Adaptation | November 3, 2022
Global Warming Hype: Climate Change Denial in Facebook Comments
This essay analyzes the rhetoric used by Facebook users who commented on climate change denial and skepticism pages between September to December of 2020. Approximately 3.3 million posts are shared to Facebook each day (Peruzzi et al., 2018). The constant upload of both credible news and individual opinions has created the opportunity for Facebook users to provide and receive immediate feedback from people who share the same beliefs, creating a confirmation bias. The purpose of this research is to determine if social media users who do not believe in climate change use the same kind of language when communicating with other users in a group who all share similar beliefs. The framework of this research draws on textual analysis, focusing on rhetoric and language use in Facebook comments from two different climate change denial pages: CFACT and Friends of Science. The author analyzed intriguing comments from posts with significant engagement from December 2019 to December 2020 to identify any emerging patterns. Patterns of emotional as well as informal language were prominent throughout. The comments were then coded into three separate themes, where users would either comment to explain, rant, or belittle. Logical fallacies such as ad hominem, ad populum and faulty generalization were also prominent in the Facebook comments. This paper concludes by recommending future areas of research of how the COVID-19 pandemic created more hysteria around government conspiracies in these Facebook groups and looking at Facebook comments on posts about climate change from accredited news sources.
Social media has created a constant stream of information and highly engaging communities that anyone can post to. Approximately 3.3 million posts are shared every minute to Facebook alone (Peruzzi et al., 2018). Facebook users encounter multiple noninstitutionalized sources and can provide immediate feedback. Thus, mass communication is “fundamentally different from current online contexts of political information—blogs, social media, YouTube, etc., where user generated content is accessible, can be commented on, and every user, in principle, can also contribute” (Westerwick et al., 2020, p. 512). The access to online mass communication facilitates a broad exposure to multiple personal beliefs which are traditionally associated with interpersonal communication in offline contexts (Westerwick et al., 2020).
One of the biggest challenges that humanity faces is climate change. Yet, there are still people who either deny or are skeptical that climate change is real or that it is caused by human activity. As a result of confirmation bias, climate change denial communities on Facebook where people’s beliefs and opinions are constantly supported by one another, garner high activity. Therefore, if social media users are frequently interacting and reading posts from others who have the same ideas, how similar are climate change deniers’ communications on social media? What topics are frequently being discussed in these groups? What type of rhetoric is used in these social media comments? This qualitative research draws on textual analysis from two different climate change denial-themed Facebook groups where comments were analyzed for language use patterns, rhetoric, and logical fallacies. The author believes it is essential not only to understand what climate change deniers are commenting about on social media but how they are talking to each other in order to facilitate successful climate communication for the future.
Academic articles on climate change and climate change denial are very common. However, looking at the specific language and rhetoric of climate change denial comments on social media is not as common. Much of the literature analyzes comments and language use in magazines and newspaper articles by people who are not convinced humans are responsible for the rapidly changing climate. However, to analyze Facebook comments, an establishment of what confirmation bias involves is required. Westerwick et al. (2020) argue that posts on blogs and social media may have greater persuasive impact than mass communication messages because recipients may feel more similarity to these non-institutionalized sources and can interact with them. As a result, communication from social media users who have the same beliefs are unchallenging to interact with and might be more engaging than messages from professionals. This instant communication leads into confirmation bias. Instead of gaining larger exposure to a multitude of opinions and scientific research when looking at user-generated content, “users may intuitively know about its potentially strong persuasive impact and circumvent attitude-challenging messages even more than for mass media messages” (Westerwick et al., 2020, p. 514). This creates a continuous feed of information that confirms users’ existing biases. Therefore, confirmation bias makes polarizing topics such as climate change easier to be discussed in a personal manner with like-minded people.
Brodsky (2019) conducted a content analysis on user comments on online news articles about climate change to determine why people deny or are skeptical about climate change. Brodsky (2019) assigns specific codes to analyze comments’ patterns to fit into themes such as social identity, negotiating power, and negotiating stigma. This research gave the author a framework to categorize a broad range of Facebook comments into categories. Brodsky (2019) explains the strengths of analyzing online comments, as users are more likely to express their opinions because they lack the risk of exposure that comes from in-person communication.
