In Colorado, climate activists tried to trick reporters into releasing false information on two separate occasions.
A couple of days ago, Colorado Public Radio reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas got an eyebrow-raising press release from the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate-activism group that rose to prominence with sit-ins in politicians’ offices. Supposedly Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was going to apologize for the fact that an oil company was one of the sponsors of a sustainability conference he hosted this week.
When Sakas asked for more information, Sunrise shared a statement on what appeared to be City of Denver letterhead that seemed to back up the claim. But it was a fake: The Sunrise Movement had written the letter and lied to journalists.
The national leaders of the Sunrise Movement said they hadn’t known anything about the misinformation tactic ahead of time. In an email, Sunrise Movement spokesperson Sofie Karasek said, “As a decentralized grassroots movement, hubs are autonomous from us and do their own thing.”
It’s the first known example of Sunrise attempting to spread false information. Sakas noted that earlier this year, the Colorado branch of Extinction Rebellion, an international climate activist group that employs non-violent protest as its primary tactic, sent out misinformation claiming that Governor Jared Polis had declared a climate emergency. (In reality, the Colorado legislature was holding a hearing about climate change, and shortly after Governor Jared Polis rolled out a plan to go 100 percent renewable and signed 11 carbon-slashing bills.) CBS Denver fell for the lie, and repeated it in a newscast.
Conor Cahill a spokesperson for the governor, said that, while he understood the Extinction Rebellion activists’ passion, “false information is not an appropriate pathway toward furthering the conversation about solutions to the economic and moral threat of climate change.”
Extinction Rebellion leaders in the United Kingdom did not respond to a Grist request for comment by press time.
Morgan Anker, a representative of Sunrise Colorado, rationalized her group’s fake letter from Denver’s mayor by comparing it to other left-wing pranks. “The tactic was very much inspired by the group the Yes Men,” she told the local radio station KGNU. “They are famous for different actions impersonating fossil fuel executives.”
There are plenty of examples, like the Yes Men, of people dissembling to achieve political objectives — or just for fun. It’s the basis of Sacha Baron Cohen’s career, and the foundation of the prank-video genre. But there’s an obvious consequence for playing with the truth: loss of trust. Journalists may now scrutinize any information coming from these activist groups more closely before reporting it.
Michele Weindling, a coordinator with Sunrise Colorado, told Colorado Public Radio that she was aware of the risks: “That was something that we grappled with, because our relationships with the media are really important to us.” But she said the results are worth the loss of reputation.
The deceit might have gotten the group more attention than sending out truthful press releases would have — but it might not be the kind of media attention these activists should want. Instead of regarding these disinformation tactics as a kind of artsy prank, people concerned with the disintegrating norms of honesty could place these actions on a spectrum with fake news from Russia and falsehood-filled Trump-tweets.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Colorado climate activists’ latest tactic: fake news on Dec 7, 2019.