How Disinformation is destroying Hopes on the Climate Issue-Greta Thunberg and Fake News

An image circulating the web. The one of Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, next to a wartime Nazi propaganda image of a girl in braids, brandishing the Nazi flag. Right-wing writer Dinesh D´Souza tweeted that photomontage on September 22, 2019 with the caption ‘Children—notably Nordic white girls with braids and red cheeks—were often used in Nazi propaganda. An old Goebbels technique! Looks like today’s progressive Left is still learning its game from an earlier Left in the 1930s’.

This is just one of the many hateful images and comments about her that circulate the web and create disinformation. Her Twitter page is full of comments written by Internet trolls. Her, an autistic child, trying to raise awareness.

She is the face of the global environmental movement, since August 2018, when she did a lone protest on the Swedish parliament´s march, refusing to attend school on Fridays, until the government tackled the climate crisis. Others joined her, striking in multiple countries, expanding the movement considerably in only a year. In her TED talk, in January, she revealed she was eight years old when she first heard about climate change and found it “too unreal” that no one was acting on it. She became depressed at age 11 because of it, stopped eating and speaking, before she was diagnosed with Asperger´s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and selective mutism.

Eleanor Stafel in a 2019 Telegraph article, “What it feels like to be Greta Thunberg right now”, investigated how Greta inspired a global movement and death threats, talking to the people who know her best. One of them, a woman who herself has an autistic child, talked about the relentless force of autism: “Anyone who thinks she is somebody’s puppet is greatly mistaken. Just try and tell a young person on the spectrum what to do and you’ll find you won’t get very far. (…) being autistic can make embarrassment less likely; likewise, the shyness and self-consciousness that would hold back the average adolescent.” Greta herself defines her autism as a “superpower”, in her tweets, allowing her to focus on a single issue for a long period of time, in this case the climate crisis.

Furthermore, the belief that she is being manipulated is deeply rooted in her opponents´ minds. Rightwing commentators claim she is too young and naive to know what she is talking about and is being manipulated by her mother, an opera singer, and her father, an actor. In Stafel´s article, a mother striking alongside Greta every week, said: “She has the world on her shoulders now. She’s pretty unstoppable. It’s pretty hard to tell her what to do.”, thus discrediting the manipulation allegations. Thunberg wrote on Facebook: “People love to spread rumours saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. (…) There is no one ‘behind me’ except myself.”. “It is virtually impossible to watch her speak for any length of time and maintain a good-faith belief that she is responding to social pressure from adults,” wrote Vox’s David Roberts. “She is manifestly authentic, direct in a way unique among public figures, no more subject to flattery than to coercion”. This doesn´t stop the disinformation, as shown by Sophia Ankel´s 2019 article in Die Welt, Putin suggested that Thunberg, a “kind a sincere girl” was being manipulated: “It’s deplorable when someone is using children and teenagers in their interests”, adding that she didn´t understand “complex global issues”.

 The fact that a country leader would be condescending towards this girl should raise awareness for the climate crisis that is going on.  Disinformation on her and climate change comes mainly from politicians, like a far-right Swedish politician that said she was a “puppet in the hands of a PR company.” But why can´t these politicians accept the current crisis? Why do they spread disinformation? According to Dr. Matthew Lockwood´s 2018 article, “Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages”, right-wing populism is rising nowadays, and leaders are growing sceptic of climate change issues and are hostile towards those who try to act on them. The expert in climate populism suggests two explanations for this, one based on a structural approach, meaning that the rise of populism would come from structural changes across all post-industrial states (technology and globalization), and the other one on how Nationalism and Authoritarianism combine with anti-elitism to “construct a world view in which ‘the people’ are ruled by a corrupt and illegitimate liberal, cosmopolitan elite”, in which immigration and climate issues are considered damaging. American Right-wing populism could be more aggressive than the European one, for example with Trump.

Masha Gessen, in her 2019 New Yorker article, “Greta Thunberg is the anti-Trump”, shows how Trump and Thunberg are completely antithetic. Each person is either for one or the other, there is no in-between. The journalist states that “Thunberg’s message of logic and the basic belief that humanity is capable of moral action lands precisely because we are living in a time dominated by a man who continuously spews nonsense based on the premise that the world is rancid to the core.” Sure, she is not a prophet or a modern Joan of Arc, as many of her followers believe, but she creates awareness for a global issue in a populist Post-truth world. She is an autistic child, who started a movement alone, based on the idea that change is possible if we act on it. She is wiser than those adults who try to undermine her and has an unbelievable strength. How she still stands after being bullied is unexplainable. Justin Murphy, an American political scientist, conducted a link between Thunberg’s activism and Jeffrey Epstein on Twitter: “If you think Greta Thunberg has the maturity to guide global policy-making then you cannot object to Jeffrey Epstein paying 16-year-olds for sex”. This is the kind of message that generates hate and will lead to fake news, generating disinformation.  An adult receiving the same messages she does daily, would not cope. Not only does she fight for the climate, she fights for truth, against hypocrisy and disinformation.

