• Climate

Authorities undertaking climate action targeted by viral “Climate lockdowns” narrative on social media

Posted on:  2023-07-19

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, long before vaccines became available, many countries acted to curb the spread of the virus by imposing restrictions on people’s movement called lockdowns. Lockdowns have saved lives by reducing the physical interactions between infected and uninfected people, which in turn reduces transmission and the number of people infected[1-2]. In spite of their initial effectiveness at limiting the spread of the disease, there has been pushback against lockdowns and some even made conspiratorial claims that the purpose of lockdowns was for ‘global elites’ to control populations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is receding, a new narrative has emerged about lockdowns, linking it to measures to address climate change. This “Climate lockdowns” narrative promotes the idea that governments and/or some ‘elites’ would be using climate change as an excuse for imposing new restrictions on people’s freedom of movement or to ‘control’ populations. These messages usually communicate to their audience that climate change mitigation policies are an intolerable infringement on their freedom.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s (ISD) has written a detailed report on the narrative’s emergence. The ISD explained that when it emerged in late 2020, “continuous efforts by climate denialists to push the idea of a ‘climate lockdown’ failed to gain any traction”.

But the narrative started to gain traction in 2021 thanks in part to poorly written headlines, such as one in The Guardian for instance, which argued that carbon emissions reduction equivalent to those that happened during the COVID-19 lockdowns would be needed every two years to reach climate goals (see Figure 1). This and other articles by the World Economic Forum or Time Magazine were used by climate contrarians as evidence that “climate lockdowns” were a genuine concern.

Figure 1 – Screenshot of the Guardian article’s original headline on March 3rd 2021, before being revised later that day.

Mentions of “climate lockdown” in the media and on social media then reached record levels in 2022 when a controversy emerged around Oxford city planning measures designed to reduce traffic congestion, and implement the “15-minute city” concept.

While this urbanistic concept refers to having all amenities within a convenient 15-minute walking or biking distance, it was misrepresented by those pushing the climate lockdown narrative as an actual lockdown measure to confine people to their neighborhood (see Figure 2).

In a 2023 report, the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition observed that “The term itself is arguably more neutral than ‘climate lockdown’, allowing it to gain traction and penetrate beyond more niche or issue-specific communities online”. The report argues that the “15-minute city” concept turned the “climate lockdown” narrative into “a new, but considerably more mainstream, conspiracy”.

Figure 2 – Screenshot of a Twitter post from Simon Goddek in February 2023

During the Oxford controversy, these online narratives had consequences that affected the city’s daily life, with death threats being sent to Oxford local officials. Thousands also marched in the streets to protest, with placards repeating online claims.

Fact-checkers addressed “climate lockdowns” claims in Europe

Thousands of social media posts claiming that Oxford was planning a “Climate lockdown” by 2024 appeared all over Europe. In Croatia, Germany, France, and Poland, fact-checkers noticed posts misleading users by showing incomplete quotes and false information on decisions taken by Oxford local authorities.

Fact-checkers explained that while it is true that Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council recently enacted measures, only one of them mentions 2024, and none can be labeled a “lockdown”. In reality, the 2024 measure was Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to install traffic filters on 6 roads in order to limit traffic congestion at peak hour.

Disinformation spreaders claimed the County Council planned to confine and control residents. To counter this claim, fact-checkers provided readers with evidence from the County Council’s website, indicating that its goal was primarily to reduce traffic jams, speed up bus journeys, and make walking and cycling safer.

Some social media posts propagated the idea that Oxford residents wouldn’t be able to move freely, and would be fined if they cross the city because of traffic filters. Fact-checkers at Agence France Presse, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and Delfi provided evidence that traffic filters are only cameras able to read car plates. If residents pass through it at certain times of the day, they will receive a fine by mail. So Oxford residents won’t be prevented from traveling to any particular destination. During traffic filters’ operating hours, private cars might have to take a different route, but the city would still be accessible by car.

The second measure taken by the Oxford City Council that sparked disinformation on social media was a proposal to aim for “15-minute neighborhoods” in its 2040 agenda. Fact-checkers pointed out that this is different from the traffic filter measure and that it is only a proposal. Fact-checkers at Deutsche Welle, Verificat, Factual, and Maldita addressed claims that this proposal would confine residents within 6 districts, and control their daily lives.