In addition to social media comments, magazines and journals written by people that deny climate change also provide an insight into how people structure and communicate their opinions to share with others. In their examination of far-right German newspapers, Forchtner et al. (2018) discovered three tropes that all the papers had in common: distrusting mainstream scientists, comparing people who believe in climate change to a cult, and believing climate change is a tax scam to benefit government elites. Medimorec and Pennycook (2015) also used content analysis to examine two different scientific papers: one that believed in climate change and one that was skeptical of it. Medimorec and Pennycook (2015) found that the NIPCC paper, published by a group of prominent climate skeptics, contained language that was less formal and more emotional as well as repetitive language, a simple syntactic structure, and less cohesion. Compared to the IPCC paper published by people who believe in climate change, the NIPCC paper used a less formal and more emotional approach because they were attacking the IPCC paper and defending their own beliefs rather than using scientific facts (Medimorec & Pennycook, 2015). These two articles provided a broad understanding of what themes, grammatical structures, and rhetoric to look for when analyzing Facebook comments.
Lastly, Koteyko et al. (2013) identify frequent words and rhetorical strategies that are brought up in climate skeptic comments on Daily Mail tabloids. Using discourse analysis, Koteyko et al. (2013) found keywords that are almost always used, such as “funded,” “biased,” “conspiracy,” “denier,” “vested,” “discredited,” “tax,” and “scam.” These comments also used rhetorical strategies such as delegitimization, intensification, and mitigation (Koteyko et al., 2013). Koteyko et al. (2013) confirm that understanding social media users’ online comments is important in order to see how climate denial communication is adopted through peer-to-peer interaction. From reading these papers, I believe that comments made by climate change skeptics on Facebook would have similar themes and rhetorical strategies to those used in skeptical magazines and journals because they all share a common belief of climate change denial.
Textual analysis was used to gather the precise information needed to answer my research questions. McKee (2003) explains that textual analysis is an “educated guess at some of the most likely interpretations that might be made of that text” (p. 8). Textual analysis allows researchers to make sense of how others make sense of the world around them and to see the limitations and advantages of our own sense-making practices (McKee, 2003). Pälli et al. (2010) explain that textual analysis “focuses on the microlevel functions and processes of our reality” (p. 924), particularly through examining language use, language structure, and rhetorical content (McKee, 2003). Analyzing language structure is crucial to see if these micro-level comments fit into the language use predicted by previous scholarly work. Rhetorical analysis is also important to determine if there are any logical fallacies present in users’ comments. Using textual analysis, the author was able to look for specific patterns in user comments and individual posts from different time frames to find similarities without having to analyze every single post on the Facebook pages.
Data Collection Method
The first step in my data collection was finding Facebook pages where people felt comfortable expressing their beliefs about climate change, especially where they felt validated when posting an opinion. Two Facebook pages were found that openly admit they deny climate change exists altogether or skeptical of climate change being accelerated by human beings: CFACT (The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) and Friends of Science. Posts were located that had comments where people tended to explain themselves more and were more opinionated, rather than just a three- or four-word response agreeing with the original post. Longer comments were found on popular posts with lots of comments, with more emotional language, capital letters, and opinionated users.
On October 14th, 2020, the author collected fifteen comments from the Friends of Science page and ten from the CFACT page. After that, one or two comments a week were saved from each of the pages for the next month between December 2019 and December 2020. Then an analysis of the comments was applied analyze to determine what they had in common with the other comments based on previous research and my own. In addition, CFACT and Friends of Science both have members who are climate change “deniers” or climate change “skeptics.” For the sake of this paper, this study uses the blanket term “denier.” Even if people are open to the idea of climate change on these Facebook pages, all the figures analyzed in this study deny the scientific facts that it is accelerated by human activity or that it is creating negative effects for humanity.
First, the comments were analyzed for emotional language and structure. The author realized that most comments could fit into three patterns or categories of communication: explaining, belittling, or ranting. Explanatory comments were coded using Koteyko et al.’s (2013) keywords and phrases as well as those that commonly occurred when people were trying to explain climate change, such as “scientist,” “CO2,” “atmosphere,” and “greenhouse gases.” Comments that were coded as rants contained keywords that Koteyko et al. (2013) had previously mentioned, such as “scam,” “politician,” “cult,” and “fraud.” Belittling comments were characterized by their use of derogatory terms or rude language toward particular individuals or groups of people. Comments were found dating back to December 2019, and from there, examined for common themes, overall sentence structure, and grammar used in users’ comments to determine if it lined up with previous scholarly research. Finally, common logical fallacies in the comments were examined based on the type of rhetoric and language used.
