By Naomi LaChance
Journalists are creating a false equivalence between environmental activist Greta Thunberg and a 19-year-old German Youtuber named Naomi Seibt, without including information about the fossil fuel ties of the group funding her.
Seibt recently joined the Heartland Institute, a think tank with documented fossil fuel industry funding, and is scheduled to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., this week.
The coverage of Seibt, which has appeared in outlets including The Washington Post and The Independent, has focused on her “skepticism” while failing to note her fossil fuel ties, which are not limited to the funding connection. Several of her talking points are demonstrably false, decades-old talking points cooked up by the fossil fuel industry itself.
When mainstream media outlets generally considered to be credible leave out such details, subsequent pieces in smaller outlets tend to follow their framing, which can allow disinformation to propagate more quickly.
The Washington Post, which was the first American media outlet to cover Seibt, described her as “like Greta...blond, eloquent and European.” Thunberg is a brunette, but the more important difference between her and Seibt is that she cites scientific studies, while many of Seibt’s points on climate come from industry, not science.
The Post's story stated that the Heartland Institute is “funded largely by anonymous donors” without mentioning any of the known donors, some of which are fossil fuel companies or trade groups that represent the industry.
When the Post story came out, Seibt had about 50,000 YouTube followers, a relatively small audience for the platform. In the days since, she has gained more than 10,000 more.
During a recent investigation by German outlets CORRECTIV and Frontal21, Heartland director James Taylor told undercover journalists that much of the organization's money is funneled through the dark money group Donors Trust, which has ties to Charles Koch.
“Donors Trust is now directing between two-thirds and three-quarters of its budget to Heartland to support its climate-skeptical positions," Taylor told the undercover reporters.
The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry trade group whose members include ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, also gave $75,000 to the Heartland Institute in 2017.
The Post story also quoted Graham Brookie, who directs the Digital Forensic Research Lab, an arm of the nonprofit Atlantic Council. Brookie said the ideology Seibt presents “is not outright disinformation," but that it does "bear resemblance to a model we use called the 4d’s — dismiss the message, distort the facts, distract the audience, and express dismay at the whole thing.”
The Post's story did not mention that the Atlantic Council is funded by ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Chevron, Shell, and BP.
In response to a request for comment, The Washington Post’s Molly Gannon said only, “Our story speaks for itself.”
Other news outlets seem to have copied the omission. The Guardian, The Independent, France24, the Daily Mail, Mediaite, Mic, and MassLive all published follow-on stories that did not mention the Heartland Institute’s financial backing from the fossil fuel industry.
The Heartland Institute seems to be trying to look like it has the youth on its side. So it has found a Gen Z surrogate who can parrot decades-old fossil fuel talking points, and earned major press coverage that frames her as a figure who compares to Thunberg, while completely leaving out the group's obvious, and documented, oil and gas industry connections.