Musk is remaking Twitter into a climate denier sanctuary
As I wrote recently here on my site, Elon Musk’s reputation as a ‘climate hero’ has been badly exaggerated. Every good thing he’s contributed to sits alongside a collection of actively counter-productive things. One of those things is killing a space that climate activists, communicators and experts used regularly – that is, Twitter. Still my core social media space, but a broken, burning one.
Musk has been more and more open about his right-wing tendencies, particularly his own transphobia and support for white supremacists, white nationalists and racists. Musk flew on a private jet to the World Cup, and sat next to right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch (who later praised Musk’s progress with Twitter – it’s all a bit amusing given the preponderance of the feeling among Tesla stans that the media is out to get them).
Since the takeover at the end of October last year, it’s been tough not to feel this ideology directly, particularly as someone who’s sunk plenty of time and effort into Twitter as a main platform for climate and energy communication.
Apart from the very obvious bad vibes, shitty replies and short tempers, there is real data to support a rise in right-wing content. Antisemitism, for instance, has flared up.
Hate speech has gotten worse because Musk’s understanding of free, healthy speech is at the level of a 12 year old in the year 2013. Content moderation has rolled back, and a whole swathe of previously-banned accounts have been unsuspended, including a bunch of really, really bad racists and white supremacists.
The gradual rebirth of climate denier Twitter
It feels like something more fundamental in site dynamic has changed – particularly around which accounts and tweets get boosted and promoted.
I recently noticed that climate deniers, or climate delayers (who argue for no or slow climate action) have had massive increases in their followings, whereas pro-climate accounts have either lost followers, or gained very few of them. Musk has himself been cosying up with climate deniers, boosting, for instance, a conspiracy theory video from Australian climate denier and member of far-right xenophobic party One Nation, Senator Malcolm Roberts. “[Musk is] doing a marvellous job of rekindling freedom of speech,” Roberts told the SMH. “That alone is worthy of high praise.”
Berlin-based researcher Travis Brown has been tracking various changes at Twitter under Musk’s rule; particularly how the roll-out of the paid service ‘Twitter Blue’ has been going (I did an ad-hoc data snapshot of climate denial among Blue accounts, and…it’s bad). Being able to pay a tiny fee to simulate trustworthiness and get boosted into prominence in both algorithmic feeds and the sorting of replies on Twitter is invaluable for climate deniers.
It is, of course, very relevant given that Musk has just announced that the only tweets appearing in the algorithmic ‘For You’ feed will be those who’ve paid to subscribe to Twitter. Musk think he’s onto a solid grift here; offering prominence to those who are so deeply shit in their speech that they’ve failed to earn it.
Another recent analysis by ISD found that “fringe climate denialist websites have gained a foothold in online conversation with thousands of daily mentions on Twitter by highly followed climate-denying actors, pundits and outlets”. They also found that “some actors identified as ‘super-spreaders’ of climate misinformation by ISD and CAAD linked to the fringe websites”, including notorious denier accounts Patrick Moore, Steve Milloy and Peter Clack
How bad is it, really?
Travis Brown has a system that collections information about Twitter accounts over time, including follower count. It’s weighted towards collecting information on conservative / right-wing networks, but out of curiosity, I messaged him to see if he could help answer a question I was pondering: are climate deniers seeing a significant increase in their Twitter platform, compared to pro-climate accounts?
So: I collected up a list of the top denier accounts using a mix of my own knowledge, responses to this tweet, and this report from the ISD (thank you Jenny King!). For pro-climate, I put myself in there, along with people who are on ‘top climate accounts to follow’ lists, and a few of my own extras (if anyone would like to repeat this analysis using an actual, real methodology for selecting accounts, particularly one that’s representative and inclusive – please, feel free – I had no time beyond this informal grab-bag of accounts). I sent it to Travis, and he sent back the follower count over time for each of those accounts.
I picked a Sep 2022 baseline because earlier than that has too many gaps, particularly for pro-climate accounts. That’s three full months before Musk’s purchase of Twitter was finalised, on October 31. Compare that baseline date to now, look at the percentage change of followers between then and the end of February, and you get this:
There is not a single denier/delay account on that list that lost followers, from September last year. Pro-climate accounts that gained followers only did so at a relatively low level, compared to the 1 to 2x growth in audience size for the deniers. Of the 26 pro-climate accounts, 13 gained no followers, or lost them. The maximum audience growth in the pro-climate list? Less than one 24th of the average audience growth for the deniers.
Though my account selection method was somewhat ad-hoc, there’s basically no denying how significantly Musk-Twitter has caused a massive audience boost for climate deniers and delayers. To some degree, this had already kicked off around mid 2022, prior to Musk’s official purchase, but whatever dials Musk turned has accelerated this phenomenon significantly. Side by side, this is what the changes look like for both groups:
There are a few noteworthy things buried in the data. As you can see above, the highest-growth denier account, Australian PeterDClack, actually had steady growth before the Musk takeover, as did ‘Wall Street Silver’, whereas the others saw a huge boost post-Musk, reiterating that there was already a shift underway even before Musk’s purchase was finalised. A fire for him to pour petrol on, which has resulted in a massive explosion.
