Why an attempt to gamergate Australian climate journalism fell flat

If you missed gamergate, that’s nice, but you also really need to know about it. Here’s a summary: around 2014, a bunch of gamers got extremely mad at women who are journalists, because they’re women. They pretended it was about their journalism, but it was about their womanness.

That sparked an entire  movement, in which crowds of young men mobbed women on social media platforms for perceived slights. It played into ‘mens rights’ and ‘pick up artist’ cultures and created a collection of rapid-rise stars who fell just as fast. “I can’t wait for vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight”, said ex-gamergate and now-failed grifter Milo Yiannopoulos.

Gamergate was a moment in which something important was realised: social media is a powerful tool for targeting and tainting journalists. The reasons for the mobbing don’t need to make sense; as long as the ugly sentiment is there, and held by very large numbers of angry young dudes.

It still happens. Only a few days ago, leaked recordings revealed that rich white silicon valley guys had discussed journalists having too much power, and mobbed one who criticised a suitcase company. Elon Musk has a long history of sic’ing his cultish followers on journalists critical of him – he once threatened to create a database of journalists and assign ‘scores’ to them based on the ‘accuracy’ of their reporting.

It ties in very much with Trump’s attacks on journalists, and subsequently, attacks on journalists. That has manifested as  140 physical attacks during Black Lives Matter protests since late May by police. Trump has played a specific role in painting targets on their backs.

53622890_401
The first of many times American police forces targeted journalists.

In the past week, there’s been an attempt to recreate the same seething hatred for journalists; tagging them with some attribute that’s sufficiently loathsome and spreading the message on social media. Unlike gamergate, this attempt fell mercifully flat.

It’s about ethics in climate journalism

Michael Shellenberger is an ex-environmentalist in the same way The Simpsons is ex-funny. It wasn’t really that they changed; it was that the world changed around them while they stayed the same.

Old-school conservationists who cared about trees and rivers find themselves in a carbon and climate obsessed world, and often, they hate that. He hails from a pedigree of climate delay guys, like Bjorn Lomborg (whose amusingly-timed book that seems to say almost exactly the same thing is coming out in a few weeks). Luke-warmism and predatory climate delay have their own fleet of ageing rock stars.

Much of Shellenberger’s work is billed as nuclear power advocacy, but his style and his approach have created a widening rift between himself and other nuclear power advocates. It started off well. Shellenberger and a guy named Ted founded ‘The Breakthrough Institute’ in the mid 2000s, co-wrote the ‘ecomodernist manifesto’ in the mid 2010s. Eco-modernism was an attempt to reframe nuclear power advocacy as explicitly environmentalist, attracting both conservative and progressive voices and bringing everyone together into a nice melting pot of centrism. He probably won’t co-do anything in the 2020s, because he’s fallen out with many of those co-authors and co-founders.

He has a new book out, called ‘Apocalypse Never’. On the cover, two healthy, happy polar bears smooch (a searing counter to…..climate activism from 2009, I guess?). As part of his book promotions, he’s featured heavily in Australian conservative, News Corp climate-skeptic media. Like – a lot.

The city papers headlines:

  • Daily Telegraph – “I APOLOGISE’: A CLIMATE ALARMIST REPENTS IN AN ARTICLE”
  • Daily Telegraph – “SORRY FOR THE SCARE CAMPAIGN, THE PLANET IS FINE”
  • Daily Telegraph – “GREEN ENERGY CLAIMS ARE NOTHING BUT HOT AIR”
  • Herald Sun – “‘I APOLOGISE’: A CLIMATE ALARMIST REPENTS IN AN ARTICLE” (a different piece to the Daily Tele’s one)

The Australian’s headlines:

  • “Michael Shellenberger book Apocalypse Never exposes environmental activists”
  • ‘Apocalyptic activists want to establish new religion’: Michael Shellenberger
  • “Sorry, but I cried wolf on climate change. On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I’d like to formally apologise for the climate scare we created”
  • “Shellenberger risks all to call out climate alarmism”
  • “Every MP should get a copy of this book”
  • “The perils of crying wolf”
  • “Damn lies and climate stats. We have far greater control over our environment than the apocalyptic news media suggest”
  • “Last Post, July 2” (an entire letters page)
  • “Stoking fear a fool’s game in climate change reporting”
  • “Environmental convert Michael Shellenberger turns the tables”

