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Conspiracy Theories and Geoengineering: A data-driven look at how online climate misinformation works

According to a recent study, online conspiracy theories are having an impact on the funding for research on new climate technologies like solar geoengineering that could help lessen the effects of climate change.

The study was published in the journal iScience by Cell Press. For this research, Dr. Ramit Debnath, who is the first Cambridge Zero fellow at the University of Cambridge, led an interdisciplinary team of political scientists, engineers, and justice theorists. The study looked at 800,000 tweets with the hashtag #geoengineering from 2009 to 2021. They used advanced natural language processing, deep learning, and network analysis to look at how people's feelings, thoughts, and attitudes have changed over the past 13 years. The innovative method adds to the field of computational social science, which is a new and growing specialty.

The director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Repair, Dr. Shaun Fitzgerald, was also on the research team. They found that negative feelings about geoengineering, which is the idea that the climate can be changed with technology, can easily be mistaken for a conspiracy. A particular conspiracy that is deeply intertwined with solar geoengineering called 'chemtrails' states condensation tails from planes actually contain chemicals put there by the government to kill the population, control them, or control the weather.

In an interview with the Cambridge Independent, Dr. Debnath says: "People believe it’s the government’s or a billionaire’s plan to kill or poison the population at large because it’s a way of controlling the rising population. So that’s at the core of this ‘chemtrails’ conspiracy, but what we also see is that it connects with the broader conspiracies, like anti-vax [the COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theories] and other highly politically polarizing conspiracies as well."

A TIME Magazine article featuring this research says "the situation in the real world isn’t great—we’re on a runaway emissions train toward a future no one quite understands. Good ideas or bad, climate shenanigans and billionaire solar geoengineering proposals aren’t coming out of some Bond villain's lair. They’re just people trying something, anything, to get us back to normal."

Dr. Debnath and his team say that their study gives a data-driven look at how online climate misinformation works and how it spreads quickly, which makes conspiracy theories stronger in the public domain. To make strategies that enable a fair consensus for climate action, it's important to understand how these conspiracy networks work.

Read the full published study here.

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