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Twitter's climate vigilantes
A behind-the-scenes group of climate denier troll hunters say their job has gotten harder since Elon Musk's takeover of the platform
For the last five years, Peter Johnson (not his real name) has been part of a secret group dedicated to finding and reporting accounts that spread climate denial and other misinformation on Twitter.
They call themselves TNT: Team Ninja Trollhunters.
The name is silly, but the work is serious. Over two dozen TNT volunteers regularly patrol Twitter and other social media platforms for accounts spreading misinformation, hate speech, and other harmful content prohibited by Twitter. Once those accounts are identified, members report those accounts en masse in an attempt to get them flagged or suspended.
“We have communications channels, we post various accounts that are problematic, we track our successes,” Johnson told me via phone. Those successes include suspensions for prolific climate denial accounts like @CarbonGate (30,000+ followers) and @Can_Climate_Guy (3,000+ followers), as well as prolific COVID-19 misinformation accounts like @RussianVids, @GameTimeWoo153, and @AcadianSheperd.
The group and its members stay anonymous to avoid getting blocked—or worse, doxxed—by the often-times aggressive troll accounts they target. HEATED was given access to TNT’s communication channels and spoke to several members to confirm its existence and operations.
TNT is making its presence known now, though, because they say their work on Twitter has become harder since the platform was acquired by mega-billionaire Elon Musk on October 27. Since then, half of Twitter’s staff has been fired, including 15 percent of the site’s content moderation team who respond to reported tweets. In addition, they say, an option for users to report tweets containing misinformation has disappeared.
“It's extremely disappointing and makes it harder to do what our group does,” Johnson said. “It’s like going to a police station, reporting a crime, and having them say it's not important to us.”
How trollhunting groups take on climate denial accounts
To be clear, Twitter has never had an explicit policy against climate change denial or climate misinformation.
Before Musk’s takeover, the only false claims that could get an account suspended from Twitter were those regarding COVID-19 and ongoing elections and census counts, as well as denial of the Holocaust and Sandy Hook massacre. Twitter also added a prohibition on misinformation regarding ongoing natural disasters, armed conflicts, and “public health emergencies” earlier this year—but that still didn’t include climate change misinformation, according to members of TNT who have tried to report it under that policy. (Many health associations consider climate change a public health emergency).
But TNT members have still been successful using Twitter’s misinformation reporting process to clamp down on climate denial, simply because climate deniers often dabble in other types of conspiracy theory. For example, as one TNT member told me, “We got some big climate change deniers' accounts suspended because they tweeted COVID-19 misinformation.”
Sometime in the last two weeks, however, the option to report tweets for containing any type of misinformation disappeared. That’s particularly bad timing, given that global climate negotiations are taking place this week in Egypt, said John Cook, a climate change communications professor at Monash University.
“History tells us that every COP climate summit coincides with a surge in climate misinformation, as climate delayers try to confuse the public about the need for urgent climate action,” he said. “Given that misinformation spreads faster than facts on social media platforms, now is a terrible time for Twitter to start rolling back features to report misinformation tweets.
“On the contrary,” he added, “social media platforms need to be more proactive in countering misinformation which have a damaging effect on society and democracies.”
Twitter did not respond to HEATED’s request for comment.
What’s a Twitter-loving climate person to do?
For those of us who have used Twitter as an essential source of information, organizing, and connecting over the last decade—and who have fought for it to be a better platform—Musk’s takeover has been, to put it lightly, discouraging.
The site’s new rules released Monday offered no information about how misinformation will be handled. Large advertisers have paused spending on Twitter due to fears about being associated with misinformation. And a report released last week by Tufts University found that Post-Musk takeover, “the quality of the conversation [on Twitter] has decayed, with more extremists and purveyors of hateful content testing the boundaries of what Twitter might allow.”
Because of this and other reasons (I don’t even want to talk about the Blue checkmark debacle), many in the climate community have talked about leaving the platform—whether it be voluntarily or because Musk runs it into the ground. (The latter option increasingly appears to be a real possibility).
But the troll hunters haven’t given up. And they don’t want you to, either.
Johnson, who runs the TNT group, wants to encourage others to consider taking up troll hunting as a form of climate activism. He made a 4-page guide for people who want to start their own groups to track and report deniers on the platform, called “The Resistor’s Guide to Effective Trollhunting.”
And if Twitter is no longer as responsive to reporting requests, another potentially effective way to fight climate misinformation on Twitter is to counter it with information. Gerald Kutney, a retired renewable energy consultant, runs a Twitter list called #ClimateBrawl where he organizes people to flood popular climate denial posts with accurate information about the crisis. The list has more than 650 members.
“I take this route because it’s frustrating that Twitter doesn’t even try,” he said. “There are accounts tweeting propaganda every day, and they repeat it over and over again, and they’re not challenged. So I feel it’s very important.”
Kutney and Johnson acknowledge their activism routes are not for everyone. Regularly patrolling Twitter for harmful content to report can feel like a part-time job, and publicly engaging with climate denier trolls can be exhausting. “The group that participates, I have to give them credit,” Kutney said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But if keeping Twitter from becoming a cesspool of conspiracy theory is something you’re really passionate about, TNT and Kutney want you to know that fighting back alongside others is an option that can be incredibly rewarding.
“It's amazing to find like-minded people who just want to make the world better,” Johnson said. “We're not doing anything except trying to make social media a better place for the average person who may not know that we're even doing it.”
Twitter is an information tool worth fighting for
I won’t lie: Musk’s takeover of Twitter has given me a knot in my stomach.
It’s impossible to quantify how much the platform has done for me as a climate reporter. I got my first ever internship at a newspaper because I sent a snarky tweet to an editor in 2010. And when I launched HEATED in 2019, it was the relationships and trust I built on Twitter over the years that allowed me to grow an audience.
To this day, Twitter remains the most important tool I use to spread my reporting. I’m terrified at the idea that the whims of a megalomaniac billionaire could put all that in jeopardy.
But leaving the platform would not quell that anxiety as much as fighting for it would. For me, Twitter is a place worth trying to preserve.
If you’re still reading and have the ability to comment, I’d love to know what Twitter has meant to you as a climate-concerned person. I’d also love to know how you’re feeling about remaining on the platform in the wake of Musk’s takeover.
And not to sound like a broken record, but Twitter truly is how HEATED has attracted the vast majority of its readers and subscribers. So if you value this newsletter and can afford it, there’s never been a more crucial time to lend us your financial support, so we can figure out new and better ways to get climate accountability journalism to the public.
CATCH OF THE DAY: Ollie the Cat is not taking news of climate catastrophe lying down.
In fact, he’ll scream about it to anyone who’s listening!
Thanks to reader Lydia for submitting.
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