Artists and activists Robert Del Naja (also founding member of Massive Attack) and Bill Posters, perhaps best known for his eerie celebrity deepfakes, have teamed up with green energy industralist Dale Vince on a platform called Eco-Bot.Net. The project is many things: a resource for reporters, a call to arms, and what Posters calls a “network-based performance”. It’s also a clear condemnation of the key players in spreading climate change ‘disinformation’ or ‘greenwashing’ – whether that’s big energy firms or big tech.
“We’re talking about three of the world’s largest social media platforms with over four billion users, and none of them have effective policies to limit the harms caused by climate change disinformation or corporate greenwashing, They always say there’s no threat of immediate harm. This is their default PR position,” says Posters, who was lead artist on the project with Del Naja.
Del Naja tells us that the project was originally intended to run as part of Massive Attack’s Liverpool event several months ago, which the group cancelled when it transpired that an arms fair was taking place at the same venue, and instead shifted focus to Cop26 instead. Rather than stage a physical stunt in Glasgow, the team instead infiltrated the digital spaces where these activities are rife, both with their own Eco-Bot.Net platform and social media activity.
To scour for disinformation, the system pulls in data from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and searches for words and phrases that may fall into this category, as well as searching for content published by known actors like “disinformation entities or organisations”, Posters says. Positive matches are funnelled into databases and the in-house team of (human) journalists will moderate each post and apply easy-to-understand groupings: ‘it’s not real’, ‘it’s not us,’ ‘it’s not bad’, ‘the expert’s unreliable’, or ‘climate solutions won’t work’.
Data is then turned into visualisations and flagged on social media like a health warning. Adopting such language ties into what the artists want social media companies to be doing with this content. “If you can build a flagging system to limit the harms from Covid-19 disinformation, and do that pretty effectively when … there wasn’t really consensus around the science in many ways, why can’t you do something for the climate when the consensus has been resolute for almost 40 years?” Posters says.
The process is similar for corporate greenwashing content, however another system is instead used to comb Facebook and Instagram for ads listed as “political or issue-based”, which have been published this year. In particular they’re searching for sponsored posts by heavy polluters or emitters, like carbon majors.
How they decide what constitutes disinformation or greenwashing is “really one of the most important aspects of the whole project,” Posters says. He explains that they consider ‘climate change disinformation’ to be “intentionally deceptive or clearly misleading content to do with climate change,” Posters says, while they’re drawing on researcher Aoife Brophy Haney’s definition of ‘corporate greenwashing’ to mean “a tactic used by companies that are heavy emitters [to] mislead consumers about the green credentials of the company”.
The artists knew that if they were going to “tear the lid off some of the black box technologies of these social media platforms and try to glimpse the scale of a problem, we’d have to make sure that the way we did it would have to be rigorous and academic,” Posters explains. “We have to make sure that we do not create any misinformation or disinformation ourselves. That’s critical.”
Similarly, a project exposing damaging content would need to be careful about damaging the environment itself. The team worked with the likes of identity designer Benjamin Lee as well as artist Benjamin Kreukniet on the visuals, and colour became an important consideration of the overall design. Not just for aesthetics but for energy-saving reasons too – lower screen brightness requires less battery and processing power. “And of course, one of the big challenges is how we’re going to power it,” says Del Naja, who found a server company powered by green energy.
Del Naja has long been vocal about climate change, and has criticised the relationship between major polluters and live events promoters. “It’s been very frustrating to have to be the artist that has to speak out against the nature of some of the partnerships we’re seeing on the back pages of the festival brochures. So it’s something we’ve been very aware of,” he tells us.
“In terms of the way it’s propagating on social media, it’s frightening,” he says of disinformation and greenwashing. “When we ask Facebook what their response is to some of the information we’re picking up, some of the data we’re finding, they always refer to the fact checkers. But who are the fact checkers? How experienced are they as journalists in recognising that political lobbying manipulation, which masquerades as ads or … as a concern about your consumer choices or your pocket or your fiscal security? When really, somebody is blatantly lobbying on behalf of transnationals.”