Meet the 'trollhunters' battling climate disinformation online

Meet the 'trollhunters' battling climate disinformation online

Hoax so simple — Fuelled by their passion for the environment and disdain for “nonsense”, an anonymous collective called Team Ninja Trollhunters is patrolling Twitter for accounts spreading climate crisis conspiracies and denialism.

Before Helen* retired from her job in hospitality, she spent her evenings relaxing on the sofa after what was typically a hard day. Now, it’s her down-time that’s less restful. She spends it doing the increasingly difficult work of combatting climate disinformation on Twitter, responding to claims that the climate crisis isn’t real and humans aren’t causing it.

“I am not a scientist, and I’m not sure how Twitter works,” she stresses, as she tells me about her passion for climate activism. Speaking over Zoom, her voice is full of warmth and conviction. “But the planet is warming and you can’t start saying it isn’t, because it’s just so important. It’s important not to let people get away with lies.”

Helen initially joined Twitter for marketing purposes, but her passion for the environment combined with her disdain for “nonsense” took her social media activity down a different path. She was soon approached by Team Ninja Trollhunters (TNT), an anonymous online collective who, like Helen, have taken defending the truth about climate into their own hands. She joined their ranks and has been a member for nearly three years. 

Helen lives in the UK, but TNT’s members are geographically dispersed across the US, Europe and Australia. They are mostly men, and many of them retired. Their goal is to publicly challenge climate disinformation so that others don’t take it at face value. This also involves getting influential climate denial accounts removed – so far, TNT’s co-ordinated efforts have led to the removal of over 500 accounts.  

Peter is based in Canada, and was part of TNT’s formation back in 2019. It was “very organic,” he says, “much like many activist groups.” Seeing a couple of like-minded souls taking a similar approach to battling trolls, he soon made contact. The group set up a private communications channel, and kept an eye out for others who could join them. TNT has since grown by invitation only, and membership topped out at around 25 people – all, Peter says, ”truly talented, wonderful, capable, friendly, good human beings.” 

Peter describes a trollhunter as “really just somebody who steps up to someone being a jerk in public and says ‘No, please leave, sir, you’re not welcome here’. And I say, ‘Sir’ specifically,” he adds, “because for the most part it’s men.” He spends around two hours every day on Twitter, snatching pockets of time throughout the day between tasks at his office job. “I’m not, you know, surfing cat videos,” he clarifies. “I use my time judiciously”.

If you’ve not stumbled across the types of tweets TNT is fighting, apologies in advance for disturbing your peace. We’re talking gems like “Greta Thunberg is the problem, not fossil fuels”, “climate is a hoax, people”, and incredible theories such as “our Sun, as well as the excursion and weakening of Earth’s magnetic field, are responsible for climate change”. 

Tweets like these are being liked and shared by hundreds of people, and viewed by thousands. Tom*, another member of TNT, based in Germany, explains that the process of trollhunting involves keeping a watchful eye on a few of the most popular accounts. TNT’s members use their span of geographies and time zones to their advantage, coordinating so they can quickly pounce on a troll’s next tweet. “It is quite important to reply with your information as soon as they’ve [tweeted],” Tom says. “If you get in there quickly, that helps.” TNT’s members like to link out to credible evidence, and Tom is among the TNT members whose professional background in climate science means he can guide other members on the latest scientific findings from the likes of the IPCC and Project Drawdown.

Trollhunting is a delicate game. Locate your target, push back, and bring in the troops – but don’t get blocked, and avoid doing anything worthy of reporting. Tom’s tweets have the air of a battle-worn parent addressing a toddler: “I will have to ignore you until you calm down”, he writes to one troll. TNT tend to leave the insult-hurling to their adversaries, preferring to simply respond with evidence. ”I might occasionally put a clown emoji,” Tom laughs, “but that’s about the limit”. 

Tom considers the most important trait of a trollhunter to be “endless patience”. Another is being unafraid to speak out. Tom is pleased to tell me that he was blocked just the day before by Jordan Peterson. But pushing back against harmful messages can incur threats, which is why TNT members have always preferred to stay anonymous. The man behind one climate disinformation account has threatened Tom with legal action after Tom pointed out the false statements he had made. And anonymity is important for trollhunters’ safety, given the aggressive language they are often met with.

Despite this, TNT’s members continue to challenge disinformation on Twitter because the messages that reverberate around the Twittersphere matter. The nature of Twitter is such that there are no walls, no private groups, no barriers to an idea spreading. This is great for climate activism, explains Giulio Corsi, a Research Associate at Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Institute focusing on online misinformation and disinformation. “Social media platforms have a very, very important role in providing a forum for movements to spread their message to a wider audience. And Twitter is particularly useful because of the structure of the platform – basically, everyone sees everyone.” Indeed, Twitter has come to be something of a home for the climate movement, and research has identified its role in building energy behind protests and progress in the offline world. 

But more recently, what was once a home has become hostile. A recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue describes how the hashtag #ClimateScam suddenly spiked in July 2022 and has mysteriously continued to trend, despite more activity and engagement around hashtags like #ClimateCrisis and #ClimateEmergency. Elon Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter, and his position as a ‘free speech absolutist’, has led to hundreds of previously banned accounts being reinstated. Most of those that TNT had successfully got removed are now back in action (“that was a bit of a kick in the teeth,” Tom says ruefully), and the reporting process is much slower and less effective than it used to be. Peter describes how, “before, if somebody said, ‘I’ve got a noose waiting for you’, then boom, it’s gone within hours. Now it can take maybe a week or two, and they might not take it away. It’s a significant shift.” 

Many climate scientists have noted the flood of climate denial bots and trolls in recent months; some have been overwhelmed by it. And it certainly hasn’t made TNT’s job any easier. Disillusioned and exhausted by the limitations put on their impact, around a third of the TNT’s members have fallen away since October 2022. 

Even at the best of times, it’s almost impossible for TNT to get a handle on the size of their impact. “Success for us is reaching people,” Peter says. “Success is having somebody stop in that busy, merry-go-round of their day and go, ‘oh I didn’t know that.’ And that happens so often. But most of the time, it’s silent.” This kind of changing-of-minds is difficult to measure, which can leave members doubting their impact. As Tom says, “when I look at how many tweets I’ve made in the last few years, I think – is that just a terrible waste of time? Would it be better spent writing to MPs and other things? But I think it can have a big influence.” 

Of course, Twitter itself is limited in its reach, dominated as it is by a “very Western, educated audience,” as Corsi puts it. “It’s not the most representative or global platform to spread a message.” 

Still, the scale of Twitter’s reach is staggering: some prominent climate misinformation accounts have more than a million followers. It’s hard not to see TNT’s work as the stemming of a dangerous tide, however futile that might sometimes feel.

The group’s remaining members are dogged. Helen is clear that we must keep the climate conversation going: “the more we talk about [climate change], the more concerned we will get, and the more likely it is that action will be taken.”

Ultimately, their outlook is one of hope. “I’m an optimist,” Peter says. “I’m not naive, but I know that better things are possible. And that’s a current that runs through every person who is in TNT as well – we know it’s possible.

“I am here until the climate crisis is solved,” he adds resolutely. “However long that takes.” 

*Some names have been changed for privacy.

Follow Becca on Twitter. 

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter