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Machine learning reveals links between climate misinformation and philanthropy

02 May 2019
Photo of US dollars
(Image courtesy: iStock/solvod)

Over the 20 years to 2017, the network of actors spreading scientific misinformation about climate change has been increasingly integrated into US political philanthropy. That’s according to a study that used natural language processing to analyse connections between the two fields.

“The study introduces a new and broader pathway through which climate change misinformation travels, beyond the tendency of research to narrowly focus on the activities of think-tanks and fossil-fuel interests, often in isolation from mainstream American institutions like philanthropy,” writes Justin Farrell of Yale University, US, in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). “Yet, as this study also shows, the impact of funding from fossil-fuel sources still plays an important role, revealing that the strength of the relationship between the misinformation network and philanthropy is strongest for people and organizations directly tied to such funding.”

Farrell employed novel machine learning capabilities to recognise and classify repeating themes and links in lists of attendees and speakers at philanthropic meetings, millions of words of written materials, and lists of board members and lifetime achievement award winners.

The data reveal that in 1997 just 30 people from the misinformation network were present in the US philanthropic movement. Ten years later their presence had increased by 443%. Similarly, in 1997 just 20 misinformation organizations were present in the philanthropic movement but by 2006 their presence had grown by 345%. Integration of the misinformation network was most likely to occur via written publications rather than at in-person events and conferences, Farrell’s study showed.

Two of the most consequential developments affecting US politics are the growing influence of private philanthropy and the large-scale production and diffusion of misinformation, Farrell writes in ERL.

In a related paper in Nature Climate Change, Farrell and colleagues Kathryn McConnell from Yale University and Robert Brulle at Brown University identify potential strategies to confront the misinformation campaigns.

“There are numerous paid services that monitor environmental group activities, and these activities are integrated into opposition efforts,” says Brulle. “In order to be successful, the climate movement needs to take its opposition seriously, and develop meaningful actions to counter these activities.”

The research shows that society can “inoculate” against misinformation by exposing people to the facts before they hear the counter-facts. Although expensive, filing lawsuits against the spreaders of misinformation is effective, the team found, both because it cautions others from spreading misinformation, and because the media coverage and exposure of underhand tactics helps to further inoculate the public.

When it comes to influencing politicians, climate misinformation campaigns are adept. “I did a recent paper on lobbying expenditures, and in this paper, the renewable energy and environmental sectors are outspent 20 to 1,” says Brulle.

The researchers believe there’s a need for a greater understanding of how the political process is manipulated. Financial transparency will be key in order to expose who is spreading climate change misinformation and understand how they are spreading it; Farrell and his colleagues call for new legislation around the way that donations to philanthropic organisations can be made.

“Ultimately we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the huge imbalance in spending between climate change opponents and those lobbying for new solutions,” says Farrell. “Those interests will always be there, of course, but I’m hopeful that as we learn more about these dynamics things will start to change. I just hope it’s not too late.”

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