Elon Musk’s Twitter is reactivating climate denier accounts, but troll-hunters are fighting back

Elon Musk, Twitter owner, turns to his left.
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For years, a band of science-loving “troll hunters” have hounded climate crisis deniers off Twitter. Elon Musk’s takeover, however, has upended their efforts. Many ousted accounts are back online, pushing fresh disinformation.

Research by monitoring groups indicates a spike in misinformation on the social media platform. Twitter has gutted the moderation of the platform, and a paid verification system has boosted conspiracy theorists.

Climate crisis analyst and anti-greenwashing commentator Ketan Joshi has noticed the increase in climate denial activity on Twitter. He commented:

Meanwhile, the battle for the truth rumbles along in Twitter’s daily feeds. Take this one exchange between a climate-crisis denier and another Twitter user for example:

Team Ninja Trollhunters

Despite the threat the climate crisis poses to the planet, disinformation about it has gone largely unsanctioned on Twitter. But Team Ninja Trollhunters (TNT) has found a roundabout way to tackle it. TNT is a secretive global community of about 25 scientists and activists.

Since its founding in 2019, TNT claims to have secured the suspension of some 600 accounts of climate change deniers. It has done this by reporting them for other infringements, including hate speech. Twitter officially recognises these infringements as valid grounds for termination.

Tom is a 45 year old scientist from Germany who told Agence France-Presse (AFP):

If they’re saying something racist or offensive or misogynist, we can get them kicked off.

He requested that AFP withhold his real identity, to avoid online harassment.

TNT members showed AFP archives documenting their campaigns, including a spreadsheet logging thousands of Twitter accounts they reported on grounds ranging from spam and harassment to hate speech and threats. They also shared screenshots confirming numerous suspensions.

One Canada-based member named Peter told AFP.

We make sure that we’re as under the radar as possible… to get (climate) deniers and ‘sceptics’ and just generally nasty people reported on Twitter.

He explained:

We’re more effective if we’re very quiet about it. These deniers are quite often very violent in their responses to climate misinformation being corrected. Intimidation and abuse are very common.

Opened the floodgates

That approach appeared to work before Musk’s turbulent $44bn acquisition of Twitter last October.

Adding to the turmoil, self-proclaimed ‘free speech’ absolutist Musk has restored what researchers estimate are tens of thousands of accounts once suspended for violations, including incitement to violence, harassment, and misinformation.

Twitter’s press office declined to comment. AFP also contacted members of the Twitter sustainability team, who were laid off after Musk’s takeover. They also declined to comment.

In one example, TNT reported a Canada-based climate crisis denier for repeated threatening and offensive behaviour. An online archive of the Twitter account shows it branded the climate crisis a scam and ridiculed activists and scientists to thousands of followers.

The climate-crisis denier wrote in one exchange:

You can call it trolling, I call it having fun with idiot climate alarmists.

The account was suspended but the same user appeared to have returned with a different handle, posting “I’m back” in October 2022, and resumed retweeting material denying the causes of the climate crisis.

According to Tom:

We got some fairly big accounts removed [but many came back] when Elon Musk kind of opened the floodgates again.

He added that the group has had to “change tactics”. Instead of reporting abuse accounts, it now focuses on debunking claims. Tom said:

It’s a real struggle to keep up.

A prominent US climate crisis denier was suspended in 2021 for “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19”, according to a screenshot posted by one of his followers. TNT had successfully reported him to Twitter.

According to Peter, spreading false information about Covid-19:

is fairly common for science-denial accounts: there’s a lot of overlap due to conspiracy-thinking tendencies for the fact-adverse.

The user returned with a new handle before the takeover and now has a “verified” checkmark, available for sale under Musk. He has posted regularly using the popular climate denier hashtag ClimateScam, peddling misleading claims on topics such as arctic ice, temperatures, and droughts.

‘Hateful conduct’

However, TNT’s fight continues.

Despite the reported rise in hate speech on Musk’s Twitter, they scored a rare success this year, successfully booting off a prolific Australia-based tweeter of climate misinformation – on the grounds of “hateful conduct”, according to a screenshot published by a TNT member.

His tweets included claims that the Earth is cooling and that carbon dioxide does not cause warming. He was finally banned after TNT reported the account to Twitter. TNT told AFP that the defamatory tweet was about “immigration into the UK”. Clearly, however, there is more work to be done.

If we want a liberatory social-media space, then we need to back the alternatives to Twitter, and all the other corporate social media platforms too. Since Musk’s takeover, the ability to get your views heard on Twitter is being increasingly commercialised, while radical voices and critics of Musk are being banned. Meanwhile, transphobes and climate-crisis deniers are enabled to propagate hate speech and pseudo-science.

We need to create and promote truly free, democratic, decentralised, and people-led social media spaces. Otherwise, we’re giving control of the places where people share news over to people like Musk. And let’s face it, if that’s the case we’re really all fucked.

Via Agence France-Presse, additional reporting by Tom Anderson. Featured image via Wikimedia Commons, under CC 2.0 (cropped to 770x403px).

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  • Show Comments
    1. Why are you still on Twitter? It’s a toxic waste dump, full of aggressive incels, racists and bigots.
      Just join Mastodon.
      No algorithms, instances run by scientists for science.
      In two years I’ve not had one abusive interaction as the whining childish trolls that the birdshite breeds get no welcome on a free adult internet.

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