The German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative worked with MediaCloud to examine misinformation and disinformation related to the climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, a young climate activist who was smeared by a number of conspiracy theories. We focused on a key period analyzing how narratives spread, whether one can discern strategic disinformation promotion, and how platform practices might address the promotion of conspiracy theories.
Focusing on the period after Thunberg began her weekly school strikes in the summer of 2018 and continuing through October 2019, just after the global climate strikes and her speech at the United Nations General Assembly, we identified five key narratives about her:
- Mental ability. Since Thunberg has publicly discussed that she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder autism-spectrum disorder, her mental abilities and character traits have been questioned by some media sources and social-media users.
- Antifa. The publication on Twitter of a picture of Thunberg wearing an Antifascist All Stars t-shirt let to the conclusion that she supported the more violent antifa movement, which targets right-wing groups. Thunberg has since removed that picture and stated that she does not support fascism but also does not condone violence.
- Soros. George Soros has become a common target of attacks from conservative and alt-right corners of the internet. Associating Thunberg with him and his Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been used to discredit her and her discourse against climate change. Two elements seem to have driven this narrative: a manipulated picture in which Thunberg appears next to Soros, and the debunked relationship between Thunberg and the OSF-supported One Campaign.
- Puppet. A somewhat common thread of attacks on Thunberg claims she is being used by others (such as her parents, a Swedish foundation and other connected businesses, etc.) as a puppet, perhaps in a public-relations stunt for these interests.
- Climate industrial complex. In a somewhat more elaborate argument about obscure interests behind her, Thunberg is linked to a wider network of corporate interests from the energy and non-profit sectors, often called the “climate industrial complex.” This is a low-volume narrative.
These narratives discredit Thunberg through personal attacks (questioning her mental abilities), her alleged associations (with antifa and Soros), and allegations that she is manufactured or a hoax (through narratives that describe her as a PR stunt, puppet, and part of a “climate industrial complex”). Studying how these five narratives evolved and spread on the open web (news and blogs), on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Reddit produces the following key findings.
Mis/disinformation narratives cut across countries and platforms
The narratives examined moved internationally and leapt across popular social media platforms. For example, the Soros and puppet narratives originated in Sweden and then spread to Germany and Australia, while the antifa narrative began on a German-language account. The “climate industrial complex” narrative started from a Canadian account and spread to the United States and beyond.
Four of the five narratives originated on Twitter before migrating elsewhere, while the fifth (regarding Thunberg’s mental capacity) emerged on Reddit before being circulated on the open-web and amplified by Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire. In September 2019, related Reddit submissions and comments spiked immediately prior to a surge in posts on Twitter and Facebook for both the “mentally ill” and puppet narratives, suggesting such mis/disinformation cuts across differing social media platforms. Social media posts about the different narratives also frequently link to external websites or YouTube videos. The first 16 posts on Facebook spreading the “mentally ill” narrative all linked back to Canadian media personality Ezra Levant’s YouTube videos promoting the idea that Thunberg suffered from mental illness.
Different groups with seemingly different motivation spread mis/disinformation narratives in complementary ways
Different actors without any discernable ideological affinity were responsible for disseminating and amplifying mis/disinformation narratives about Thunberg. In many cases, these mapped on to preexisting political concerns. The antifa and Soros narratives were conspicuously linked to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany, with 42 percent of Facebook posts related to the antifa narrative referencing it. AfD-affiliated accounts were also responsible for some of the first Facebook posts to spread the Soros narrative. This conforms with the party’s documented history of attacking Thunberg within the climate change denialism movement. Illustrating the crosscutting nature of these narratives, accounts affiliated with the U.S.-based conspiracy-theory group QAnon were also responsible for sharing the Soros narrative.
A collection of QAnon, pro-Trump, and climate change denial groups shared the puppet narrative, while the “climate industrial complex” narrative was driven mainly by climate change denial groups. In particular, the Canadian-based Friends of Science Society helped amplify that narrative and was the first to tweet it out. The narrative was then furthered by PJ Media, a right-wing publication, and climate-change denial Facebook groups in an attempt to link Thunberg to a wider ecosystem of nonprofits, governments, corporations, and financiers trying to profit from fears over climate change.
In every case, large right-wing media groups such as PJ Media, Gateway Pundit, and the Daily Wire served as vectors for the mis/disinformation narratives.
The mis/disinformation question the independence and motives of Thunberg
A classic objective of disinformation is to stimulate skepticism and stoke distrust of mainstream institutions and accepted orthodoxies. In Thunberg’s case, it is clear that she is perceived as a symbol and agent of larger social and institutional forces, such as environmentalism and international organizations. Undermining her credibility is a proxy attack on the credibility of these organizations and movements.
Additionally, associating Thunberg with “known evils” such as antifa or George Soros reflects a common tactic of disinformation campaigns, which tie their target to controversial or polarizing entities to fragment popular support and raise question about their motivations.
Misappropriated satire plays a role in spreading certain mis/disinformation narratives
Mis/disinformation narratives at times are fueled by images originally run on satire outlets but are then decontextualized and recirculated as factual images. For example, the most shared URL on Facebook related to the Soros narrative is an article on a French satire website, secretnews.fr. The article claims that not only is Thunberg the granddaughter of Soros, but that her parents are siblings. It includes the photoshopped image of Thunberg and Soros. According to the newspaper Le Monde, many readers believe that information posted by this recognized satirical website is real.
Mainstream debunking of mis/disinformation narratives led to their amplification
In some cases, reporting and factchecking of mis/disinformation narratives led to their amplification. This occurred with the narrative around Thunberg’s mental ability, in which the top URLs on Twitter that referred to it came from The Daily Beast and Buzzfeed, the latter of which reported on an incident in which Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire called Thunberg “mentally ill” in an interview segment with Fox News. The findings presented in this paper highlight how the spread and traction of mis/disinformation narratives across platforms are altered and amplified by mainstream news coverage.
The findings suggest that platforms cannot tackle the problem of conspiracy theory and disinformation one by one, country by country, since disinformation moves across platforms and countries. It also points to the confluence of interests and groups in spreading disinformation, and its ability to undermine the credibility of trusted influencers. The findings reveal a key role of satire out of context in spreading disinformation as well as the role of the mainstream media. All of these suggest the need for a more concerted effort by platforms, working with the media, to address the spread of disinformation.