This week it was announced that Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “Anti-Greta Thunberg,” will be speaking at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Seibt, 19, preaches to her ~50,000 YouTube followers the dangers of “climate alarmism,” and reveals the “despicably anti-human ideology” at the foundation of our climate change discourse and fearful prognostications. In contrast, Seibt says “I don’t want you to panic,” and assures her flock that “These days, climate change science isn’t a science at all.”
The Washington Post’s front-page profile of Seibt Monday following the announcement was met with criticism. “Why,” asks one reader, “would The Post print a profile of the efforts of a European teenager to dismiss, distort, distract and show dismay at the climate movement?” The paper’s choice to dedicate so much time and space to Seibt, they argue, threatens to normalize fringe beliefs, further derail the climate conversation, and promote obvious propaganda.
Propaganda? While the German YouTube influencer has claimed to be “without an agenda, without an ideology,” Seibt is currently under the employ of the Heartland Institute, a conservative “think tank” once dedicated to discrediting the science behind secondhand smoke, and now devoted to climate change denial. The Institute remains committed to protecting the interests of big business and seeks to reverse the “negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations.”
It’s not hard to read the playbook and see the strategy at play. As Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, explains,
“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion.”
This is not merely misinformation; it is not the product of unintentional error. This is a disinformation campaign intentionally and strategically designed to muddy the waters.
While these kinds of campaigns have proven incapable of moving the needle on public opinion when it comes to partisan politics–given the strength of our preexisting political beliefs–they can be extremely effective on swaying opinion on medical and scientific questions–given our lack of knowledge and weaker starting points. You won’t sway a Trump supporter to vote for Bernie, but you might be able to convince a parent who vaccinates to consider your anti-vaxx pamphlet. By continuing to promote voices like Seibt who say, “I don’t want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change,” but also argue, “Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that’s ridiculous to believe,” entities like the Heartland Institute hope to erode public support and stifle legislative action. Given these modest goals, recruiting true believers would be great, but simply encouraging agnosticism will do just fine.
So with the terms of success so low and the stakes so high, should The Washington Post be condemned for playing into climate change deniers’ hands? Has the news organization acted against public interest by giving climate change denial a platform? Is it accountable for normalizing fringe beliefs?
Some argue that The Washington Post is in the wrong for lending credibility to the notion of “climate skeptics”–“a euphemism coined by climate-change deniers to disguise their rejection of massive volumes of peer-reviewed science as reasonable skepticism.” By adopting the language of Seibt and Heartland, the paper legitimizes an unsound and dishonest position. As such, the piece represents an obvious failure to uphold professional ethics. “At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.”
Others see The Washington Post’s piece as an exploration of Seibt’s claim to expert testimony (a concept Ken Boyd wrote about Wednesday). It evaluates the reasons on offer for considering Seibt a credible and reliable source of information about how to respond to climate change (from her affiliation with Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the story of her recruitment and marketing by Heartland). It’s damning without needing to tell us so, and lets its subject speak for itself.
In the end, our diverging opinions on whether The Washington Post’s coverage represents uncritical acceptance or the relaying of fact free of judgment likely depends on our confidence in the reasoning abilities of The Post’s readership. It’s true that public attention is a finite resource. To pick from a crowded field any particular subject and direct readers to it rather than some other subject is to exercise an enormous amount of discretion. And there are clear cases of media outlets violating this trust. But the elevation of Seibt by CPAC makes The Post’s profile relevant, even if it’s for no other reason than to know thy enemy.