Fact-Checking the Anti-Greta Thunberg Propaganda — Are Any of the Theories True?

Greta Thunberg's skyrocket to fame has inspired some criticism from climate science deniers — are any of the theories true?

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jan. 8 2020, Updated 3:58 p.m. ET

Greta Thunberg
Source: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the more famous you get, the more hate you get. That’s certainly what Greta Thunberg has experienced over the past 17 months, even though the teenage climate activist certainly never expected to become famous when she staged her first solo protest outside of the Swedish Parliament in August 2018 — or did she? 

As the 17-year-old’s star has risen over the past few months, the skeptics have come out of the woodwork, lodging questionable accusations against the climate activist at every turn. Every time Greta accomplishes something new — from organizing a global protest of millions to being named TIME’s Person of the Year — her critics are there in the comments section with cries of “she’s a paid protester!” and “climate change isn’t real!” 

It seems that most of the people leaving these comments are climate science deniers to a degree, while those responding to the comments in Greta’s defense are those who see that the climate crisis is real (and are worried about it). That said, is there truth to any of the propaganda being spread about Greta and her motives?

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It seems unlikely that a teenager who has dedicated herself so fully to a cause would be capable of such manipulation or that she would have motives that were anything but selfless. However, could there be a chance that she is trying to do good while also harboring ulterior motives, as some people in the middle may think? Or are people's opinions on Greta purely a result of their biases towards climate science?

As USA Today points out, the attacks against Greta Thunberg “have mostly avoided facts about climate science and instead gone after Thunberg, her family and her motives.” But even though most of the theories about Greta are personal and not actually disputing scientific claims, it’s important to still look into these accusations and investigate them to see if they hold any merit. Read on for a few of the theories Greta’s haters have put forth, and a look into whether or not they are true at all.

Greta Thunberg Is a Paid Activist

For the past 17 months, Greta Thunberg has dedicated her life to climate activism more than pretty much anyone else on the planet, which has led to various organizations honoring her with awards and prize money. That has led some people to believe that she is a paid activist, doing what she does for money and not for the noble reasons she claims.

One reason the paid activist rumors are still around is because of an image of Greta on the cover of a fictional magazine called People with Money that circulated the internet in September 2019. The cover (and attached online article) claimed that the teen was one of the world’s highest-paid activists. According to Snopes, a satirical website called MediaMass created the cover — and it has used the same template for many other fake news stories over the years. Unfortunately, the faux magazine cover spread, helping perpetuate the theory that Greta was a paid activist.

Not only is that cover fake, but Greta has dispelled notions that she is being paid for her work by turning away and donating nearly all the money she has made since becoming famous. For example, in July, Greta was awarded the Freedom Prize from France’s Normandy region. She promptly donated her winnings of €25,000 (about $27,993 USD) to climate justice charities, according to The Hill.

And in June 2019, Greta published a book of her speeches titled No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference. All earnings from that book — as well as the new edition of her mother’s memoir, Scenes from the Heart — are being donated to charity, according to The Guardian.

If Greta was really in this for the cash, that would mean she was pretty bad at her job, since she never keeps any of the money she earns. 

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Greta Is a Ghost or a Time Traveler From 1898

In November 2019, a photo surfaced on an online archive of a girl during the 19th-century gold rush who bears a striking resemblance to Greta. This prompted conspiracy theories that the teenager is either a ghost or a time traveler from 1898, and that she went back in time to try to prevent the climate crisis. I can’t find any scientific evidence of any living being or ghosts who successfully traveled through time, so it’s pretty unlikely that Greta is really a time traveler, and more likely that we’ve just found her near-doppelgänger.

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Greta Is Being Brainwashed

Some climate change deniers believe that Greta has been brainwashed into believing that the climate crisis is real and caused by humans. Singer Meat Loaf recently drew controversy for sharing that sentiment. “I feel for that Greta. She has been brainwashed into thinking that there is climate change and there isn't,” Meat Loaf told MailOnline. “She hasn't done anything wrong but she's been forced into thinking that what she is saying is true.” 

Of course, Greta let those comments roll right off her back, tweeting: "It's not about Meatloaf [sic]. It's not about me. It's not about what some people call me. It's not about left or right. It's all about scientific facts." She included data in her tweet from Carbon Brief, showing how the Paris Agreement’s climate target of keeping the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees C by 2030 is “slipping out of reach.”