Most of the posts on the CFACT and Friends of Science Facebook pages had around five to ten comments. Posts that garnered the most comment activity were those explaining the benefits of CO2, criticizing liberal politicians and the Green New Deal, and warning others of the dangers of climate alarmism. These popular posts usually had over one hundred comments and around two to three hundred shares. The posts that had the lowest number of comments were about endangered animals making a comeback in population sizes.
Figure 1. Post on Friends of Science Page: “No One Actually Believes the Global Warming Hype”
Note. One of the most popular and engaged with posts on the Friends of Science page.
Before sorting comments into three separate categories, the author looked for similarities in grammar and sentence structure. Many comments had aspects that Medimorec and Pennycook (2015) had described such as the use of question marks, exclamation points, or capital letters for proof of emotional language. Many users used capital letters as if they thought it would get their point across more, almost as if they were trying to yell at the reader. Many words that were written in all capital letters were similar to ones previously analyzed by other researchers such as “FEAR MONGERS,” “$OCIALISM,” “WHAT UTTER CRAP,” “we really need to lift our game and get MORE CO2 [sic],” or “CO2 [sic] is NOT toxic at 2000 PPM.” As seen in Figure 2, there were many comments that used the word “NOT” in all capital letters to make sure the reader knew the commenters disagreed with scientists who believed in climate change.
Figure 2. Facebook Comment: Example of Emotional Language
Figure 3. Facebook Comment: Example of a “Scientific” Rant
Note. A common usage of emotional language.
Most of the comments fit into a pattern of being a rant, a “scientific” explanation, or a belittlement of a person. Within these categories, the author looked for patterns of common language use, structure, and logical fallacies. Similarities in communication style used in the comments was noted in each Facebook page; to avoid confusion the author made clear labels during the research process regarding what post was from which page.
Facebook comments that fit the pattern of a “scientific” explanation tended to be a mix of arguing and throwing in some “scientific evidence” as to why climate change was a myth. Many of these comments did not have cohesive explanations. They used bullet points with incomplete sentences and used multiple ellipses to demonstrate that they had many thoughts on the matter but couldn’t quite connect them all in a formal way. In the comments that tried to explain that climate change was a myth, people would often put parentheses around scientific terms such as “greenhouse gases,” “CO2,” “scientists,” or “climate change,” as seen in Figure 4. When users put parentheses around these scientific words, they wanted to make sure people understood they were skeptical about the terms given.
Figure 4. Facebook Comment: “Scientific” Explanation for Global Warming
Many of these explanations also used faulty generalizations. Corbett and Conners (1999) define a faulty generalization as a “jump to a conclusion with inadequate evidence” (p. 69). For example, users would explain that we had been hearing about climate change destroying the earth for years, but it still hasn’t happened yet.
Therefore, it will not happen in the future. Another faulty generalization that was used frequently was that if humans, animals, and fire give off CO2, how can it be bad? One comment, shown in Figure 5, even described CO2 as the “gas of life.” Another comment, shown in Figure 3, says we need “more CO2 [sic] into the atmosphere.” Ultimately, comments from people who were explaining why they denied the existence of climate change all had similar ways of conducting their explanations.
Figure 5. Facebook Comment: First Example of Faulty Generalization
Figure 6. Facebook Comment on Friends of Science: Second Example of Faulty Generalization
Figure 7. Facebook Comment: Third Example of Faulty Generalization
Note. Figure 5 highlights the faulty generalization that every living organism breathes oxygen at 40,000 ppm.
Comments that were coded as rants offered no type of scientific explanation as to why they didn’t believe in climate change, only that it wasn’t real and that there would be real life consequences for those who did believe in climate change. The author notes that the people posting these comments were not necessarily looking for a response from other users but were just looking for a place on social media where they felt comfortable to voice their opinion. These kinds of comments were usually found on posts about politicians and governments, mainly liberal and communist governments. These long rants garnered the most emotional language out of the three types of comments, as well as the most capitalization of words and use of exclamation points.
