When Greg Keoleian and Diego Rose flicked through their email inboxes Sunday morning, a message caught their attention.
It was from a CNN fact-checker, about a study they’d published a year and a half ago. Keoleian is director of the University of Michigan’s center for sustainable systems and Rose is a professor and director of nutrition at Tulane University’s school of public health and tropical medicine.
Much to their surprise, their research had become a mainstay on Fox News and in other rightwing media over the weekend, who erroneously tied their findings about curtailing beef consumption to President Joe Biden’s unreleased climate plan.
“It came totally out of left field,” Rose told TPM. “A study from a year ago?! What what huh huh?!”
Last January, Rose, Keoleian and Martin Heller, a research specialist for Michigan’s sustainable systems center, ran scenarios to test what effects dietary shifts would have on greenhouse gas emissions. In one test case, they tried cutting beef consumption by 90 percent and other animal-based foods by 50 percent, finding that it would halve dietary emissions. By Sunday, rightwing media had leapt from that study to the baseless conviction that Biden’s climate plan would mandate a 90 percent drop in beef consumption, leaving Americans with one measly hamburger a month.
Keoleian and Rose took a look at the rightwing outrage storm, both immediately miffed at one of Fox News’ lesser mistakes in reporting on the fabricated ban.
“A colleague of mine contacted me and said, ‘did you see that your study is being misrepresented?’” Keoleian told TPM. “They sent me a tweet linked to a screenshot of Fox News, which called it a department of agriculture University of Michigan study — we are not a department of agriculture.”
“The guys at Fox did no fact checking at all,” Rose added. “The graphic they put together said the source was the University of Michigan department of agriculture — there is no such thing.”
One Fox News host did eventually come around to issuing a brief correction on Monday afternoon, clarifying that the network had errantly credited the data in one of its hysteria-hyping graphics to the Biden administration. It did not correct the attribution to the imaginary agriculture department.
But in larger terms, the scientists expressed a gamut of emotions as they watched their research be contorted into a baseless partisan attack: frustration, alarm, amusement, even hope, that it would get people thinking about changing their diets.
But the volume of the anger, ratcheted up by rightwing media’s extensive reach and direct feed into social media tributaries, was enough to blow them back.
“We’re humble little researchers with our quiet little existence, doing studies and putting things out,” Rose said, chuckling. “Then there’s this whole different universe of noise and shouting and jumping up and down.”
Keoleian recalled in particular seeing Donald Trump Jr. retweeting the Fox News graphic, asserting that he would never give up his freedom to cram four pounds of beef into his stomach daily. That tweet got over 33,000 likes.
“To say that the basis is the Biden climate plan is also totally ridiculous because his plan doesn’t even talk about diet shift,” Keoleian said, referring to details the administration has made public, including a climate plan fact sheet. “It’s totally fabricated, totally fabricated,” he said, starting to laugh with exasperation. “There is frustration on so many levels.”
The disinformation grew with an alarming speed, jumping from a speculative article in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, to Fox News and conservative radio in less than 24 hours. Neither Rose nor Keoleian have any idea how the Daily Mail found their study, though Rose and Heller have been bouncing theories off of each other.
“One hypothesis is that folks are always looking for ammunition and whenever they see something that could be ammunition, they hold onto it for a time when they can link it to some policy they don’t like or bring somebody down with it,” Rose said. “Another hypothesis is that they knew climate change plans were coming out and started Googling.”
Ultimately, they found the disinformation’s contagious spread, and the intense emotion it engendered, disheartening. As experts in climate change and sustainability, they want to arm people with information they can use to live their lives in greener ways. And time is alarmingly short to get that message across.
“The propagation of this kind of false information is setting us back,” Keoleian said. “We don’t have any window to be set back.”