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The Climate Crisis Isn’t Real

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the climate crisis is real, that the global temperature really is increasing, and that human activities (such as burning fossil fuels, animal agriculture, and plastic consumption) are causing it. That is proven by a 2016 paper, which found that 90 to 100 percent of publishing climate scientists agree based on scientific evidence that humans are causing global heating, a major component of the climate crisis.

Greta Is Involved With ISIS and Antifa

In September, a post circulated around Facebook with a few photos of Greta — one showed the teenager posing with an ISIS member, another with controversial philanthropist George Soros, and another with a shirt linked to the Antifa movement, as reported by PolitiFact. The post is actually now accompanied by a banner on Facebook that alerts viewers of “false information.” According to both PolitiFact and Snopes, the first two photos are fake — the girl in the photo with the ISIS member hardly even looks like Greta, and the photo with George Soros uses an image of Greta from when she met Vice President Al Gore.

However, the third photo is real, from Greta’s meeting with The 1975 frontman Matt Healy. Greta wore a shirt that read “Antifascist All Stars,” which is associated with the militant and sometimes violent anti-fascist movement Antifa. After people called Greta out for the shirt, she tweeted: “Yesterday I posted a photo wearing a borrowed T-shirt that says I’m against fascism. That T-shirt can apparently to some be linked to a violent movement. I don’t support any form of violence and to avoid misunderstandings I’ve deleted the post. And of course I am against fascism.”

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The Left Is Marketing Greta With Nazi Propaganda Tactics

Far-right conspiracy theorist Dinesh D'Souza posted a tweet in September comparing Greta’s “Nordic” look to the look of girls who “were often used in Nazi propaganda.”

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Even though D'Souza is known as a conspiracy theorist, the tweet caused some to wonder if there was any truth to his comparison. For that to be true, it would mean that far-left individuals essentially cast Greta as a climate activist because of her look, taking inspiration from one of the most-hated fascist groups of all time (the Nazis).

Greta has proven in many interviews that she knows her stuff when it comes to climate data, and that she passionately cares about the cause — making it very unlikely that anyone cast her and convinced her to uproot her life for this cause just because of her look. In fact, Greta has been open about having Asperger’s syndrome and selective mutism (which she calls her superpowers), and it’s unlikely that she ever set out to become so famous (or that a far-left group would have chosen someone with selective mutism) and have to publicly speak so often. 

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Adults Are Using Greta as a “Puppet” to Push a Hidden Agenda

A slew of controversial far-right personalities have accused Greta of being a “puppet” controlled by adults, suggesting that they are exploiting her to push forth a “hard-left, anti-capitalist agenda,” to borrow a phrase from James Delingpole of far-right website Breitbart. (To read other far-right theories about Greta, a few are rounded up in an article by right-wing newspaper The Washington Times.)

For one thing, Greta’s “agenda” is not inherently left-wing — as she has made clear, her mission is simply to preserve our planet for future generations, while listening to climate scientists and leaving fossil fuels in the ground. An agenda of keeping our planet a healthy place to live should be something everyone cares about, regardless of political beliefs. And even if there was some secret group exploiting Greta as the leader of this movement, all that would come from it is our planet may become a cleaner place.

The Left Is Exploiting Greta

Some critics also think that adults are exploiting Greta to achieve her goal of protecting the planet. That’s hard to believe, considering Greta’s movement began as a solo protest in August 2018, when the then-15-year-old spent the day all by herself, holding her “school strike for climate” sign outside of Sweden’s parliament building. The teenager was virtually unknown to the public at that point, but she steadily garnered the public’s attention as more and more protesters joined her each day. 

That said, some celebrities, politicians, and other prominent politicians might be aligning themselves with Greta — either by setting up meetings with her, interacting with her on social media, or posting about her on social media — as a PR move. If they are using her to boost their image, that’s obviously not very virtuous — but it’s different than explicitly exploiting her. Everyone aligning themselves with Greta most likely shares her goal of protecting the planet, at least.

In this age of social media, Greta’s skyrocket to fame was organic — and the hate and conspiracy theories against her are honestly not unexpected. If you do see anything radical about Greta or her family in the news, always make sure to fact-check it — investigate the source, look up the claim on Snopes, or use your own logic combined with Google to get to the bottom of it. The climate crisis is one of the most dire threats facing society, and hating on a 17-year-old is not what’s going to help protect the Earth — but listening to said 17-year-old just might be.

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