Most of the comments considered to be rants also fit the logical fallacy of ad populum (to the people). Ad populum appeals to irrational fears and prejudices to prevent the audience from facing the issue (Corbett & Connors, 1999). These rants are considered an ad populum fallacy because almost all of them use pejorative terms such as “socialism,” “radical,” “mass delusion,” “PC,” and “cult,” which are used to provoke a hostile reaction from readers. None of these words used are inherently good or bad, but more colourful language gives the illusion of legitimate claims instead of just ranting. In many comments that used pejorative language, it was hard to pinpoint what the main point of the comment was. The comments that users posted as rants almost always fit into one of the tropes that Forchtner et al. (2018) found common in neo-Nazi papers as well. Ultimately, the comments categorized as rants used fear-mongering words and emotional language to present as well researched but, instead, only serve to confuse the reader.
Figure 8. Facebook Comment: First Example of Ad Populum
Figure 9. Facebook Comment: Second Example of Ad Populum
Note. Van de Burgt uses terms such as “Mass Delusion” and “Madness of Crowds” to provoke strong reactions.
Note. Horky uses reactionary terms such as “PC Cult” and “Malmentally [sic] clueless.”
The last grouping of comments were those that belittled specific people or groups of people. This group fits into the logical fallacy of ad hominem. Ad hominem is a form of emotional argument that “switches the form of an argument from a discussion of issues to a discussion of personalities” (Corbett & Connors, 1999, p. 70). When we cannot refute someone’s argument, we may attack the person’s character instead (Corbett & Connors, 1999). These comments were mainly on posts about climate activist Greta Thunberg or government officials such as Justin Trudeau, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Rachel Notley and their climate change opinions or government policy plans to combat climate change. Belittling comments did very little discuss the issues users had with said politician’s ideas and beliefs but, instead, shifted their focus to attacking the people’s character (Corbett & Connors, 1999). The Facebook users who wrote belittling comments did so to make the subject seem less important without having them explain why they came to that conclusion. Overall, these people commented belittling claims to make others agree with them without having to give any explanation.
Figure 10. Facebook Comment: First Example of Ad Hominem
Figure 11. Facebook Comment: Second Example of Ad Hominem
One phrase that continuously popped up in all three types of comments and acknowledged by Koteyko et al. (2013) was “so-called scientists.” This term was used in all three because it started as a baseline for an explanation or argument, a way to rant about distrust in mainstream science, or a way to belittle prominent scientists. Overall, the comments from both Facebook pages shared eerily similar styles of communication and language use both with each other and with comments analyzed by other researchers in academic papers, newspapers, and neo-Nazi magazines.
Conclusion and Further Research
In this paper, the author set out to find what comments written by climate change deniers on Facebook had in common with each other and those analyzed by other researchers. The author hypothesized that the two selected Facebook pages would have similar comments because their users interacted with people who all mostly shared the same beliefs. Through textual analysis, the author was able to prove an accurate hypothesis. Emotional and informal language was common within the two groups. The comments also shared similar topics with the neo-Nazi magazines analyzed by Forchtner et al. (2018) such as disputing the validity of mainstream scientists, comparing climate change believers to a cult, and arguing that climate change is a tax scam for government elites. The author initially thought that the comments would have remarkably similar language and would have been easy to spot right away, but it took a few weeks of reviewing comments to notice clear patterns. It is essential to understand how everyday people talk about climate change, especially where they feel the most comfortable doing so.
More information on climate change communication comments would be helpful in future research. Another area that could warrant further study is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and how people have associated it as a scam comparable to climate change. Going back to Facebook comments made before March 2020, when the pandemic began to interfere with daily life, and right after was interesting. People began to relate COVID-19 and climate change together as giant scams perpetuated by the government. If this research project again were conducted again, the author would look at comments posted further back in time. As experienced by the author, going further back in time is difficult because the Facebook pages had so much activity that some computers could encounter trouble going further back than a year before the Facebook app would crash. It would strengthen the data by extending the data collection further back in time and see how different comments about climate change denial were on regular news posts. Would they be as negative and opinionated, seeing that they were not posted in a community of people with similar mindsets? It is hoped that the approach presented in this paper will enable and inform others on how to analyze the language and rhetorical strategies used in climate change skeptic or denial environments.
About the Author
Meg Hoyland is a fourth-year communications student from Sedgewick, Alberta. She became involved in local climate activism after The School Strike for Climate. In her spare time, Meg takes walks around the river valley trails and hunts for Edmonton’s best London fog.
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