Forget vaccine denialism and false flag operations, the most popular conspiracy theory online may be chemtrails. A new study based on polling data and online postings finds a staggering number of people who believe that those vapor trails emitted by airplanes are part of some weather control or mind control plot.
Discourse on social media of solar geoengineering has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, in line with increased attention by the scientific community and low but increasing awareness among the general public. The topic has also found increased attention online. But unlike scientific discourse, a majority of online discussion focuses on the so-called chemtrails conspiracy theory, the widely debunked idea that airplanes are spraying a toxic mix of chemicals through contrails, with supposed goals ranging from weather to mind control. This paper presents the results of a nationally representative 1000-subject poll part of the 36,000-subject 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), and an analysis of the universe of social media mentions of geoengineering. The former shows ~ 10% of Americans declaring the chemtrails conspiracy as “completely” and a further ~ 20–30% as “somewhat” true, with no apparent difference by party affiliation or strength of partisanship. Conspiratorial views have accounted for ~ 60% of geoengineering discourse on social media over the past decade. Of that, Twitter has accounted for >90%, compared to ~ 75% of total geoengineering mentions. Further affinity analysis reveals a broad online community of conspiracy. Anonymity of social media appears to help its spread, so does the general ease of spreading unverified or outright false information. Online behavior has important real-world reverberations, with implications for climate science communication and policy.
We’ve seen it with the school shootings, where the parents of kids murdered in mass shootings have been stalked by conspiracy nuts to the point where they’ve had to take out restraining orders and press criminal charges. We saw it with Pizzagate, where a conspiracy nut drove to Washington, DC to shoot up the pizza place that they believe houses a global pedophile ring in its basement (news flash: it doesn’t even have a basement). And scientists involved in debunking the chemtrail nonsense have received many death threats as well. This is not just harmless fantasizing. It has a real cost.