In reality, the concept doesn’t include any restrictive boundary between each neighborhood. So there are no physical or theoretical barriers, nor limits for travels taking more than 15 minutes. The main objective, explained by Oxford authorities in a public statement, is to improve amenities in order to reduce long unnecessary travel. Fact-checkers gathered first-hand information interviewing law professors, urbanism experts, and Oxford authorities, who confirmed that the claims were misleading.

No government, whatever the political color, can compel citizens not to leave or enter any part of the national territory [in Spain],” Ignacio Álvarez Rodríguez, an expert on constitutional law and professor at Complutense University of Madrid, told Verificat.

More similar claims later appeared, such as that the 15-minute city includes limits and sanctions related to residents’ purchases of meat and dairy products. That claim was based on a video of a Walmart shop with cameras, allegedly monitoring customers’ dairy and meat purchases. In Ireland, fact-checkers from The Journal explained that the video featured in the claims actually shows the monitoring of product stock level on shelves, and that the 15-minute city concept has nothing to do with monitoring or limiting what people purchase.

Simultaneously, claims that the European Union (EU) would be planning Climate lockdowns also spread in Spain, prompting fact-checkers at Maldita to investigate. A media outlet’s Twitter account, called ‘El Puntual 24H’, claimed that the EU already considered “Climate lockdowns” as a sanction for member states that exceed pollution targets, arguing that there is evidence in a 2018 sanction from the EU’s Court of Justice.

However, Maldita examined the sanction and found that it was unrelated to climate lockdowns. Advanced searches turned up no EU decisions corresponding to the claims. In fact, the EU never considered applying “Climate lockdowns”, as confirmed by the EU Commission to Maldita.

Social media dynamics related to the “Climate lockdowns” surge

To understand how the narrative propagated in Europe, we analyzed posts and videos from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube mentioning keywords related to this narrative in different languages; our approach is detailed in the Method section below.

Figure 3 – Total number of tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos containing “Climate Lockdowns” narrative keywords in English (see Method for details)

Our analysis reveals that prior to August 2022, the number of social media posts related to “Climate lockdowns” remained relatively low (see Figure 3). The first notable increase in the number of posts took place in August 2022, relating to claims linking climate change to the Great Reset conspiracy.

From then on, the narrative was featured in tweets every day, building up momentum until December 2022. During that month, posts and videos containing “Climate Lockdowns” narrative keywords spiked in relation to Oxford’s city planning claims described above. A tweet representative of content shared during this wave was posted on 4 December 2022 by businessman Matt Guba.

Figure 4 – Screenshot of a Twitter post from Matt Guba in December 2022.

In his tweet, Matt Guba links to an article from Watts Up With That, a climate contrarian blog that regularly publishes misinformation. This illustrates how the narrative reached the more traditional climate contrarian ecosystem, after being initially propagated by actors focused on COVID-19. The same trend appears on all three platforms analyzed. From December 2022 onward, the narrative remained present in a higher number of posts, notably on Twitter (see Figure 3).

On YouTube, top promoters found a large audience, and their videos spreading the narrative in English have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on average. These videos often feature mentions of articles and conspiracy theories from other social media platforms, showing that disinformation on one platform feeds another. “We found most of the videos spread on TikTok: in various languages and with similar narratives” explains Deutsche Welle (DW) Science Editor Rachel Baig in an email to Science Feedback.

The “Climate lockdowns” narrative top promoters

We analyzed all posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube containing keywords associated with the narrative and then ranked the originating accounts according to social media metrics, namely the total number of interactions or views their posts generated, which show how widely they managed to spread the narrative (see Method for details).

“Climate lockdowns” promoters in English

Regarding English-language tweets, the accounts that received the most interactions on their climate lockdowns tweets are vloggers, with Peter Imanuelsen (who also goes by “Peter Sweden”) in the first place (see Table 1). Peter Sweden’s account was identified as a key propagator of climate change denial during COP27 in a CAAD report.

In second and third position come political commentators David Morgan and Blaire White, whose profiles show that they are also promoting misinformation on climate change. The list of top promoters also include other climate contrarians such as the JunkScience account and the British TV channel GB News, which has platformed a majority of hosts attacking climate change mitigation actions in 2022.