Some are directly the result of Musk’s decisions. Public relations expert Michael Shellenberger, for instance, had his following significantly boosted after Musk got him involved in sharing information from Twitter’s internal Slack and email systems designed to embarrass and attack progressive groups. The reinstatement of Jordan Peterson has played a central role in worsening denialism (as also shown in the ISD report).
Among the ‘pro’ accounts, circumstances have masked loss. My own account saw a noticeable boost during COP27 last year, which came just after Musk’s purchase, due to a surprisingly viral thread about carbon offsets. But outside of that, I have lost followers both generally and specifically due to having to lock my account regularly to avoid rapidly worsening racist abuse on Musk-Twitter.
Greta Thunberg, for instance, has the highest growth, but that’s down to a single instance of her publicly owning misogynist Andrew Tate (who is currently in jail in Romania on charges of human trafficking). On the days outside of that, her account has seen a steady bleed of followers like most other pro-climate accounts.
To throw in a few more illustrative accounts, here are daily changes in following for prominent denier accounts, with the date of Musk’s purchase highlighted:
And here’s a collection of pro-climate accounts, highlighted with the date of Musk’s purchase:
Why deniers are thriving under Musk’s rule
What is actually going on here? As I mentioned earlier, climate denial has been somewhat ascendant in 2022 in general, thriving off growing COVID-related conspiracy networks. It is a time of bad, bad vibes. People are stressed, attention spans are short, and tempers are constantly frayed.
The change of ownership has had both direct and indirect influence in denier prominence on Twitter, accelerating this pre-existing problem. There’s been a general emboldening of the worst, most cruel right-wing accounts. There’s a spring in their step – their man is in the top job. And climate is a big focus for them.
A specific change to the algorithm to boost tweets ‘outside’ of one’s political sphere has resulted in far, far more eyeballs on right-wing content (in addition to being the core reason I get ferociously racist responses to innocuous things I post). And Twitter Blue subscriptions are helping grant legitimacy and prominence to the worst, pro-fossil deniers, as shown by journalist David Vetter. “As a platform, Twitter is now fully weaponized to undermine science, climate action and global sustainable development”, he wrote.
Some of the reason pro-climate accounts have lost followers has been people leaving Twitter. Musk has been publicly endorsing far-right and right-wing views, in addition to boosting transphobes, racists, misogynists and climate deniers for a while now, and it was very clear before the handover in October 2022 what impact Musk would have. Others left out of principle, or directly as a consequence of increased abuse and cruelty done in the name of Musk’s deeply simple and juvenile understanding of ‘free speech’.
I think more research is required on how denier networks are growing. Specifically, the accounts need to be selected in a systematic way, involve many more accounts, and the analysis needs to be something far more advanced than me dicking around in an Excel Pivot table. I think it’ll reveal that (a) Twitter really has shifted in favour of the fossil fuel industry, climate deniers and delayers and (b) the reasons why are far more varied and complex than just tweaks to algorithms.
Twitter’s death spiral will continue. Musk’s anxieties and inadequacies will continue to dominate decision making – nothing good about Twitter will be left unbroken. And nothing bad will be left unworsened.
Update 30/03/2023 – I’m so sorry, I forgot to include the raw data! It’s here, please feel free to reproduce my analyses, complicate my conclusions, etc
From the middle of last year until near the end, I was losing about 1000 follower per month, instead of gaining @1500. But since the beginning of the year, my following trend has returned to close to normal. Certainly, part of it was the migration to Mastodon, bc of Elon. It is interesting that during this period #ClimateScam suddenly showed up all over Twitter.
If you’re looking for a platform with excessive moderation and the ability for longform discussion… Twitter was never it. Try Reddit perhaps? It will also be easier to filter your audience down to only those who share your opinions.
I haven’t seen Elon Musk supporting white supremacists. Just because he doesn’t ban all the republicans for saying republican things (yes I think they’re usually ridiculous too, as are a lot of democrats,) doesn’t mean he’s supporting white supremacy. Anyway, you can’t expect twitter to be a ‘clean room’ where everyone holds and espouses the accepted views. If you want that, use a different platform where they delegate moderation to groups. I don’t ever think it’s reasonable to imply that ‘by not silencing someone you’re guilty of whatever stupid crap they are.’ That is just not true.
“We must all fear evil men, but there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men!”
— Monseigneur, The Boondock Saints (1999)
You broadcast bias when you say “climate denier.” Literally nobody denies there is a climate. I know you mean “human-caused climate change,” but you should spell it out if you want to be taken seriously.
I’m a staunch climate action advocate. EVs, Geothermal heat pump, induction range, conservation, all the way. We should not *suppress* climate denial but must instead win the open argument. Unless climate action is being suppressed by Twitter, there are no legs on which to stand a complaint.
The proper name for climte deniers is luckwarmers
I pray most of those followers of deniers are bots or paid click-farms and not genuine human participants.