We live in a time where everyone can write news, without anybody checking for facts. Either way, facts won´t change minds. Some people get their news from Facebook or Twitter, which is dangerous, since people won´t try to investigate deeper and there is a lot of disinformation. When somebody has an ingrained belief, he will search for the same viewpoints, which are always available. Furthermore, if someone tries to search something about her on Google, many angry videos of her appear in the first newsfeed, creating a negative image of her, which will continue to spread the hate. Conspiracy theories propagate, and it takes time to debunk them, when we could act on climate issues instead. The situation and the allegations almost seem impossible to believe, but many believe these fake news. That is the danger of Social Media, and Internet trolls can´t grasp the concept that they are bullying a real human being, a child.

Conspiracy theories are flowing in an incalculable number -and it has just been a year. One of them is that Greta allegedly was an Australian child actress named Estella Renee, which was debunked by fact-checking site Snopes. Some also thought she was a millionaire, after a false magazine cover originating as a parody, in the style of Forbes Magazine’s 100 richest people on Earth list. A spokesperson for Thunberg told AFP that she “does not receive payment for her appearances or media engagements.” Another accusation is that her father lives with his boyfriend in Germany; or that her mother is a Satanist lesbian who teaches abortion classes to teenagers, as claimed by Facebook posts in Brazil. These theories are extreme, but a considerable amount of people believe them because they don´t believe facts and prefer ignorance rather than face the current crisis. The tangled web of disinformation creates hate towards her, inducing skepticism about climate issues.

Polemic photos are also a way of generating hate towards her. Her most common enemies, right-wing commentators and media outlets, have shared a month-old photo on Twitter of her on a boat, which had a plastic water bottle behind her, “proof of her hypocrisy”, according to journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer. The Media is also attacking her, which makes the debunking of fake news even harder, whilst the planet is burning, which seems unbelievable. AFP debunked a lot of photos, such as the photo on Twitter, posted in September 2019, of Thunberg and the billionaire George Soros, where the tweet claimed he was her grandfather. The original photo was her posing with former US vice-president Al Gore. Other fabricated photos ranged from Brazil, where she was eating in a train, while young famished children looked at her (proven to be a montage). Another debunking occurred in March 2019, with a photo of a man holding a girl´s picture, (supposedly Greta) in front of an Islamic State group flag, which allegedly was proof that Greta belongs to ISIS. There was also the photo of hundreds of plastic bottles, after a climate march organized for Thunberg’s visit in New York City, but it was taken in Hyde park in April 2019, following a protest for the legalization of cannabis. Nonetheless, the photo of her wearing a t-shirt supportive of the anti-fascist group Antifa, is real, but she deleted the tweet. It proves that she is not perfect, but the people attacking her online are guilty of spreading ignorance and skepticism about a current crisis. All these photos were shared on Twitter, which shows how quickly, on a wide scale, social media can choose to divulgate either information or disinformation.

Why does she generate so much hate? Mostly because of misogyny, according to researchers Camilla Nelson and Meg Vertigan in an Independent article, “Why are powerful men so scared of Greta Thunberg” published on October 7, 2019. They explain stereotypical labels used to silence women: be beautiful, nice, and cheerful. Greta is mostly bullied by conservative middle-aged men, that feel uncomfortable and threatened by her, labelling her as “mentally unstable”, (Michael Knowles, Fox news commentator) “paranoiac”, “melodramatic” and “hysterical”, thus dismissing scientific environmental facts. “By attacking industrial capitalism (…) Thunberg is not only attacking the core beliefs and world view of certain sorts of men, but also their sense of masculine self-worth”, these researchers say, adding “What certain kinds of men do not wish to acknowledge is that asking for action on climate change is entirely rational.” Dismissing these fears, they don´t have to deal with the truth.

Another explanation is that she would hurt capitalism, and some “may feel threatened by a teenager who has clearly understood and faced up to the trouble we are all in”, according to 2019 BBC article “Why are young climate activists facing so much hate?”. She was labeled as “dangerous” by a British caller on the Jeremy Vine show, who believes her “aggressive” plans to cut carbon admissions will hurt people in developing countries. Furthermore, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison suggested climate change fears were a type of pathology, after Greta´s emotional UN speech on September 23rd, where she filed a complaint against 5 countries. Trump tweeted “she seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see”. Thunberg used his quote as her Twitter bio, proving to be the adult, as always.

She didn´t win the Nobel peace prize this year as expected, but she inspires people to join the global environmental cause, fighting against disinformation. Some may not like how she speaks, or how she looks. But this is about something bigger than just one person: this is about climate change. Humanity must prevail over online and offline disinformation.

Humanity must fight over and over. Change and justice are only possible if the facts are available.


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