Flame Wars: Misinformation and Wildfire in Canada’s Climate Conversation

Canadian academics and civil society groups have released research that maps an alarming disinformation network that spread on X (formerly known as Twitter) during the 2023 wildfire season in Canada. The report, produced by the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, Carleton University’s Re.Climate, and the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition (CAAD), was released at Charting the Course: Navigating Climate Justice in the Digital Age, an event taking place in Montreal. Flame Wars: Misinformation and Wildfire in Canada’s Climate Conversation discusses the types of conversations that arose during the wildfire season, as well as the most prominent disinformation narratives that were spread and their sources.

Key findings:
  • Online conversations began in May and surged in June 2023, with right-wing and anti-establishment groups posting and reposting content claiming that arsonists, not climate change, were responsible for the fires.
  • Over time, the claims became more conspiratorial, insinuating that left-wing extremists and the Canadian government were responsible for starting the fires. Despite civil society groups’ attempts to debunk this disinformation, false and misleading posts still gained considerable engagement.
  • Disinformation ecosystems that formed during the COVID pandemic, originally intended to attack public health policy, have spread to include climate and energy policy.
  • Networks are growing throughout Canada that aim to mobilize farmers against climate policy. Fortunately, these efforts have yet to gain large traction.

“We have grown accustomed to false and misleading climate content on Twitter,” said Chris Russill, an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University and Academic Director of Re.Climate, “However, the escalation of misinformation to erode concern about climate impacts during unprecedented fires, evacuations, and damage is unconscionable – and its activation of anti-climate conspiracies and extremism is dangerous.”

“This report’s findings are evidence of the pressing need to address the spread of climate disinformation in Canada,” said Helen Hayes, Research Manager at the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, “It is certainly possible that broadening and bolstering content moderation practices for this type of content will have tangible effects on both the ways that Canadians understand climate issues and the policies that work to address them.

The report and its contributors call for:
  1. Cross-platform research into how climate disinformation spreads and how it impacts users
  2. Stronger regulation and enforcement of tech platforms’ content moderation policies by the Canadian government
  3. Proactively and inclusively encourage public conversations on climate change, climate disasters and energy policy.

“The climate disinformation trends in the U.S. that are blocking climate policy are clearly being echoed in Canada,” said Michael Khoo, Climate Disinformation Program Director at Friends of the Earth and CAAD member. “The government needs to take strong action to hold big tech accountable and level the playing field. Canadians should not let a small group of radicals online outweigh the majority that is demanding strong climate action.”