Disinformation is the most pressing global sustainability issue in the world today. By eroding shared acceptance of facts, disinformation makes consensus building around key sustainability issues exceedingly difficult. The unholy alliance between industry, conservative politicians, and right-wing media have caused disinformation to spread like the wildfires that have become commonplace in an ever-warmer world.
We face many sustainability challenges including the UN’s 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, disinformation has prevented millions of people from heeding what should be a clear call to address existential global threats like climate change and biodiversity loss. This is the reason that we have not been able to marshal a critical mass of popular support that would force political leaderships to prioritize sustainability issues. Even when sustainability-focused governments come to power, their efforts to pass legislation and enact the necessary reforms are often thwarted by disinformation. It is not unreasonable to assume that in the absence of such disinformation we would have already embraced the scientific reality and be fully engaged in doing what needs to be done.
Conspiracy driven cults
Disinformation undermines science weakening the best instrument we have to understand the world and foster a shared understanding. The diminishing importance of truth and facts subverts our ability to build consensus around sustainability-oriented policy, and it also allows conspiracy theories to thrive. People who fall prey to conspiracies get locked in a closed loop of circular logic which is impervious to reason and scientific evidence. However laughable conspiracy theories may seem, those who subscribe to them are known to behave in wildly erratic and destructive ways. A bizarre conspiracy theory led a deeply religious father by the name of Edgar Maddison Welch to drive 360 miles with his AR-15 to break up what he thought was a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a pizzeria. The popular conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a hoax or that vaccines are dangerous contributes to avoidable infections and death.
A steady diet of lies makes people receptive to radicalization and destructive ideologies. Anti-science disinformation is a key component of the Christian evangelical movement that buoys far-right conservatism. Many conspiratorialists claim to have been called by God. Their delusional views often have a messianic quality as evidenced by the fact that they commonly relate current events to biblical prophesies especially the notion of Armageddon in the Book of Revelation. These people are fatalistic about a coming apocalypse (e.g., “Trust the plan,” “Enjoy the show,” and “Nothing can stop what is coming”). These are some of the tropes in one of the most popular and pervasive conspiracy theories known as QAnon. The crazy collection of disjointed narratives known as QAnon has found its way into the Republican party. As Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “The GOP has ceased to be a political party. It is now a cult.” In a craven bid to hold onto power, Republicans have embraced a web of lies. Republicans are not alone in invoking conspiracies, conservatives the world over use disinformation to deny climate change and resist climate action. However, their reality eschewing hyper-partisanship fomented a dangerously divisive mass radicalization movement that led to an insurrection.
Dirty energy deception
Republicans controlled by the fossil fuel industry downplay global warming and dismiss the need for government regulations. They skew public opinion by undermining the scientific consensus on climate change and exaggerating uncertainties. They portray climate science as “alarmist” and they use expressions like “freedom gas” to spin dirty energy as something beneficial.
A substantial body of evidence has conclusively demonstrated that the fossil fuel industry engages in both denial and disinformation. They have known that they are the primary drivers of climate change for decades, yet they buried this information and pursued multiple channels of disinformation whose sole purpose was to deceive the general public so that they can continue to reap profits from the extraction of hydrocarbons.
Their disinformation efforts have succeeded in eroding public support for science and undermining government efforts to enact science-based climate policies. These efforts continued even as they hypocritically try to rebrand themselves as supporters of climate action. A report by a British think tank Influence Group estimates that in the four years after the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s five largest oil and gas companies spent more than $1 billion lobbying to prevent climate change regulations.
With the help of PR firms, lobbyists, and conservative media the oil industry is waging sophisticated multi-level campaigns of disinformation. They use carefully crafted talking points to undercut clean energy policies and prolong dependence on fossil fuels. They willfully mislead the public with pseudoscience and deceitful campaigns that include disseminating disinformation to school children through front groups like the Heartland Institute.
The election of a new American administration has seen a flurry of disinformation from the fossil fuel industry, Republicans, and their allies in conservative media. Their efforts to sabotage President Biden’s Build Back Better plan include well-worn lies about the innocuousness of climate change and patently false statements about the negative economic and employment impacts of climate action.
Conservative media regularly lie about the Paris Climate agreement suggesting that it will harm the U.S. economy and benefit China (climate action could stave off trillions in costs and provide millions of jobs as part of a multi-trillion-dollar economic opportunity). When President Biden issued an executive order that canceled the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline headlines in conservative media decried “10,000” job losses (the pipeline would create only 35 permanent jobs while generating 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year).
Right-wing media has corrupted public conversations by supporting conspiracy theories that afford no common ground. They toxify discussions and poison the well with lies. They deprive the public of a shared understanding which makes fact-based debate impossible. By feeding their audience disinformation far-right media has created a monster. It is hard to provide programming that satiates their ever-increasing appetites for alternative facts. When viewers do not like what they are seeing they simply switch to another even more virulent source of disinformation. This is the case with Fox viewers switching to Newsmax or other even more extreme media channels.
Some of the most dangerous disinformation comes from social media. These digital echo chambers determine both what people are exposed to and how they process that information. “Breaking through that echo chamber is critical or else we’ll see more violence,” said Elizabeth Neumann, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security office that oversees responses to violent extremism.
Trump the arsonist
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 is a testament to the power of the synergistic amalgamation of disinformation and (social) media. Trump will be remembered for having led the most mendacious presidency in the history of the republic, a presidency that resulted in a four-year campaign of terror against sustainability. This is a president who said that climate change is a hoax and “windmills” cause cancer. As a testament to his destructive legacy Trump has been aptly called a climate arsonist and the arsonist of radicalization
Trump is hardly the first leader to wield disinformation as a weapon, but when the world’s most powerful nation became the epicenter of lies, it cast a shadow that significantly eroded sustainability efforts all around the globe. Trump’s presidency emboldened other demagogues who also spout disinformation and eschew sustainability.
The Trump presidency systematically dismantled more than 100 regulations. He also eradicated social justice efforts in the Department of Justice. Trump’s subterfuge led his followers into an alternate universe the included the big lie that the election of 2020 was stolen. He groomed domestic terrorists with his disinformation and he will go down in history as the only president to have incited a deadly insurrection.
President Joe Biden understands the dangers of disinformation which is why he committed to addressing it in his inaugural address. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” Biden said shortly after taking the oath of office. “There is truth,” Biden added, “and there are lies.”
Minimizing disinformation is a necessary precursor to prioritizing sustainability-focused policy agendas. As long as disinformation flourishes, the prospects for creating a livable planet will be in doubt.
For references see “Resources to Combat Disinformation“. See also “Glossary of Disinformation Related Terminology“