Sky News Australia:

  • Part 1 of a ten minute interview with Chris Kenny
  • Part 2 of a ten minute interview with Chris Kenny (both syndicated across all News Corp platforms)
  • An appearance on ‘Outsiders’ on Sunday the 5th of July, with host Rowan Dean (he who invited a ‘business astrologer‘ to talk about climate change).

This make sense. Sky News Australia was in fact partially inspired by the old-school ultra-denier Lord Monckton, who was once recorded suggesting the establishment of an “Australian Fox News“.

 

His original promotional op-ed, which was deleted from Forbes because it didn’t meet their editorial standards, was happily published in the Oz without the slightest friction coefficient. A big platform from conservative Australian media, smooth as silk.

When journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald, owned by the Nine News Network and The Guardian, reached out to Shellenberger with questions about his book and some potential conflicts of interest, he got truly mad, posting a long, outraged thread. He alleged they’d both breached “Code of Ethics of the British Nation Union and the Australian Press Council”, because…they were asking questions about his affiliations and interests? It was very confusing and very hard to figure out what the actual problem was, but there was certainly a lot of let-me-speak-to-your-manager and outrage.

Here’s the important part: Shellenberger marks journalists and media outlets with an agenda:

 

Thread1

And this:

Thread2

It’s pretty damn silly, of course. Shellenberger appeared three times on Sky News Australia, a News Corp outlet that relies heavily on major advertising dollars from several key fossil fuel companies and lobby groups; eg Hancock Prospecting and the federal and NSW Minerals Council. He wrote or featured in ten articles in The Australian, which regularly places full page advertisements from the coal lobby. In fact, the only media outlet in Australia to explicitly ban fossil fuel ads is The Guardian.

Amusingly, when the Guardian eventually published its story, it ended up being about a range of people associated with Shellenberger’s Environmental Progress organisation slowly stepping back from their associations with him, and his intensifying fight against “alarmism”. One senior scientific advisor is re-considering whether he even stays in his position.

But in responding to that story, Shellenberger does the same thing again – adding a label to the journalists, and framing them as ideologically-fervent enemies:

 

Thread3

And:

Thread4

It’s apparently a constant theme running throughout his book – ‘activist journalists’ – and he’s clear in his interviews that this is a central theme of his advocacy. “Have you
considered defamation action?” asks host Rita Panahi during the “outsiders” interview. “We are taking all appropriate measures legal and otherwise to make sure that they don’t succeed in their character assassination,” Shellenberger replies. “By being aggressive out there, by exposing their libellous emails and accusations, I found that there’s actually a huge amount of people that don’t like cancel culture”.

He mentions it in an interview with the Heartland Institute too (a US based free market think tank that once opposed tobacco regulation and now works to oppose climate action, directly funded by large fossil fuel companies).

“The social media environment is game changing. You know, whatever, I’m not bragging, but I have like four times more followers than most of those New York Times climate catastrophe reporters”, he says. Surrounded by friends, he’e explicit about the goal: “Climate needs to have its importance diminished. It’s not the most important environmental problem in the world” (later, the hosts chuckle together about “Greta Thunderdome” and ‘red pilling leftists’ with Shellenberger’s new book).

Responding to even the mildest questioning with white-hot outrage is meant to scare off critics and provide even more content for those conservative outlets hungry for new slap fights in the culture war. It is meant to shine a spotlight onto individual journalists, signalling the hordes to bring swift social media punishment down on those not following the cultish credulity of conservative media.

Except, it fell flat. Save for the Trump/MAGA crowd wildly retweeting his threads about journalistic malpractice, it had near-zero impact.

