Hoaxes about Greta Thunberg go after her family, image and activism. But why?

September 30, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Like a tsunami following an earthquake, waves of misinformation, conspiracy theories and hoaxes have come crashing down on 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg after her groundbreaking speeches and protests about climate change this month.

The attacks go after her family, her image and her activism. While hard at work debunking them, fact-checkers have speculated why there’s been so much misinformation clouding the teenager and her work.

Last week, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to speak in front of the U.S. Congress and at the United Nations climate summit, held in New York. As a result, she became the object of international scrutiny and attention from a range of critics, many of which are using false or misleading claims to discredit her.

Ad hominem attacks

The facts: Thunberg’s family consists of her parents, her younger sister and her grandfather. All are involved in some way with theater. Her mother is an opera singer and actress. Her sister is a singer. And her father is an author, actor and producer.

When Thunberg was young, she pressured her parents to reduce their carbon footprint by becoming vegan and giving up flying, which meant an end for her mother’s international career. The family detailed their story in their book “Scenes From the Heart,” which was published in 2018.

Thunberg’s parents were supportive of her missing school to protest climate change in late 2018. “[We] respect that she wants to make a stand. She can either sit at home and be really unhappy, or protest, and be happy,” her father told The Guardian last September.

The hoaxes: Internet trolls have gone after Thunberg’s personal life repeatedly, coming up with an array of conspiracy theories as to her true motivations and identity.

In Germany, the fact-checking platform Correctiv debunked the claim that Thunberg’s campaign is just a PR stunt being coordinated by her parents and a businessman.

In Brazil, fact-checking platforms Aos Fatos and Agência Lupa have both debunked the viral claim that Thunberg was abandoned by her father, lives with the Islamic state, and that her mother teaches teenagers how to perform abortions.

Snopes in the United States debunked claims that Thunberg is a child actress named Estella Renee, and another alleging that she was named the highest-paid activist by a magazine called “People with Money.”

False photos of Greta

The facts: Thunberg is a savvy social media user, and viral photos of her protesting and speaking have been a central part of her campaign.

The video of her speaking at the UN’s climate summit, in New York, has been shared widely, as has the photo of her first strike from August 2018, when she sat alone outside the Swedish Parliament.

She documents her travels frequently on Twitter and Instagram, and has met with leaders like former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

The hoaxes: Dozens of false or doctored images of Thunberg have surfaced in the last week.

In Belgium, Turkey, Italy, France and the United States, fact-checking platforms have discredited a false image of Thunberg with the American financier George Soros.

The image, which was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, was doctored from an original photo of the teenager posing with Al Gore. Thunberg had posted it on Instagram in December 2018 after their meeting, but the photoshopped version of her with Soros has recently been making rounds all over the world.

In Brazil, claims went as far as stating that Thunberg is Soros’ granddaughter. Agência Lupa clarified that this is false.

More doctored photos have altered the wording on Thunberg’s protest signs, placed her posing next to the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, and even edited her background to make it seem as though Thunberg ate lunch next to a group of starving children.

Discrediting her attitude towards climate

The facts: Climate scientists are no stranger to hoaxes and death threats.

Buzzfeed News recently reported on young teenage girls’ propensity to be targeted and attacked for their climate activism, and there were plenty of examples that showed Thunberg is not alone in the harassment she faces for her work.

“The rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible — and especially vulnerable — target: kids,” the article states.

The hoaxes: In the United States, PolitiFact fact-checked an image that claimed to show fields of trash left behind by Thunberg’s Sept. 20 climate strike, which included an estimated 4 million people across 161 countries.

The photo was actually taken from an event in Hyde Park in London in April.

In Germany, Correctiv discredited a claim that stated Thunberg’s crossing of the Atlantic by sailboat was overseen by a military aircraft.

Overall, however, Thunberg’s soundly scientific approach to her activism has made it difficult to attack her arguments, which is why Mikko Salo, founder of the fact-checking platform Faktabaari in Finland, believes many of her critics have had to resort to conjuring false content.

“She is young, a woman, and has an inconvenient science-based message that mobilizes across Europe and globally to wide audiences,” he wrote in an email to the IFCN.

“She seems to touch both emotion and rationale with her no-nonsense style urging immediate action; Greta is simply dangerous to many stakeholders, and disinformation is a powerful tool to polarize and create confusion.”

Salo was one of the first fact-checkers to report on Thunberg back in March.

In February, the activist gave a speech at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, urging politicians to act quickly to combat climate change. Shortly after, Faktabaari published a fact-check of Thunberg’s claims, concluding that the teenager had “done her science homework.”

“Especially when Greta and other young activists submitted a complaint about five countries, along with Turkey, misinformation spread on social media,” said Gülin Çavuş, the editor-in-chief of Teyit.org in Turkey. “This complaint makes Turkey look bad… so people started searching for who the ‘big powers’ (behind her actions were,) to be able to attack this decision.”

On Monday, Thunberg and 15 other children activists filed a complaint with the United Nations “alleging that five of the world’s major economies had violated their human rights by not taking adequate action to stop the unfolding climate crisis.”

Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey were the five countries addressed.

“The manipulated image of Greta with Soros was an example of this, of people trying to show how the decision was driven by bigger powers,” Çavuş said.

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