Climate denial and covid denial: How conspiracy theorists are changing their focus

An online movement that is infected by pandemic conspiracy theories are shifting their attention and spreading falsehoods about climate.

Climate denial and covid denial: How conspiracy theorists are changing their focus

Matthew believes that two of the most important news stories of today are being manipulated by shadowy forces, and that he is not being told the truth.

He says, "This whole campaign is a propaganda and fear campaign to try and drive an agenda." "It doesn’t matter if it’s climate change, a virus, or anything else."

Matthew is originally from the UK and has lived in New Zealand for 20 years. This country is just one of many that has attempted to eradicate Covid-19 by imposing strict lockdowns.

He was disillusioned with the New Zealand government's approach and turned to social media to find news and community. He joined online groups that were opposed to vaccines or masks, and was exposed to unfounded conspiracy theories about the sinister global plots behind Covid-19.

His involvement in the conspiratorial world has affected his outlook and negatively affected his relationships. Because he is afraid that his partner, who doesn't agree with some of his views, might hear him on a video conference call, he hides at the end his garden.

Recent revelations about Covid and climate change have been made by groups similar to the one he is a member of. He views "Covid" and "climate propaganda" as part the same so-called plot.

The White Rose network

It is part of a larger trend. The anti-lockdown and antivaccine Telegram groups that once focused on the pandemic are now injecting climate change debates with the same conspiracy narratives they used to explain it.

These posts are more than just political criticism and debate. They're full false information, fake stories, and pseudoscience.

Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies global disinformation trends, claim that anti-lockdown groups have been influenced by misleading posts about climate change.

Jennie King, ISD's director of communications, says that Covid-19 terminology is increasingly being used to incite fear and mobilize against climate action.

She claims that this is not about climate change as a policy issue.

"It's because these are really neat vectors for themes like power and personal freedom, agency, loss of traditional lifestyles, and citizen against state - to get all those ideas to an even wider audience."

The White Rose is one group that has taken these ideas to heart - it's a network of subgroups in different parts of the world from the UK to the US, Germany, New Zealand, and other countries. Matthew first came across it.

Matthew clarifies that it is not managed by one or two individuals. It's a decentralised community organization, so you can get stickers and post them on lampposts or other such things.

These stickers feature slogans that are anti-vaxx, anti-mask, and conspiratorial. They include slogans like "Resist The New Normal", "Real Men don't wear masks", and false statements like "There Is No Pandemic". Matthew joined White Rose's local channel after seeing it advertised on a sticker. He now posts the same slogans to lamp posts near his Auckland home.

He mentions "The Great Reset" during our conversation - a conspiracy theory that a global elite uses the pandemic as a means to create a shadowy New World Order that will "super-governance" over the lives of all citizens.

Matthew believes that some theories online are conspiratorial. However, he does believe that there is a "confluence between vested interests and the governments" behind the show.

Matthew is able to see the difference in his views and it's making a significant impact on his life.

He said that he was uncomfortable when his nine-year old daughter did a presentation on climate change at school.

He also regrets his fall into a conspiratorial rabbithole.

He says, "I have been feeling anxious about the world for the past three to four months," he said. "And I often wish I hadn't."

"She's totally off the rails"

Christine sees this from the other end of the coin. She is a Belfast nurse who has been caring for Covid patients.

Her girlfriend believed extreme conspiracy theories about vaccines and Covid-19 during the pandemic. Christine was even part of a conspiracy, she thought. She joined the White Rose channel in her area, just like Matthew. Telegram was contacted by the BBC for comment.

"It's crazy. Christine says it's frightening just before she goes into the hospital to work a night shift.

The false claims of climate change got her girlfriend hooked, and she began posting on Instagram about it repeatedly. Christine ended the relationship after it became so difficult.

"She now believes that climate change is not real, and that all of it is a scheme for depopulation the Earth and to wipe out humankind."

Christine looks in despair.

The new frontline of conspiracy

Researchers have seen this shift from Covid to climate change across many online spaces.

ISD has witnessed this happen in a number of ways, including the "climate lockdown". It refers to the unfounded notion that we may have Covid-style lockdowns in the future to combat climate change.

YouTubers have taken to using the term, but scientists warn that lockdowns are not a good strategy for reducing climate change. For example, covid lockdowns only marginally reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, the Covid lockdowns and distress that they caused - along with the falsehoods that have been spread around them – have set the stage for more conspiracies. People have a tendency to blame bad news on the plots of powerful people, rather than accept the truth about the planet's future.

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