Top 25 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of likes for all “Climate lockdowns” posts
PeterSweden7 122,555
david_r_morgan 16,439
MsBlaireWhite 12,266
LayahHeilpern 11,832
SpacePirate144 10,704
goddeketal 9,056
BernieSpofforth 9,023
Resist_05 8,819
TheMarcitect 7,725
LibertyCappy 7,602
TheoFleury14 7,067
JackPosobiec 6,456
MattGubba 5,680
lucylocket1700 5,342
ElectionWiz 4,937
stillgray 4,915
MartyBent 4,350
PrisonPlanet 4,139
JunkScience 3,395
liz_churchill10 3,267
GBNEWS 3,262
sophiadahl1 3,220
profnfenton 3,050
Dominiquetaegon 3,021
rising_serpent 2,913

Table 1 – Twitter accounts that received the most likes for posts containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in English.

On Facebook, top promoters in English include the account of Breitbart, which has a track record of publishing misinformation. Certain Canadian, Australian, and American politicians also significantly propagated the narrative, with Maxime Bernier, Alex Antic, and Ron Paul numbering among their ranks. All three politicians publicly stated opposition to COVID-19 measures and climate change mitigation actions. Top spreaders also include two evangelist pages, Perry Stone Ministries and Amazing World Ministries.

Top 25 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of likes for all “Climate lockdowns” posts
Breitbart 3,849
Greg Reese’s Pieces 3,728
The Friends of Katie Hopkins 3,320
Devender Balhara 3,310
Ben Shapiro 3,114
Reignite Freedom 3,057
Topher Field 2,579
Maxime Bernier 2,488
America’s Voice News 2,306
Amazing Word Ministries 1,822
Perry Stone Ministries 1,775
True North 1,726
Senator Alex Antic 1,541
Wokebreed 1,269
Derrick Broze 1,234
Ron Paul 1,126
王大師 1,122
People’s Party of Canada 1,063
Brent Bozell 1,018
Libertarian Party 1,000
Young Americans for Liberty 953
Libertarians: Diligently Plotting to Take Over the World & Leave You Alone 908
Gript 883
BLACK SHEEP TRUTH MEDIA 867
Steve Deace 844

Table 2 – Facebook accounts that received the most likes for posts containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in English.

On YouTube, the top promoters in English include the channels of Fox News and Redacted, a show hosted by Clayton Morris, a former Fox News anchor. Independent commentators played a similar role, such as Tim Pool (Timcast IRL), who is famous for leading an interview with Kanye West spreading antisemitic remarks in 2022.

Top 15 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of views for all “Climate lockdowns” videos
Redacted 4,342,672
Fox News 2,555,840
Russell Brand 966,679
Timcast IRL 966,220
AwakenWithJP 775,681
Anything Goes 629,011
The Podcast of the Lotus Eaters 534,926
Paul Joseph Watson 521,318
The Blaire White Project 520,565
Clash Of Minds 500,248
GBNews 455,625
Neil McCoy-Ward 448,949
OFF GRID with DOUG & STACY 408,562
The Telegraph 376,620
Katie Hopkins OFFICIAL 368,982

Table 3 – YouTube accounts that received the most views for videos containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in English.

“Climate lockdowns” top promoters in German

German is the European language in which the narrative has propagated the most after English. Journalist Ricardo Lange sits at the top of the ranking for a viral “Climate lockdowns” tweet targeting Annalena Baerbock, the German Green Party (Gruene) candidate who ran for Chancellor in the 2021 legislative elections. Twitter top promoter Boris Reitschuster also published numerous tweets scaring users of bans on travel and demonstrations, closed borders and digital surveillance and “expropriations”, linking to “Climate lockdowns” disinformation articles on his blog.

Top 10 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of likes for all “Climate lockdowns” tweets
RicardoLange4 5,855
reitschuster 4,962
SHomburg 4,634
nenacasc 2,864
Panthea2019 2,524
seikritisch 2,382
rosenbusch_ 2,183
olivergorus 1,654
SusanneBaessler 1,313
nikitheblogger 1,285

Table 4 – Twitter accounts that received the most likes for posts containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in German.

On YouTube, BILD television channel dominates the ranking, especially for broadcasting an opinion piece titled “Corona was training for the climate crisis“. In this video, the channel’s editor-in-chief Claus Strunz propagated the narrative to millions of viewers as early as August 2022.

In addition, businessman Dominik Kettner also uses a gold and silver trading business’ YouTube channel to propagate the narrative to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Unaffiliated news channels such as Oli and Ketzer der Neuzeit also rank in the top promoters, with the latter going about interviewing residents about “Climate lockdowns”.

