Polarization on Twitter about climate change consolidates at COP26, finds study

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Polarization on Twitter about climate change consolidates at COP26, finds study

The consolidation of a field that questions climate change on Twitter took place after COP26, the UN climate conference held in 2021 in Glasgow. In previous editions, the scenario of polarization regarding climate issues was non-existent on the social network. The discovery sparks a wake-up call of what the scenario means for the debate surrounding climate emergencies.

The conclusion is contained in a study published last Thursday (24) in the journal Nature Climate Change. In the investigation, the researchers aimed to understand the discussion about climate change on Twitter during six climate conferences: from COP21, in which the Paris Agreement was signed, to COP26.

To conclude that the changes occurred, the research observed the relevance of contrary and favorable positions on climate change in the social network.

“We saw that up until COP26 there wasn’t as much polarization because many people discussing the conference tended to agree that climate change is an emergency. However, there is a big change at COP26 that we confirmed by looking for generic tweets about [o assunto]”, says Andrea Baronchelli, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics at the City, University of London and researcher at the Alan Turing Institute.

Baronchelli is also part of Iris, a network that investigates the infodemic and the dissemination of false information on the internet in the midst of global emergencies. The newly published research is signed by him and other researchers in the group.

The biggest change scientists observed between conferences was the emergence of an ideological camp that propagates doubts about climate change on Twitter. For example, at COP21, there were three accounts from people with a background in climate debates who questioned the topic. Apart from these, there was also an account belonging to the British politician Roger Helmer.

On the other hand, at COP26, this number of disbelieving profiles rose to 56 and achieved greater relevance. Even so, they are still a minority compared to the spectrum accounts confirming the climate emergency.

Max Falkenberg, research associate at the Department of Mathematics at the City, University of London and one of the authors of the article, explains that, while at the 2015 conference most of the profiles with contrary opinions were already debating the environment –there were only six of this type— , at COP26 that changed .

“Majority [dos perfis] has a broad focus. For example, many spoke out against Covid-19 restrictions. There was a lot of discussion about this, at the same time that there were those about climate issues”, he says.

Another aspect observed was the ideological position of politicians who were opposed to climate discussions. In this case, they were from the right. The finding, however, is not necessarily true for all other profiles.

“We didn’t go deep into each of the accounts. So, we can only talk about the politicians, who we can identify are from the right”, says Falkenberg.

COP27

The survey did not consider data from the last climate conference, COP27, which took place in November this year, in Egypt. However, information not present in the article has already been raised in order to observe whether the polarization of COP26 was maintained in the most recent one – something that happened.

Baronchelli explains that the repetition could be a sign of “the beginning of a new trend” with a pattern of polarization between the two camps on climate change.

Another point noted about COP27 is in relation to Brazil. The article did not consider the country, as it was restricted to English-speaking nations, such as the United States and Australia. Even so, President-elect Lula’s victory occurred shortly before the last conference, which has already been discussed on Twitter in view of the conference.

“A lot of people were saying ‘Lula brought hope about deforestation [da Amazônia]'”, says Falkenberg, referring to the importance of Brazil for the preservation of the forest.

a point in common

The polarization on climate issues on Twitter has a peculiarity compared to other similar cases. There is a theme that is shared by both detractors and supporters of the importance of taking environmentally friendly measures.

“There is a thread that unifies the two which is accusations of hypocrisy, especially from politicians,” says Baronchelli.

He exemplifies with the case of politicians who use private jets to go to conferences. Criticism, in this case, can come from both sides of the polarized spectrum. At first, the scenario may even be seen as positive, but this is not how the authors see it.

“This is a new warning sign of diminishing trust in politicians and, ultimately, in democracy. […] After understanding that there is a polarization, but that there is something that unites them, let’s see what that is. It may be good news, but it’s the worst. It is the news that there is no trust in politicians”, adds Baronchelli.

Falkenberg also points out that, by having this subject in common, a person would be more susceptible to being exposed to the other polarized side of the discussion. That is, it would be easier for someone to start thinking that climate change does not exist, for example.

The situation is complex and what would be a sure solution for it does not exist. “How to stop this is neither obvious nor known,” concludes Falkenberg.

The Planeta em Transe project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.

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