Naomi Seibt was supposed to be the right’s answer to Greta Thunberg — a charismatic, blonde, German teen who would challenge climate science, like a comic book nemesis who is endowed with the same powers and abilities as her foe. Her conservative backers at the Heartland Institute billed her as a much-needed voice of reason. Seibt, now 20, earned coverage in The Washington Post and The Guardian for rebuffing climate advocates, and she built a small following online.
But Seibt never reached the heights of fame or influence that Thunberg had achieved. After her debut at the start of this year, she began to drift from the spotlight. That changed in May when she doubled down on her wholesale rejection of facts, giving credence to QAnon, a far-right conspiratorial movement claiming that Donald Trump is trying to stop a satanic cabal of pedophiles made up of liberal elites. A new analysis shows that Seibt saw a spike in new Twitter followers after repeatedly referencing QAnon.
“After her initial intro, Seibt’s star faded very quickly,” said Michael Khoo, an advisor to Friends of the Earth. “When she started talking about Qanon, she started to gain a lot more traction. And that’s the dynamic that has a long-term danger to us.”
Khoo oversaw a recent analysis of climate denial online undertaken by the firm Graphika. It found that climate deniers, like Seibt, have begun sharing content related to QAnon in recent months. Khoo believes that climate deniers are vying for support of QAnon believers, and that if they succeed, it could pose a serious threat to the goals of the climate movement.
In August, Seibt posted a YouTube video about child trafficking that suggested online furniture retailer Wayfair may have named certain items after missing children, a nod to spurious claims from QAnon supporters that Wayfair is selling cabinets with the missing children contained therein. This is patently false, but Seibt treats it with undue seriousness
“Just because some of the claims about these issues are made by a certain movement that you might not consider credible — namely, the QAnon movement — that shouldn’t deter you from looking into the evidence anyway,” she says at the start of the video. “As of right now, I don’t consider myself an active part of the QAnon movement, but I am on the side, watching and evaluating for myself what I think is verifiable and what, to me, seems too far out there.”
Khoo said Seibt is one example of an alarming trend among climate change deniers. Since a QAnon account said in May that the Paris Agreement is a scam, the online community of deniers has been tweeting more about QAnon, according to the analysis.
“People who lead conspiratorial movements, such as anti-vaxxers and COVID denialists, have latched onto QAnon because they see the QAnon community as a ripe audience to believe their nonsense, and they’re correct,” said Travis View, a journalist and conspiracy theory researcher who co-hosts the podcast QAnon Anonymous.
Even some elected officials, most notably President Trump, have lent some support to QAnon, though usually with the same caveats offered by Seibt, who told DeSmog blog that, while she is not part of the QAnon movement, she believes it is “a positive contribution to the global political discourse.”
In May, FBI agents in Phoenix issued an intelligence bulletin warning that conspiracy theories, including QAnon, “very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal, sometimes violent activity.” In July, the counter-terrorism center at West Point published an article naming QAnon a potential security threat.
Online, QAnon supporters have helped spread misinformation about climate change, including a recent claim that wildfires in the western United States were caused by antifa activists, View said. The notion that disasters like wildfires or the pandemic must have been planned is characteristic of QAnon adherents, he said.
“People say that QAnon is a conspiracy theory. That undersells it. It’s not like believing there are UFOs in Area 51 or that Bigfoot lives in Oregon,” View said. “This is an all-encompassing worldview, and it’s an extremist belief that you are a digital soldier fighting evil, and that by posting and meme-ing, you can revolutionarily change the world.”
Currently, two in 10 Americans, including four in 10 Republicans, say that QAnon is a “somewhat good” or “very good” thing for the country, according to Pew Research. Some 81 current or former congressional candidates have in some way promoted QAnon, according to Media Matters.
Khoo worries that, if Joe Biden manages to win in November and Democrats take control of Congress, QAnon supporters will help stymie efforts to pass major climate change legislation needed to avoid catastrophic warming.
“My greatest fear is that if we have a rare moment to take real action on climate change, they could be the foot soldiers that stop that,” Khoo said. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered.”
View said the social media companies have a critical role to play in stemming disinformation, whether it relates to QAnon or climate change denial, but that these companies — Facebook, in particular — have largely failed in that duty.
Though Facebook removed hundreds of QAnon accounts last month, in other ways it has allowed disinformation to proliferate, especially when it comes to climate change. It has permitted users, in some cases, to promote opinion pieces that include false claims about climate change, and it has failed to take down disinformation, much less remove repeat offenders, Khoo said. This has created an opening for figures like Seibt.
To help address the spread of climate denial, Facebook recently created the Climate Science Information Center, which will educate users about climate change. But green groups, including Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace called on Facebook to do more.
“Climate deniers are an easy group to define — we gave Facebook the list,” they said in a statement. “Just as Facebook has taken responsibility for its own carbon emissions, it must take responsibility to stop climate deniers from spreading disinformation on its platform.”
This is especially urgent as deniers grow cozier with QAnon, Khoo said, adding, “They need to put the spotlight on this group of known climate deniers, and give them a very short leash, where it’s two strikes and they are off the platform.”
The fact that tech companies have done so little to rein in conspiracy theories is perhaps the best evidence that an elite cabal actually isn’t manipulating global affairs.
“If the worlds of media and academia and technology and politics all came together, the most powerful people in all of these realms, and decided that this was something worth addressing, and took serious action to help stem it, they could,” View said. “I just don’t think they’re going to.”
Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.