Top 10 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of views for all “Climate lockdowns” YouTube videos
BILD 956,140
Kettner-Edelmetalle (Gold & Silber) 833,663
Oli 648,780
Ketzer der Neuzeit 559,161
Ernst Wolff 298,710
Gerald Grosz 173,901
Boris Reitschuster 144,217
Horst Lüning 140,981
Hallo Meinung 118,006
Grumbeer 66 111,328

Table 5 – YouTube accounts that received the most views for videos containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in German.

“Climate lockdowns” top promoters in French

In French, far-right politician Florian Philippot dominates the ranking on Twitter. He was previously reported for fueling the French-language climate change denial Twitter community. He claims that “Climate lockdowns” are drawing near, and that governments are preparing “Climate passes”. Other accounts are mostly anonymous, except for Maxime Barnier and Fabrice Di Vizio, a lawyer who was temporarily barred from practice for his breaches of essential professional principles when he was criticizing the COVID-19 vaccine on Twitter and TV.

Top 10 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of likes for all “Climate lockdowns” tweets
f_philippot 8,922
VictorSinclair3 2,374
FLyMachabert 2,089
El_Dic_TatoR 1,694
DIVIZIO1 1,517
AldoSterone111 1,279
MarieMonon 1,050
humansouverain 851
EricArchambaul7 580
MaximeBernier 507

Table 6 – Twitter accounts that received the most likes for posts containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in French.

In French, the narrative’s spread is more developed on YouTube, where rapper Mysa dedicated a song to promoting “Climate lockdowns” and COVID-19 conspiracies, which was viewed nearly 900,000 times. French media outlets Valeurs Actuelles and TV Libertés are also present in the top 10 as well as Florian Philippot seen above on Twitter.

Top 10 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of views for all “Climate lockdowns” YouTube videos
Mysa // Parle Vrai 890,384
FLORIAN PHILIPPOT 526,239
VA Plus 224,053
VISION D’ESPOIR TV 199,044
Juste Milieu. 136,640
Chaîne officielle TVL 55,293
Reservoir Apps 47,458
5:5 35,386
Aldo Sterone 25,595
VISION D’ÉSPOIR MÉDIAS INTERNATIONALES 7,514

Table 7 – YouTube accounts that received the most views for videos containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in French.

“Climate lockdowns” top promoters in Spanish

In Spanish, anonymous users make up a significant part of top promoters on Twitter, except for the media outlet ‘El Puntual 24H’, which was reported by Maldita fact-checkers for having spread at least 36 disinformation claims. “Climate lockdowns” claims have also been backed by politicians, and “especially by far-right political parties (VOX),” Verificat journalist Andrea Arnal told Science Feedback in an email.

Top 10 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of likes for all “Climate lockdowns” tweets
jimenezlessons4 2,106
Puntual24H 1,929
IosefStealer 1,489
AbogadoDiabIo 1,139
infovlogger36 1,121
danialonpri 710
CCRadovic2012 491
manhattan_2 441
rsarille4 411
Ari_Arifu2 379

Table 8 – Twitter accounts that received the most likes for posts containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in Spanish.

On YouTube, vloggers such as Conéctate con John and InfoVlogger LIVE are the main narrative promoters. In the most-viewed video, vlogger David Santos targeted the EU Commission and the international science conference Transfiere, claiming these organizations are part of the conspiracy.

Top 9 narrative promoters’ account name Total number of views for all “Climate lockdowns” YouTube videos
David Santos 84,424
Conéctate con John 61,652
Alejandro Bermeo 43,164
InfoVlogger LIVE 37,816
El Notición 2 25,819
Chechu Leduc 21,581
Gabito Rodriguez 18,585
RoberSR 18,185
Navarra Confidencial 216

Table 9 – YouTube accounts that received the most views for videos containing keywords associated with the “Climate Lockdowns” narrative in Spanish.

Other countries and platforms

Misleading climate lockdown claims have also been identified by fact-checkers in Poland, Croatia, Latvia and Slovakia. Although the data collected in these languages was insufficient to run a detailed analysis, this doesn’t imply that the narrative isn’t being weaponized against climate policies in these countries

In an email to Science Feedback, Re:Baltica journalist Evita Puriņa said that in Latvia, the narrative was pushed by “COVID-19 skeptics and anti-vaxxers on Facebook, and anonymous nationalistic Twitter accounts”.

