The story warned of “long cold winter” that could bring record-low temperatures to Earth over the next few months. It even compared the impending event to the Little Ice Age of the 17th century.
Despite appearing in Fox News, two daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and at least 12 local radio shows, the claim is false — and its origin is a classic case of what Emmanuel Vincent likes to think of as media telephone.
“It’s an illustration of how you go from a scientist saying something, a blog imitating some information, a newspaper covering that blog and online social media just completely jumping away from what it meant originally,” said Vincent, founder and project lead at fact-checking project Climate Feedback. “At the end, the story has changed a lot.”
The mini-Ice Age story — which claimed that sunspot activity on the surface of the Sun has dropped, causing an impending dip in temperatures — first flared up on blogs like the Space Weather Archive. A NASA official told the site in late September that they’d been seeing a cooling trend in the Earth’s atmosphere, which could set a Space Age record for cold.
Nowhere in the blog post did the author claim that the phenomenon could affect temperatures on the planet’s surface. But a Nov. 16 news story from Metro, a free daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, that cited the blog post bore the headline: “A mini ice age could be on the way and it’s going to get very, very cold."
“It can be misunderstood if you don’t really realize (the scientists were) talking about the cooling of the upper reaches in the atmosphere, very high in the thermosphere zone,” said Vincent, who has a doctorate in oceanography and climate.
Climate Feedback debunked the Metro story Nov. 20, citing the original NASA source and a climate scientist who clarified that there’s no relationship between the temperature of the thermosphere and the weather on Earth’s surface. In a subsequent email, the author of the Metro story told the fact-checker that he made a mistake.
“(Metro) wasn’t the first one to report on that. So maybe he was influenced by other coverage in other blogs that made that jump,” Vincent said. “He wasn’t the kind of person saying this was real. He got duped by others doing that.”
Metro corrected its story, dramatically changing its headline and lead in the process. But it was already too late.
The same day that Metro published its story about the alleged mini-Ice Age, The Sun, another daily newspaper in the U.K., published one foreshadowing a “deep freeze” based on the same misunderstanding of the NASA scientist’s quote. Fox News republished that article on its website, amassing nearly 7,000 Facebook engagements as of publication, according to BuzzSumo.
Sputnik, The Drudge Report and even Sarah Palin also amplified the false claim, according to a Climate Feedback analysis.
“It’s not just what the newspaper says — it’s what the newspaper allows people to say on social media,” Vincent said. “If you look at people on social media, they go much further. There’s a Facebook page called ClimateChangeIsNatural. They said, ‘Look, this is a story that says global warming is fake.’”
Larger conspiratorial blogs, such as IceAgeNow, also rewrote and amplified false claims from Metro, getting nearly 30,000 Facebook engagements as of publication, according to BuzzSumo. Like Metro, Fox and The Sun have also since corrected their stories.
This wasn’t the first time that mainstream media were duped into amplifying falsehoods about climate change, Vincent said.
In November 2016, The Daily Mail reported that new data indicated El Niño was responsible for record highs in global temperatures, not man-made emissions. But that story cherry-picked the facts, selecting only one record and ignoring the data’s limitations, so Climate Feedback debunked it.
In another example, the Australian edition of weekly British magazine The Spectator published an article in August 2017 with the false claim that climate change is mostly natural. In its debunk, Climate Feedback reported that the story was based on a bogus scientific study in a notoriously unreliable journal.
“In this case, it's a big lack of verification from the journalists themselves,” Vincent said. “They just take some information and amplify it — they’re not taking the time to verify it.”