Over the past three years, global warming has consistently proven to be one of the most debated and divisive subjects in the blogosphere. And last week, a new development in the conflict created another firestorm.
Peter Gleick, a well-known scientist and advocate for the existence of climate change, admitted he used a false identity to obtain internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that questions the existence of global warming. What ensued was a passionate and often angry conversation about the science of global warming, ethics, and the motives of those on both sides of the debate. While many bloggers weighed in, voices of climate change skeptics were more numerous.
For the week of February 20-24, the controversy involving Gleick, labeled by some as "FakeGate," was the top news story on blogs, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Since PEJ began tracking social media in 2009, there have been 14 weeks when global warming has been among the top five most discussed subjects among bloggers. And in most of those instances-as was the case last week-skeptics filled a larger segment of the conversation than defenders of the science.
To critics of global warming science, the episode brought back memories of the "ClimateGate" scandal of November 2009 when emails leaked from a British research unit raised questions about the methods used by some scientists to defend climate change. Gleick's unethical actions, they argued, were further proof that global warming militants need to use dishonest methods to defend their views.
Those who believe in global warming, on the other hand, focused more on what the documents revealed about the Heartland Institute-including the organization's funding and their plans to influence public education. There was a split among those global warming believers, however, as to whether Gleick's questionable method justified the means.
Gleick and the Heartland Institute
On February 14, an anonymous person released online internal documents from the Heartland Institute. The memos showed oil companies and other corporate interests were behind the efforts to deny climate change and influence education. Several blogs, including Desmogblog, published the memos while a number of news organizations, including the New York Times and the Huffington Post, reported on the documents. Heartland released a statement saying that documents had been inappropriately leaked, although they claimed that at least one was a forgery.
Bloggers who backed global warming science jumped on the news to raise questions about the motives of organizations like Heartland.
"Heartland raised more than $2 million from insurance companies...another half million from tobacco producers...and raked in a $14 million donation from one anonymous individual," described Squatlo-Rant. "Obviously, keeping doubt in the public's mind about man-made climate change is in the best interests of those who currently profit from doing business as usual, regardless of the outcome for mankind or the planet itself."
"One can only hope that American teachers are able to put up a strong resistance to this well-funded propaganda machine," added Lorne at Education and Its Discontents.
Within two days of the release, details emerged regarding how the documents were obtained. According to Heartland, someone pretending to be a board member requested the documents from their annual meeting. That news, along with certain technical components of the documents, led some reporters and bloggers to question if the documents were real.
Megan McArdle of The Atlantic gave a number of reasons why she thought at least one specific document was fake. That document, she noted, was scanned into a computer while all the others were PDFs generated from electronic files. She also suggested that the language of that memo was different from the others as was its "worldview."
Enough questions were raised about the validity of the documents that on February 20, Peter Gleick published a note on the Huffington Post admitting he attained them using a false identity.
"Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document," Gleick confessed. "In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name."
Gleick maintained the documents were authentic, but the admission of impropriety from a scientist renowned for his criticisms of global warming skeptics became the focus of the story.
"Why would a prominent scientist/global warming activist commit acts of fraud and theft against global warming skeptics and then send to the media a forged document containing fictitious, over-the-top schemes that would embarrass skeptics?" asked Joanne Nova. "Answer: Because global warming activists cannot muster sufficient credible science to win the debate."
"The irony of it all, this [confession is] coming from a scientist that has made a particular point about integrity and written many essays and even testified to congress on the subject," declared Judith Curry, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.*
A number of conservative bloggers connected Gleick's actions with the environmental and progressive movements.
"The environmental movement is as promiscuous with its ‘ethics' as it is with ‘The Science'. You can make stuff up, apparently, just so long as you do so in order to ‘save the planet'," charged Ben Pile at Spiked.
"Some time ago I wrote a commentary saying that some of the global warming conspirators needed to go to jail for their crimes," wrote Alan Caruba at Warning Signs. "Perhaps their greatest crime was the debasement of meteorological and climate science. Beyond that, their attacks on the reputation of the brave scientists who stepped forward to refute them is the very definition of slander and libel."
"But it's not just the global warming crowd that suffers from these ethical lapses. It's a progressive trait," concluded Tom Bowler at Libertarian Leanings. "Progressives invariably argue that their crisis du jour is so severe and their cause is such a moral imperative that anything they do, anything at all, that advances their cause is justified."
While Gleick's admission did little to sway those who support global warming science, there was a split as to whether his deceptive actions were justified for a larger purpose.
Some argued Gleick had acted inappropriately.
