twitter),” she said.

– ‘Organised’ campaign –

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular target for abuse by deniers of climate change, said he believed the rise in misinformation was “organised and orchestrated” by opponents of climate reforms.

“I’ve seen a huge rise in trolls and bots. Many target tweets of mine for attack,” he said.

Mann’s 2021 book “The New Climate War” documented action by oil producers to sow climate denialism on social media.

“The professional trolls manipulate the online environment with strategic posts that generate conflict and division, leading to a feeding frenzy,” he told AFP.


Among the changes potentially driven by Musk’s effort to tear down barriers that once prohibited figures like former President Donald Trump from spreading election lies are a rise in the popularity of tweets that claim climate change is a scam. Some recent posts have earned 40,000 likes. 

Marc Morano, who runs a blog that routinely attacks climate science, said that since Musk bought Twitter the appearance of his name in climate search results “appear to be juiced by the new algorithms.” 

“My Twitter account and many others opposing the ‘consensus’ climate view have all increased visibility dramatically since Musk took over Twitter,” he said in an interview. “Whatever Musk is altering, I hope he keeps it up.”

Indeed, the number of tweets rejecting climate science have never been higher than in 2022, according to research by the University of London conducted on behalf of The Times newspaper. There have been more than 850,000 climate denial tweets or retweets so far this year. There were 650,000 such messages in 2021 and 220,000 in 2020, the analysis found.

Musk has said he will sell the blue check marks that Twitter uses to verify account holders to anyone who pays $8 a month. Users who pay the fee will see their posts “rocket to the top of replies, mentions and search,” according to Twitter. That could also mean that scientists who refuse to pay the monthly fee could see their posts lose visibility. 

Climate misinformation has long been present on Twitter. But the proposed blue check mark policy could make the social media platform a larger clearinghouse for climate denialism, experts say.

Tweets that misinform the public about climate change can increase interactions on Twitter by generating controversy, said Michelle Amazeen, director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University and an expert on climate disinformation and social media.

“Twitter wasn’t designed to provide accurate info. Twitter is designed to maximize people’s attention and engagement. And how do you do that? You surface sensational, emotionally evocative content rather than surface deliberative rational information,” she said. “That’s not sexy, it’s all about the architecture.”


2 Responses to “Climate Scientists Deserting Increasingly Hostile, Ignorant Twitter”

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    “Twitter wasn’t designed to provide accurate info. Twitter is designed to maximize people’s attention and engagement. And how do you do that? You surface sensational, emotionally evocative content rather than surface deliberative rational information,” she said.

    Exactly. That was obvious to me from the very beginning. Moreover, I cannot understand why ANYONE would go looking for INFORMATION on so-called “social media”.

  2. ubrew12 Says:

    Fox News may be a black hole of accurate information, but one thing is undeniable: the format is profitable. The rubes are emotionally engaged and enraged, and susceptible to advertisements. At the other end, I have to believe industry groups, like Fossil Fuels, show their gratitude for the misinformation in a thousand little ways that add up to big bucks.

    If Musk is turning Twitter into online Fox, it may be in pursuit of the same business model.

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