With social media gearing up for what promises to be a punishing federal election campaign, there’s mounting evidence that climate denial and other extremist views are getting set to dominate the online conversation—with a large share of the traffic coming from questionable accounts with posting patterns that look a lot like the automated troll farms that hijacked discussion during the 2016 campaign in the United States.
Fringe party leader Maxime Bernier’s recent attacks on #FridaysForFuture leader Greta Thunberg have become just one example of a narrative that went viral online, in a way that suggested far wider, deeper popular support than his message was actually receiving. And just as verbal violence in the U.S. Twittersphere has translated into real-life danger, Canadian climate hawks and one senior federal cabinet minister are all reporting they’ve been accosted in person and berated or attacked.
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Bernier faced a storm of online pushback after what one conservative commentator called his “ignorant, shameful” attacks on 16-year-old Thunberg. But that didn’t stop online platforms and the dynamics they’ve created from rewarding bad behaviour.
“Tweets from and about People’s Party of Canada (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier are dominating the #ClimateChange discussion on Twitter, according to an analysis of political tweets from the past 90 days,” National Observer reported late last week. “The findings highlight how easily social media hashtags can be hijacked by small groups of accounts. This activity can ultimately derail important discussions while also amplifying extreme voices on issues like the climate crisis.”
When Bernier joined the rampant online attacks against Thunberg, the response was immediate, fierce, and refreshingly multi-partisan. But social media is largely a numbers game, and those numbers are often driven by a small number of questionable accounts that may or may not be run by automated “bots”. In this case, “a 900% increase in #ClimateChange tweets collected following Bernier’s attack on Greta Thunberg is more than a viral reaction,” said digital researcher Jessalyn Hernandez, of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC). “If you cannot dominate a conversation based on influence factors like followers, then one must be loud (and) push out a lot of tweets to gain influence on (a) critically debated topic.”
Hernandez said that kind of online behaviour “is frequently seen among those with extreme or conspiratorial views, coordinating to dominate the information space,” Observer writes.
Observer’s analysis spotted two major spikes on the #ClimateChange hashtag—when Elections Canada decreed that ads declaring climate change a reality might be considered partisan communication during the federal campaign, and Bernier’s attack on Thunberg.
“The fact that 10 accounts dominated 14% of the conversation showcases the ‘loud and proud’ Twitter spamming technique,” Hernandez said, citing an online strategy in which a small group of actors uses automated scripts, coordinated activity, and high volumes of activity to hijack a discussion.
“The hashtags and keywords most commonly mentioned in conjunction with the hashtag #ClimateChange include generic terms like ‘science’ and ‘environmental’; Liberal campaign slogans, such as ‘#RealProgress’ and ‘#ChooseForward’; and topical issues, including ‘#ActForTheAmazon,’ which promotes conservation efforts in the Amazon rainforest,” Observer notes. “However, these topics were drowned out by the scandals and controversies surrounding Bernier—an indication that efforts to derail a critical conversation about climate change were effective. A polarized, contentious information environment also makes it easier to inject disinformation into the discussion.”
With environment and climate polling higher than ever before as vote-determining issues in a federal election campaign, it’s no surprise to see much of the disruption and disinformation landing on the #ClimateChange hashtag. But it’s part of a bigger picture. In the last couple of weeks:
• A team at Global Affairs Canada warned that “inauthentic” online activity and suspicious social media accounts had intervened in the Alberta election earlier this year;
• Buzzfeed identified ostensibly Canadian websites and Facebook pages that were being run from overseas, with some of them spreading false information;
• CBC revealed the Conservative Party received more than 250,000 online shares after selectively and inaccurately editing a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—and one third-party advertiser, Canada Proud, accounted for about one-third of the shares;• Digital humanities specialist Marc Owen Jones traced suspicious activity on the ‘Trudeau Must Go’ hashtag, finding that U.S. accounts associated with Donald Trump generated a large share of its activity.