"Setting aside the questionable ethics involved, Gleick committed a big tactical blunder," posted Marc Gunther. "Let's hope that we can all agree that it's not OK to forge a document, not even when the planet's future is at stake."
"If climate discourse is a street fight, then we...should not just fight back with the same dirty tactics," advised Simon Donner, a professor at the University of British Columbia. "There is no doubt that planet is warming. The question is can we keep our cool long enough to find a solution?"
Others suggested he should be commended for the information he disclosed, regardless of his method.
"Without condoning or promoting an act of dishonesty, it's fair to say that Gleick took a significant personal risk - and by standing and taking responsibility for his actions, he has shown himself willing to pay the price. For his courage, his honor, and for performing a selfless act of public service, he deserves our gratitude and applause," praised Richard Littlemore at Desmogblog.
"Revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial that seeks to delay action against climate change likely constitutes a classic public good," explained Stephan Lewandowsky, professor at University of Western Australia. "It is a matter of personal moral judgment whether that public good justifies Gleick's sting operation to obtain those revelations."
The Rest of the Week's News on Blogs
The other subjects to gain attention among bloggers last week were a mix of technology and politics.
The No. 2 subject involved information about new Google products. Of particular interest was a NY Times report about the development of Google-made glasses that will stream information about what a person is seeing to the wearer's eyeballs in real time. The glasses will automatically convey details about the locations and people someone is viewing. The product, rumored to be released by the end of the year, will cost between $250 and $600.
Various stories about the presidential campaign finished third. Bloggers highlighted several controversial statements made by Republican candidate Rick Santorum in 2008 including a claim that Satan was systematically destroying America and that anyone who turned the basis of Christianity into a "liberation theology story" had chosen to "abandon Christendom."
Bloggers also took note of a Forbes story quoting billionaire Sheldon Adelson as declaring that he might give up to $100 million to Newt Gingrich or other Republicans to support their campaign efforts.
Rumors about the iPad 3, which is due to be released in early March, including a photo of the product's logic board with an "A5X" system of a chip, were the fourth largest subject.
And a scandal involving Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, who became a national figure due to his strident opposition to illegal immigration, was the No. 5 subject. Babeu's former boyfriend claimed the sheriff threatened him with deportation if he refused to conceal their long-term relationship. In a press conference, Babeu acknowledged he was gay, but denied allegations that he had threatened his partner.
The Rest of the Week's News on Twitter
On Twitter, famous musicians and multiple efforts to spread advice and goodwill led the week.
Tweets from the British-Irish boy band One Direction, including pictures of the group on tour, were the most linked-to subject last week.
The issue of bullying was the No. 2 subject as many tweets linked to a blunt message about the hazards of teenage harassment. "The boy you called lame," warned the posting, "He has to work every night to support his family...Re-post if you are against bullying."
Several tweets using the hashtag #ConfessionNight made up the third-biggest subject. Among them were advice involving love and sex including one message that read, "True love does not come by finding the perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly."
The fourth topic included tweets and videos from the Korean boy band Super Junior. And the fifth subject was a video message from professional wrestler CM Punk condemning singer Chris Brown for his checkered past including an incident of domestic violence. Chris Brown has drawn criticism on social media before as one week earlier when he was the focus of much of the conversation on blogs regarding his appearance at the Grammys, where he won the award for best R&B album.
For the second time in a month, events in Russia dominated the most viewed news videos on YouTube. (The country was also the focus of some of the most popular videos the week of January 30 - February 3.) Two of the clips included the use of digital video technology to create satirical videos focused on prominent politicians.
The top video, which was also the No. 1 video the previous week, was a digitally altered 50-second clip called ‘The Arrest of Vladimir Putin.' The fake news report in Russian showed the Prime Minister locked inside a cage while on trial for corruption and terrorism. The video was created using video footage of the 2010 trial of former businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The No. 2 video was a February 13 Russian presidential debate that included representatives of the candidates. Nikita Mikhalkov, a film director, spoke for Putin, while billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov was represented by his 55-year-old sister, publisher and philanthropist, Irina.
The No. 5 video was a fake movie trailer featuring clips of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the 2011 action movie ‘Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.' Zhirinovsky, known for his inflammatory statements, was in the YouTube top news videos the week of January 30.
The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the news agenda of social media, with a focus on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. These platforms are an important part of today's news information narrative and shape the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. Through this New Media Index PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compares with the narrative in the traditional press.
A detailed description of the NMI methodology, which was recently modified in August 2011, is available here.
*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from online postings.