The climate lockdowns narrative also spread through less public media such as “in Telegram chats created to spread disinformation about COVID-19,” explains Investigative Coordinator for Maldita.es Pablo Hernández Escayola.

In Ireland, The Journal journalist Stephen McDermott also confirmed to Science Feedback that he spotted the narrative’s propagation through Telegram, notably “in Irish conspiracy groups and channels of far-right misinformation spreaders; particularly prevalent among those who gathered to protest against lockdown measures, and spread conspiracies about Covid-19.

Potential for new “Climate lockdowns” disinformation campaigns

New claims of climate change mitigation measures being “Climate lockdowns” have sprouted all over Europe since late 2022. France’s banning of some short-haul domestic flights, Italy’s heat restrictions during winter 2022, the EU’s energy consumption targets for member states, or Canterbury’s plan to reduce car use were all claimed to be instances of climate lockdowns.

Most new “Climate lockdown” claims identified in 2023 come from regular social media users who haven’t gained enough traction to trigger a controversy similar to Oxford’s. Yet, the media has shown it has potential to amplify these deceptive talking points.

Indeed, our data shows that “Climate lockdowns” top promoters’ posts were shared 3 times more than politicians’ ones on Facebook when they come from a media account, and videos from media accounts amount to 82% of all top promoters’ views on YouTube.

The increasing number of measures to limit greenhouse gas pollution that can be expected in the future will certainly present opportunities for future weaponization and misrepresentation. Writers, editors, and journalists should be aware of these manipulation tactics when discussing the aftermath of COVID-19 restrictions or future climate policies, knowing that some actors are trawling for any evidence to boost the manufactured ‘climate lockdown’ outrage.

REFERENCES

Method

Data collection

We searched for and analyzed content related to climate lockdowns in June 2023 on Twitter, Facebook (using Crowdtangle), and YouTube. Facebook and Twitter posts were analyzed if posted after the 1st of Nov. 2020, while YouTube data was analyzed without a date condition. The boolean queries used in all the languages were suggested by fact-checkers with local knowledge. Boolean queries allow combining words in specific searches, such as plural and singular versions of a term.

The boolean queries used to search posts on Twitter and Facebook are:

  • in English: “climate lockdown” OR “climate lockdowns” OR ”climatelockdown” OR “climatelockdowns”
  • in French: “confinement climatique” OR “confinements climatiques” OR “confinementclimatique” OR “confinementsclimatiques”
  • in Spanish: “Confinamiento climático” OR “confinamientos climáticos” OR “Confinamientoclimático” OR “confinamientosclimáticos”
  • in Polish: “klimatycznego lockdownu”
  • in German: “Klima Lockdown” OR “Klima Lockdowns” OR “KlimaLockdown” OR “KlimaLockdowns”
  • in Portuguese: “confinamento climático” OR “confinamentos climáticos” OR “confinamentoclimático” OR “confinamentosclimáticos”
  • in Croatian: “klimatskom zatvaranju”

On YouTube, the query used are:

  • in English: “Climate lockdown”
  • in French: “confinement climatique”
  • in Spanish: “Confinamiento climático”
  • in Polish:  “klimatycznego lockdownu”
  • in German: “Klima Lockdown”
  • in Portuguese: “confinamento climático”
  • in Croatian: “klimatskom zatvaranju”

Top promoters

We ranked and analyzed the accounts which had received the most interactions for all posts or videos published containing keywords associated with the narrative. Accounts in the rankings were identified based on the number of likes received for Twitter and Facebook posts, and on the number of video views on YouTube. We summed the likes or views obtained for all posts or videos containing the narrative’s keywords published by each account.
Likes were chosen as a metric over shares or retweets on Facebook and Twitter as they are a clearer sign of endorsement of the content. We tested whether our results hold when using shares as the main metric and observed that the rankings obtained are similar, with minor differences.
Because not all mentions of “climate lockdowns” are supporting the misinformation narrative, we manually verified climate-lockdown related content published by each account before including them in our top promoters ranking. Posts or videos which did not promote the narrative were taken out. Similarly, when it emerged upon review that all the climate-lockdown related posts published by a given account were in fact not promoting the narrative, the account was removed from the sample.

Science Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
Please get in touch if you have any comment or think there is an important claim or article that would need to be reviewed.

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