Floods in Italy, drought in Spain, but the disinformation is the same
An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; Maldita.es; Newtral; Verificat
A record heatwave hit Spain in April, the hottest and driest April ever recorded since the beginning of the monitoring in 1961. In May, floods devastated Italy’s northern region of Emilia-Romagna: in 48 hours fell from the sky the amount of water that usually falls in many months. Two different countries, two opposite extreme meteorological phenomena and yet the disinformation that circulated in Italy and Spain, as it will emerge from this investigation, is in many aspects very much similar.
The main disinformation narratives about the drought in Spain
Three different Spanish fact-checking organizations that participated in this investigation (Maldita, Newtral and Verificat) have confirmed that the main narratives about climate change as a consequence of the great drought involve some conspiracy theories and, to a lesser extent, climate denialism.
Pablo Hernández Escayola, coordinator of academic investigations at Maldita.es, contacted by EDMO reported: «Last summer we saw an increase in hoaxes on the subject [of climate change] as the country experienced record temperatures. Excessive heat, drought and major fires were the big stories of those months. The message that was tried to get across was that these phenomena were not something strange because it has always been hot in Spain in the summer, and that the media were alarming the population, for example by using very intense colours in the weather forecast maps».
Now the situation has evolved. «This time, instead of asserting that nothing unusual is happening with the weather, the disinformers acknowledge that there are changes», continued Escayola, «but, according to them, they are being deliberately caused by someone powerful who wants to harm the citizens».
Man-made climate change conspiracy theories
One of the most popular narratives is that of chemtrails, an old conspiracy theory that has evolved and has been repurposed a lot in the past few years. In connection with the drought in Spain, it claims the contrails left by aircraft contain chemicals that dissolve clouds and prevent rain. In the recent past,it has been used to account for other alleged weather manipulations, or for even more devilish ends such as the extermination of civilian populations or, in the case of Covid-19, the vaccination of people without their knowledge. All three Spanish fact-checking organizations that contributed to this investigation found false stories about it (here some examples from Maldita, Newtral and Verificat). It is then important to stress that these theories do not have any scientific basis.
Images of aircraft contrails are usually used to support the argument, but in Spain in May this year a video of a plane dumping fuel to make an emergency landing has also been exploited. Similarly, a satellite image of a band of high clouds has been used to support the alleged existence of an artificial barrier preventing Atlantic clouds from entering Spain. The same technique has been used to overlap man-made climate change theories with xenophobic narratives: «Another satellite image showing clouds over a large part of Europe and Morocco, but not in Spain, was used to ensure that the clouds were sent to Morocco to create the “Garden of Europe” there. According to these conspiracy theories, there is a plan to ruin Spanish farmers with the drought and force Spaniards to import fruit and vegetables from Morocco», said Escayola.
The huge spread of the chemtrails conspiracy theory on social networks led the Spanish National Meteorological Agency (AEMET) to publish an article clarifying that cloud modification using silver iodide to cause rain or prevent hail storms is possible, but only on a small scale. As Newtral and Maldita report, disinformers twisted the article, falsely claiming that AEMET had acknowledged climate modification and blamed it for Spain’s drought. This led to an avalanche of insults and threats against the agency on social media. In addition, the Spanish Public Prosecutor’s Office received hundreds of complaints from citizens who genuinely believed that the tracks left by the planes were chemical products that prevented the rain from falling. These complaints were rejected as baseless, but the defenders of this conspiracy theory did not stop spreading it. In mid-May, when the rains returned to Spain, one of the promoters of this narrative published an article claiming that the rain returned thanks to him denouncing the chemtrails.
A supposed political conspiracy behind the drought
The other main disinformation narrative is that hundreds of dams in Spain have been destroyed, allegedly causing the drought. This is the most common false story after chemtrails, according to the three Spanish fact-checking projects Maldita, Newtral and Verificat.
The story suggests a secret government campaign to harm citizens. While some small river barriers have been removed as part of an EU strategy, they are irrelevant to the problems of water scarcity. Those were old structures that provided no water for any activity, or were dangerous or economically unviable, and are being dismantled for environmental reasons. Nevertheless, they have become the subject of these disinformation campaigns, which use them to falsely blame democratic institutions and divert attention from climate change, the real cause of the problem.
