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Spanish-language misinformation about renewable energy spreads online, report finds

False narratives about renewable energy are malleable and adapted to different languages after extreme weather events in different countries, the researchers found.
Firefighters try to extinguish flames during a wildfire at the village of Kineta, near Athens, on July 24, 2018. - Raging wildfires killed 74 people including small children in Greece, devouring homes and forests as terrified residents fled to the sea to escape the flames, authorities said Tuesday.
Firefighters try to extinguish wildfire flames at the village of Kineta, near Athens, Greece, in 2018.Valerie Gache / AFP via Getty Images fil;e

Spanish-language disinformation and misinformation about climate change have risen hand in hand with the spread of false narratives online undermining renewable energy initiatives as extreme weather events have become more severe and recurrent this summer.

The most common narratives include false allegations that wildfires are intentionally created to clear land for renewable energy projects, such as windmills or solar farms. Others spread disinformation about renewable energy projects’ harming animals or polluting the environment, according to a new study released Thursday that was commissioned by the environmental organizations GreenLatinos and Friends of the Earth.

Study co-authors Cristina López G. and Santiago Lakatos identified such narratives after having examined nearly 15,000 accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, that were responsible for creating the top 20,000 most engaging Spanish-language posts that included anti-renewable energy content during the first six months of the year.

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López G. and Lakatos are analysts at the social media analytics firm Graphika.

The findings come a week after Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups, ranked X last in its approach to climate change misinformation.

X did not respond to requests for comment. 

As in the spread of previous Spanish-language climate change disinformation online, social media accounts disseminating false information about renewable energy become more active during extreme weather events, López G. told NBC News.

“With increased content moderation that we saw coming from major platforms during the Covid pandemic, we also saw that a lot of these conspiratorial communities started moving towards those platforms where there are less restrictions, where there is more relaxed content moderation,” López G. said.

"In understanding this correlation, there's also an opportunity for us to anticipate when these sort of spikes in disinformation and misinformation might come and how to best educate audiences," she said.

False narratives about renewable energy, the researchers said, are "malleable" because they are created and spread across multiple languages.

"Depending on where the extreme weather event is taking place, that will borrow narratives from whatever language they're available to fit this particular local context," López G. said.

The study found that conspiracy theories in Greek alleging that wildfires were being set to clear land for renewable energy projects were spread online in 2018 right after wildfires killed dozens of people near Athens. Similar theories in Spanish resurfaced last year when Spain suffered big losses from wildfires amid record hot temperatures, but the falsehoods were adjusted to fit in the context of a change in the law allowing the redevelopment of recently burned areas.  

The narrative reappeared with much higher engagement this year when wildfires burned the northern Spanish region of Asturias, according to the study.

At least two left-leaning public officials in Asturias at the time, as well as social media posts from right-leaning accounts in Spain, claimed the fires were intentionally provoked, but police said no arsonists were identified after multiple investigations.

Social media accounts affiliated with the Spanish far-right party Vox picked up such narratives weeks later and amplified them online, even falsely claiming that the Maui wildfires in Hawaii were also intentional, according to the study.

Lakatos said such conspiracy theories ultimately try to falsely argue that "wildfires aren't exacerbated by climate change." Human-caused climate change has already contributed to the planet’s warming about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, according to a March report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

According to the study released Thursday, more than a third (34%) of the X-based Spanish-language accounts found to be promoting misleading and false information about renewable energy display explicit signifiers of right-wing ideology, conservatism and support for Vox in Spain.

Representatives for Vox did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Spanish-language accounts on X expressing similar narratives about renewable energy and climate issues were based in Latin American countries like Mexico and Argentina.

Despite being from different countries, the accounts in the network are connected by shared ideology and language, López G. said.

Broader conspiracy theories in Spanish

Over the past year, Spanish-language social media users across those networks in Spain and Latin America have shared and translated clips and conspiracy theories from a documentary-like video claiming that noise from offshore wind farms killed over 60 whales, the study found.

The U.S Energy Department has said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead federal agency for marine mammal science and management, have found no evidence to support that.

Conspiracy theories spread by such accounts also “pushed exaggerated and decontextualized narratives” about solar farms’ polluting groundwater supplies, according to the study. Others described renewable energy technologies as being unreliable compared to fossil fuels and as a fabrication by wealthy elites to profit off renewable energy projects, according to the study.

Latinos are also more likely to rely on social media to stay informed than other groups. Messages produced in Spain and Latin America reach the feeds of Latinos in the U.S. through shared content and popular encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, among other platforms.

The researchers also found that Facebook groups created to organize specific communities opposing local renewable energy projects evolved into hubs for falsehoods and general anti-renewables discourse.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and WhatsApp, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

López G. and Lakatos also found that a significant number of the accounts posting false claims about climate change and renewable energy also spread misinformation about Covid-19, vaccines and the “great reset” — a conspiracy theory about turning the world into a single economic-political bloc to the detriment of national identities.

“The actors that are most interested in preserving the status quo have a vested interest in sowing doubt, in at least generating enough skepticism to make the development of these technologies more challenging,” López G. said.

Thousands of climate scientists contributing to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said the countries must shift to renewable energy and stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure to curb the effects of climate change and global warming.

“A small, radical minority is spreading lies in vulnerable communities, capitalizing on extreme weather events to sow doubt in renewable energy, a critical energy source that can save us from future climate disasters,” Edder-Diaz Martinez, a communications manager at GreenLatinos, said in a statement.