Brazil is gaslighting its way to a climate misinformation catastrophe

Fire consumes land recently deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, in August 2020. (Andre Penner/AP)
Fire consumes land recently deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, in August 2020. (Andre Penner/AP)

Brazilians know all about fake news. Digital hucksters have attacked the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system, baselessly accused adversaries of “teaching” homosexuality in the classroom and promoted faith-based covid-19 treatments, all with a nod and a wink from the presidential palace. Now the social media mobs, with the blessings of Brazil’s “cabinet of hate”, are trolling the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

A new post-truth frontier is worrying anywhere. Throw in Brazil’s penchant for culture wars and caustic polarization, along with one of the planet’s worst environmental crises, and you have the makings of a climate misinformation catastrophe.

It is no surprise that the country that leads the planet in greenhouse gas emissions released from hinterland deforestation also excels in counterfeit climate news. And with deepening societal divisions and agitprop, evidence-based policymaking and any expectation of reining in dangerous climate change are also going up in smoke.

Where disinformation blossoms in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is never far. As forests fell and burned at record rates in 2019, he risibly blamed nongovernmental organizations and their putative foreign sponsors for the conflagration, fanning the flame of online conspiracies. Lately, he has hyped the “new Indian” who is purportedly eager to welcome enterprise — not least gold prospecting — on native lands, even as waves of indigenous protests decry the wildcat miners’ onslaught.

Another popular digital head fake is the claim that Brazil desperately needs to dig up the Amazon, especially indigenous territory, for potassium, a mineral essential for fertilizer and now in short supply since the invasion of Ukraine. Never mind that two-thirds of Brazil’s potassium reserves lie outside the Amazon and only 11 percent on indigenous lands.

The emerging hothouse for environmental fakery means that the battle for global decarbonization and net-zero deforestation is not just the purview of diplomatic confabs and street protests but also must be waged online and across social media. A recent study shows how Facebook’s recommendation algorithms drive users to filter bubbles where those already inclined to climate skepticism are fed more of the same, offering just a glimpse of how tough a fight this will be.

The rampant spread of climate misinformation and disinformation has potentially dire implications for the Amazon Basin, where aggressive economic interests fly false flags in their bid for access to resources — too often on protected land.

Taking their cues from Big Tobacco’s historical play for global cigarette smokers with tainted science, political and economic interests are busily rebranding plunder as development. The Amazon is cast as a landscape in need of “enterprise” and “modernization”, where the real threats come from militant green groups and an imagined imperialist agenda. To make matters worse, verified information about the Amazon on social media is still in short supply, emboldening influencers close to Brazil’s chain-saw and miner-friendly leader to double down on incendiary likes and retweets.

A recent documentary on the Amazon disinformation machine revealed a virtual ecosystem of agitators and algorithms, whose online encomiums to predatory rainforest laissez-faire have racked up 70 million YouTube views. Meta recently shut down a cluster of Facebook and Instagram profiles dedicated to Amazon apocrypha, according to a troubling quarterly report. With Bolsonaro and his entourage piling up tens of thousands of new Twitter followers — most of them bot accounts — since Elon Musk’s deal announcement, detoxifying the Web won’t get any easier.

Brazil is not alone. Though Latin Americans poll among those who worry most about climate change and its human causes, bunkers of recalcitrance remain. A 2017 Latinobarometro survey found that significant pockets of climate skepticism and outright denialism still flourish. Troublingly, the survey found that nations most vulnerable to calamitous climate change were also those most skeptical of its existence.

Still, there are some encouraging green shoots of transparency popping up under the canopy of climate misinformation. Environmental fact checking is now a go-to genre for media and accountability watchdogs. Nongovernmental organizations such as Avaaz and Global Witness are exposing the ruses and sleight of hand behind bogus climate news and the commercial ads and big tech algorithms that give it wings. Even social media companies such as Pinterest and TikTok are raising the red flag against junk environmental science. Reeling from a “tsunami of fake news” about covid-19, Latin America’s civil society is also at work to call out climate chicanery.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who rode bots and trolls to victory in 2018, has taken a different track. In his bid for reelection, he drafted an executive order to prevent the same tech giants from removing sponsored misinformation from their online platforms. Fortunately, that initiative was scuttled in the Senate, but it’s still too soon to take credible climate information off the endangered species list.

Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank. Mac Margolis, a Global Opinions contributing columnist, is the author of “Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier”.

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