As the global community confronts the challenges posed by climate change, it is crucial to understand the evolving narratives that shape public opinion.
Annie Lab is a daily fact-checking project established by the Journalist and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong (HKU Journalism) in partnership with ANNIE (Asian Network of News and Information Educators). This not-for-profit organization focuses on news literacy in Asia.
The discourse in China is important as it is a pivotal player in the global fight against the effects of climate change. Be it in terms of being the biggest carbon emitter in 2021 or its ambitious green initiatives of becoming a leader in renewable energy. China’s actions resonate globally.
Annie Lab project did an insightful report analyzing content from various Chinese social media sites on what drives misleading or false narratives in China.
For the Chinese project, Annie Lab collected hundreds of posts from Chinese websites such as Weibo, Douyin, Xigua, Baidu, Sohu, Sogou, Bilibili, and WeChat from September 2022 to April 2023. The dataset also included articles, videos, social media posts from 2012, and bogus claims made in Chinese outside of China.
The report showed a shift in public perception about climate change in 2012, coinciding with the change in political discourse around it. Until 2012, climate change was mostly deemed a conspiracy by the West to derail China’s economic development. However, since 2012, books and materials espousing climate change skepticism have started disappearing from Chinese media.
Public opinion shifted towards accepting the climate change crisis while seeing it as an opportunity to embrace green technology and become a leader. This tension between economic growth and environmental responsibility is keenly visible in misinformation posts in China.
In climate change misinformation content, environmental activists like Greta Thurnberg are seen as ‘puppets’ of the West. Misleading or fake quotes are often attributed to her, like when she supposedly asked the Chinese to stop using chopsticks. This story periodically appears in attacks against her, even though international news agencies have debunked this quote.
Attacks found on English language sites, like doctored images of her with weight gain, are also found in Chinese media. State-sanctioned criticism of her incorporates misinformation about her and is not limited to climate change only. There is content that links her with democracy activists in Hong Kong and posts that question her understanding of climate policies. Thurnberg is accused of only pointing out content “that caters to what Western politicians want to see.”
In this manner, any criticism of China by activists is seen as the West having an agenda against the Chinese.
A macro approach
Interestingly, the research showed that one thing that drives the misinformation is the macro approach that connects nationalistic sentiment to the climate change crisis.
Climate change reporting in China tends to concentrate on institutional frameworks like international negotiations, renewable energy competition, and efforts on mitigation. There is little reporting on the impact of climate change on a person’s daily life.
This narrative tends to pit China against developed nations, as an academic observed in the paper titled National prisms of a global phenomenon: A comparative study of press coverage of climate change in the US, UK, and China.
The report notes that a narrative that climate change could benefit China also appears periodically on the web. This is linked to national pride in Chinese history. The assertion that Chinese dynasties prospered longer in warmer temperatures is linked to an observation in the preliminary study by Chinese meteorologist Zhu Kezhen.
Similar claims were posted on a video-sharing platform in 2021, while an article in Bilibili in 2022 also connected prosperity to a warmer climate. Chinese experts have refuted these claims; however, these continue to appear periodically on Chinese sites.
Misinformation is rampant
Interestingly, the report didn’t find any coordinated disinformation efforts. However, it identifies media outlet Epoch Times and its sister organizations as the outlets that most frequently disseminate content questioning climate change in the Chinese language outside of China.
The Falun Gong-affiliated media network gives equal space to evidence-based science and unsubstantiated opinion.
Annie Lab’s research showed that their Chinese content goes unchallenged often and is less scrutinized among misinformation researchers.
The report also showed that climate change in China was less prone to misinformation than topics about health, politics, and security issues in Chinese social media.
Misinformation, rampant with the advent of social media, is a problem not just in China but worldwide. The latest UNIPCC report has said that with climate disinformation, there is a deliberate attempt to undermine science, contributing to misperceptions of scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk, urgency, and dissent.
Annie Lab’s report provides a valuable glimpse into narratives shaping climate misinformation in China and could be an essential tool in shaping content to counter these narratives.
China’s importance in the global fight against climate change cannot be overstated. In recent years, China has shown a strong commitment to addressing climate change, with ambitious plans of achieving peak carbon emissions by 2030 and a promise to go carbon neutral by 2060. Along with China’s other green initiatives, like the development of renewable energy projects and advancements in electric vehicles, it showcases a nation actively transitioning towards a sustainable future.
Aishath Shazra is a Maldivian journalist writing and reporting on social, cultural, and environmental issues for Maldivian news publications.