“CNN’s seven-hour climate change town hall for presidential candidates was not a TV ratings bonanza, but it set off a marked surge of activity on Twitter aimed at ridiculing the Democrats and dismissing the science.
“Climate change” became the top two-word trending topic on Twitter for several hours after the event among the accounts being tracked by Bot Sentinel, a free platform designed to track what it considers untrustworthy or automated accounts. It was quite an unusual feat for the topic to beat out—even temporarily—the phrase that sits almost constantly atop the trending list for accounts on Bot Sentinel’s watchlist: “President Trump.”
“Scientists, activists and politicians who are engaged in climate policy say they are being besieged by a surge of online attacks. It is difficult to divine whether the bursts of “climate change”-related Twitter activity are spontaneous or part of coordinated campaigns; some experts say that likely a small number of influencers are touching off postings by a far larger number of followers. But in a post-2016 world that is keenly aware of the role that social media played in the election of Donald Trump, the targets of climate attacks are concerned about the potential for online onslaughts to manipulate opinion and neutralize growing public support for climate action.
“I believe this is a concerted effort, likely by bad state actors and fossil fuel interests, to create disinformation, discord and division as we approach the all-important UN Summit and children’s youth event later this month,” said climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, a frequent target of attacks.
“Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the activity.
“Tracking ‘Trollbot’ Attacks
“Bot Sentinel has become a tool for those trying to fight the spread of disinformation on Twitter. The platform uses an algorithm to identify accounts it labels as “trollbots”—those that frequently retweet known propaganda accounts, exhibit repetitive behavior or violate Twitter’s terms of service by harassing other users. Following CNN’s climate forum on Sept. 4, there was an unusually high 700 mentions of climate change in a 24-hour period from the 100,000-some accounts Bot Sentinel is tracking as trollbots.
“When a topic like “climate change” trends among the trollbots, it is likely there is some amount of coordination involved, said software developer Christopher Bouzy, founder of the year-old Bot Sentinel platform.
“What we are noticing is these phrases are more than likely being pushed by accounts that have an agenda,” Bouzy said.
“It’s fascinating to see this stuff happen in real time,” he said. “Sometimes we can see literally five or 10 accounts able to manipulate a hashtag because they have so many people following them. It doesn’t take that many accounts to get something going.”
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