Conspiracy on social media
Solar geoengineering and the chemtrails conspiracy on social media
Discourse on social media of solar geoengineering has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, in line with increased attention by the scientific community and low but increasing awareness among the general public. The topic has also found increased attention online. But unlike scientific discourse, a majority of online discussion focuses on the so-called chemtrailsconspiracy theory, the widely debunked idea that airplanes are spraying a toxic mix of chemicals through contrails, with supposed goals ranging from weather to mind control. This paper presents the results of a nationally representative 1000-subject poll part of the 36,000-subject 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), and an analysis of the universe of social media mentions of geoengineering. The former shows ~ 10% of Americans declaring the chemtrailsconspiracy as “completely” and a further ~ 20–30% as “somewhat” true, with no apparent difference by party affiliation or strength of partisanship. Conspiratorial views have accounted for ~ 60% of geoengineering discourse on social media over the past decade. Of that, Twitter has accounted for >90%, compared to ~ 75% of total geoengineering mentions. Further affinity analysis reveals a broad online community of conspiracy. Anonymity of social media appears to help its spread, so does the general ease of spreading unverified or outright false information. Online behavior has important real-world reverberations, with implications for climate science communication and policy.
The story goes like this: tens of thousands of commercial airliners a day are deliberately spraying some kind of mixture of toxic chemicals—either across the United States, or possibly globally—in what would amount to one of the largest covert operations ever. The scheme has been going on for years, perhaps decades (Thomas, 1999). The goal: everything from large-scale weather modification to mass population or mind control. The motive presumably would vary with the goal, but it is typically seen as a version of powerful business, government, and military interests covering up even worse deeds.
Except none of this is true.
“Chemtrails” are not real. The US Environmental Protection Agency says so (EPA, 2000). Scientists say so (Cairns, 2016; Shearer et al., 2016). An increasing number of investigative journalistic accounts say so (e.g., Dunne, 2017; Streep, 2008). Contrails, made up of water vapor, have been a byproduct of aviation ever since humans began to fly using jet engines (Pretor-Pinney and Sanderson, 2006).
An online essay (Thomas, 1999) might have been the first piece of writing connecting contrails to chemical spraying, even if it did not use the term “chemtrails”. Thomas (1999) references a 1996 Air Force paper on proposals to engage in weather modification (House et al., 1996). Together with the High frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), House et al. (1996) helped fuel speculation of military links among conspiracy theorists (Newitz and Steiner, 2014; Streep, 2008), leading to online commentary under titles like: “Military Industrial Complex Takes Charge, Blasts Skies With Chemtrails”.
Meanwhile, the chemtrails conspiracy is no longer small. Per Public Policy Polling (2013), 5% of US respondents subscribed to the chemtrails conspiracy theory in 2013, next to a number of other conspiracies. Mercer et al. (2011) finds 2.6% “completely” and 14% “partly” believed in the conspiracy in 2010. Our representative pre-election survey of US adults conducted in October–November 2016 as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), shows around 10% describe the chemtrails conspiracy as “completely true” (Table 1, see Methods below). Roughly a further 20 to 30% describe it as “somewhat true”. Belief in the conspiracy spans the political spectrum, with no significant difference on either the left or right, or by strength in ideological affiliation (Fig. 1). The slightly higher belief in the chemtrails conspiracy among independents than among those on either side of the ideological spectrum is not statistically significant.
Both the sentiments expressed in the wider geoengineering discourse online and the chemtrails conspiracy demonstrate the importance of “echo chambers” (Vicario et al., 2016) created by social media in what amounts to a broad ‘community of conspiracy’. It also has potentially important linkages to wider political forces (Gainous and Wagner, 2014). While conspiracy theories have had a long history in US popular imagination and politics (Andersen, 2017; Barkun, 2013, Sunstein and Vermeule, 2009), the rise and election of President Donald Trump, in particular, has pulled discussion of conspiracy theories into the mainstream, with varying implications (Goertzel, 1994; Sunsteinand Vermeule, 2009). While the CCES numbers show no correlation with extreme partisan political views (Fig. 1), our subsequent analysis of online social media discourse reveals how those propagating the chemtrails conspiracy theory online also engage in various other forms of extremist and conspiratorial discussions, ranging from affinities toward the views of Alex Jones on the one hand and toward terms like “Wikileaks” and “Benghazi” on the other. Meanwhile, representative tweets around the time of Trump’s election in November 2016 showed that some conspirators considered Trump’s election an opportunity to “expose” the chemtrailsconspiracy, though opinions soon shifted, leading to online commentary such as: “Trump Admin to Increase Atmospheric Geoengineering Efforts, Spray Chemtrails for Next 100 Years Straight”.Footnote 1
US public opinion
Table 1 and Fig. 1 presented above are based on survey data collected via the CCES of the US electorate, which was conducted in October and November 2016 by YouGov/Polimetrix (YP). Administered online, it gathered a nationally stratified sample of more than 36,000 respondents. The “chemtrails” question was part of one of eighteen additional 1,000-subject pre-election studies. It came at the end of a 20-minute survey, with the latter 10 min focused on solar geoengineering.Footnote 2 Prior questions, thus, increased familiarity with solar geoengineering beyond the general public. Mahajan et al. (2017) analyzes the CCES results more broadly and provides information on general attitudes toward solar geoengineering use and research.<...