 

This is why it isn’t working

Back in the early 2010s, fossil fuel lobbyists began to understand the value in attacking  scientists instead of attacking science. Emails were hacked (‘climategate‘), patience was broken and many of those scientists grew permanently wary and embittered. This was the point: to distract them from doing actual science. Gamergate was the same: create an incredible and emotionally intense wall of noise that halts the normal process of that professional and fill every space they exist in with dread. You won’t disprove their points, but you will stop them from functioning normally as a human being. It’s cruel, and it works.

For both old-school climate denial and the misogyny of gamergate, these worked due to the sheer size and scale of the mob. There are millions of deniers, and millions of sexists (plenty of overlap, of course). This big mob feels their feelings extremely strongly, too. These are targeted passions, simple in their cruelty.

Shellenberger is many things, but he’s not a climate change denier. He says climate doesn’t worsen natural disasters, and that its impacts will be minimal, but he doesn’t deny the basic science. He is to the right of his co-creation, eco-modernism, which was an attempt to create a centrist cluster within climate and energy debates. But he’s moved away from that centre; yet he’s still far from the far right worlds of haywire denalism where Malcolm Roberts and Andrew Bolt dwell.

He’s getting closer, though, and in doing so, he has alienated many progressive nuclear advocates. He left his co-founded Breakthrough Institute, on bad terms. His frenzy of book publicity has seen many nuclear advocates explicitly disavow any connection with him.

 

This has irked him, as he explains in an interview with the author of the book ‘THE MORAL CASE FOR FOSSIL FUELS’:

“It’s been hard. I basically had to separate two separate losses of friends and donors. One was on first just embracing nuclear and the second has just been being like ‘we don’t need renewables and why are we lying about this anyway’.

It’s those pro-nuclear progressives who want to maintain the coalition with the radical left that’s anti-nuclear and pro renewables. I think they have a case of battered wife syndrome”

Not having friends isn’t a good place to start if you want to summon a wildly passionate mob attack on journalists you draw targets on. Elon Musk has a lot of friends. Jordan Peterson has a lot of friends. Milo Yiannopolous had a lot of friends.

You also need to tap into a widespread and rising sentiment, but everywhere in the world, there is high and still-rising acceptance of the urgency of climate action, not less. This has survived COVID19, in both the US and Australia.

Shellenberger is resurrecting the old tactics of far-right movements right when one survey found that COVID19  has engendered a remarkable resurgence in trust in media, in Australia. Australia has a greater tri-partisan spread of trust in media, whereas American Republicans are easily taken by the devious-journalist narrative (Shellenberger’s targets, the SMH and The Guardian, are the two most-trusted outlets in Australia according to that survey).

reubs
source – “The sharp differences between Australia and the US in levels of trust in the mainstream media, and between Democrat and Republican supporters, is not surprising given that President Donald Trump has spent most of his presidency weaponising the term “fake news” to delegitimise mainstream news media”

That survey and one other are particularly telling, in that they reveal Sky News Australia, which gave Shellenberger a huge platform, has the second lowest level of support for climate action  (and, interestingly, the second highest level of opposition to lockdowns):

Survey1

 

 

 

survey2
Interestingly, The Oz actually fares pretty well in this survey….Sky News does not.

One important characteristic of this media-driven climate delay is that it ran out of ideas nearly a decade ago. As a movement that attacks climate action, this is its weakness. It stays the same, while the world marches on. Adherents hold their ground, clutching to old-school methods while others march on into the present and the future, evolving as times change. It’s something to savour, at least, that these days they fail by default.

The exception, of course, is the actual fossil fuel industry, which pays PR and marketing firms millions to think about slowing down climate action in the most nefarious possible ways, updated every single month. Those people are scary, adaptive and very modern. They’re very good at capturing political parties, they’re very good at pretending to invest in zero emissions solutions, and they’re very good at creating climate plans that look ambitious but truly suck. They’re a threat. The freelance climate delay guys selling books to Fox News viewers? Their time in the sun has passed.

 

  1. “When journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald, owned by the Nine News Network and The Guardian, reached out to Shellenberger”

    I believe the SMH is owned by Nine alone. The Guardian has no ownership of the SMH. You need to move the comma from after ‘Guardian’ to after ‘Network’.

    Like

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