Still in the political sphere, other false information about alleged water restrictions has been used to sow panic among the public. In particular, it has been falsely claimed that the Spanish government has announced massive water cuts for the entire population and that “people will not be able to take more than two showers a day” due to the drought, or that the Directorate General for Water has ordered the “draining of reservoirs” in Spain. Similar announcements have also concerned the European Commission, falsely accused of preparing water restrictions for the entire population, as well as local authorities.
The main disinformation narratives about the floods in Italy
According to Facta.news, an Italian fact-checking outlet, the main narratives about the floods in Emilia-Romagna claimed that they were deliberately caused by humans, but climate change denialism is also circulating.
The unfounded conspiracy theories about man-made floods
Various conspiracy theories circulating on the Internet portray the May floods in Emilia-Romagna not as a natural event, but as artificially caused. One of these theories is that what happened was linked to geoengineering, and in particular to the use of so-called “cloud seeding”, a technique often used in disinformation as proof of the existence of the chemtrail conspiracy.
Actually, cloud seeding is a real process used to artificially stimulate rain production, but has nothing to do with flooding. The efficiency of this system is questioned and rather low, while the meteorological event in Emilia-Romagna had such a high energy that it could not have been the result of artificial seeding of the clouds by some aircraft. Furthermore, the technique has not yet been scientifically confirmed, because it has not been proven that by pollinating a cloud that then rains, the precipitation is due to the pollination and that the cloud would not have produced the rain anyway.
However, a widespread story claimed that the unusual flight path of an airplane was evidence that cloud seeding had been the cause of flooding in Emilia Romagna. In reality the aircraft took an odd route because it was filming the “Giro d’Italia”, the country’s most important cycling race.
It is important to note that the alleged link between cloud seeding and the existence of chemtrails is the same reason for the AEMET article to be used by Spanish disinformation to support its conspiracy theories. Disinformation used cloud seeding adapting it to its needs: in the Spanish case to suggest that it was the cause of the drought, while the false information tracked in Italy uses it as evidence of man-made floods.
According to Facta.news, another unfounded theory circulating on social networks argues that the flooding in Emilia-Romagna was caused by the opening of the Ridracoli dam, in the province of Forlì-Cesena, one of the areas worst hit by the floods. This false story claims that the reservoir was full and, after the mid-May rains, the company that manages the structure had to open the dam’s gates to empty it a little, causing a large amount of water to spill over into the Romagna area. In fact, there was a spillage operation aimed at laminating the river flood in the area, but the volume of controlled water released was about five hundred times less than the 350 million cubic meters of water that fell on the most affected area of Emilia-Romagna.
Moreover, climate change denial is still widespread in Italy. According to Facta.news, many false stories have been circulated, claiming that the heavy rains and floods prove that there is no drought in Italy and that it is not a problem because it could not rain during a dry period. But scientific studies have shown that this is not true. Droughts caused by long-term climatic conditions are not resolved by a few days of rain and, on the contrary, they make the soil more dry and compact, reducing its capacity to absorb water, sometimes taking months to return to pre-drought levels.
Differences and similarities
Despite being two opposite extreme meteorological phenomena, happening in different months and in different countries, the drought in Spain and the floods in Italy sparkled disinformation narratives that are much similar.
Blatant climate change denialism is still there – more in Italy than in Spain according to fact-checkers’ reports – but this year the conspiracy theories in both countries were much more relevant than in the past. Chemtrails and cloud seeding conspiracy theories were viral both in Italy and in Spain, blaming some hidden powerful entity (sometimes the government, sometimes the EU, sometimes unnamed elites), but it is also striking that both countries experienced disinformation about dams (being destroyed to cause drought, or opened to cause floods).
The general message that disinformation seems to be spreading is quite clear: do not trust the authorities, do not trust traditional media or politicians, they are the ones responsible for the catastrophe. This is an interesting evolution, in comparison with detected disinformation in previous years. Climate change goes from being directly targeted to being partially ignored (even if the message in the end is that climate change is not a factor in these catastrophes), and the attack on democratic institutions becomes more evident.
Enzo Panizio, journalist at PagellaPolitica / Facta news
Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of PagellaPolitica / Facta news and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities
Photo: Flickr, Greg Goebel