July 1st, 2014
I recently had two experiences that drive home just how perfidious climate change deniers can be. These people infest the Web with false statements about climate change. There are a lot of them; I have settled on just one science website that I patrol regularly; I seem to have chased most of the deniers away with my patient rebuttals to their lies. Occasionally I’ll bumble across a climate change story elsewhere that is attacked by the deniers, and sometimes I respond there. My most recent experience in this turned out to be quite revealing.
It all started with a story on the Discovery News website about threats to Emperor penguins from climate change. Some deniers showed up there with their usual lies; I responded as best I could. Unfortunately, the Discovery News website has big restrictions on posts: no URLs (so I couldn’t post links to citations from the scientific literature); and an extremely strong filter against naughty words. For example, a reply to a “Mr. Heller” just wouldn’t get past their filter. When I removed his name, the comment went through.
Then somebody named Steven Goddard singled me out for abuse on his blog. His article was, shall we say, most ungentlemanly. It triggered an avalanche of abusive me-too comments. Not one of those comments actually addressed the point that I made.
But here’s the kicker: when I attempted to respond to the article on his blog, my comment was blocked. I figured that it was a glitch, so I tried again; still no luck. I logged off of Wordpress and signed back again; that didn’t help. I tried five times to post my reply, and despite many variations, not one of my comments got through. Meanwhile, I have had no problem posting comments on other Wordpress blogs both before and after my failures at Mr. Goddard’s blog.
It’s obvious what is going on here: Mr. Goddard is blocking my comments. He has no compunction about sliming somebody and preventing them from responding. I was surprised that he would stoop so low. But then I discovered that several other people have had exactly the same experience.
It turns out that Mr. Goddard’s site is, for all intents and purposes, a hate site. It's a site for denier trolls, devoted to denigrating anybody who endorses climate change. And the comments there a quite mean-spirited.
Yes, I know your response: “Doh! Yes, the Internet teems with assholes! Glad you finally realized that, Chris!” And yes, I do tend towards an overly positive view of my fellow humans. Still, I was taken aback by the acidity of the vituperation and the number of participants. These people are organized.
Which brings me to the second discovery I made. There’s a phenomenon on the Internet called astroturfing. It’s the use of paid lackeys to spread disinformation. We’ve always suspected that such people exist, but I was surprised by the extent of the phenomenon. Here’s an article detailing the system. I Googled the term and got 373,000 hits. Gadzooks, I’ve been so naive! Of course, the deniers who post comments could be fanatics rather than shills. Three bits of evidence suggest that many of them are in fact paid.
First, there a LOT of them; I spend an average of about fifteen minutes a day countering their lies on the tiny corner of the Internet that I patrol. And on some discussions a number of them will appear simultaneously.
Second, there’s a lot of money at stake here. Fossil fuel companies stand to lose billions of dollars on any restrictions on carbon emissions. Spending a few million paying shills to astroturf the subject is highly cost-effective.
Third, they all seem to be reading from the same script. Different commenters on different websites all seem to say the same thing, often using similar wording. The similarities are too strong to be coincidental.
Obviously, not all deniers are paid shills. But it’s obvious that some of them are.