When the Far Right Picks Fights With a Teen

How Greta Thunberg became the target of a barrage of disinformation and conspiracies.

Silhouette of George Soros with a torn photo of Greta Thunberg's eyes placed over it.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The next front in the culture wars is climate change, and the battle lines have already been drawn. On one side are the climate skeptics—those who see global warming as nothing more than unusual weather, and argue that government interventions and regulations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions are alarmist or “eco-fascist.”

On the other side is Greta Thunberg.

This, at least, is what the populist right’s next political battleground looks like online. There you can find a barrage of disinformation and conspiracies about the Swedish climate activist, including depictions of her as a spoiled child, a leftist pawn, and even a Nazi. While much of this ridicule comes from internet trolls, a group of far-right activists, media pundits, politicians, and even heads of state have joined, and at times driven, the pile-on.

That a teenager could cause such a stir around the world is a testament to Thunberg’s influence. This Friday marks three years since she began her weekly protest against climate inaction outside the Swedish Parliament, a demonstration that has since ballooned into a global movement involving millions of students across more than 150 countries, with Thunberg as its Joan of Arc. Through her protests and speeches, she has galvanized the world about the climate crisis in ways few have before her. She has met world leaders, addressed the United Nations, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize—thrice.

These accolades have helped give Thunberg an enormous platform, but they have also invited a torrent of abuse, disinformation, and conspiracy theories of the kind typically reserved for older and more powerful figures such as George Soros and Bill Gates. That neither Thunberg’s youth nor her status has prevented her from becoming the far right’s latest villain reveals the extent to which she is seen as a threat. That she hasn’t been deterred by the attacks suggests that they aren’t working.

Although Thunberg first rose to international prominence in the summer of 2018 after starting her “school strike for climate,” it wasn’t until a year later, once she embarked on a two-week (and, crucially, carbon-neutral) boat trip across the Atlantic to deliver a speech at the UN climate summit, that she became the focus of the global right’s ire. Pundits suggested that she was a “schoolgirl puppet” being “exploited” by sinister forces including her ostensibly fame-hungry parents, energy giants, and the international left. Populist politicians as far afield as Canada, Germany, and Brazil took potshots at her, calling her a “brat,” an icon of the “climate church,” and “mentally unstable.” Perhaps her loudest critic was former President Donald Trump, who accused her of having an “anger management problem.”

Some of the worst attacks, however, have come in the form of memes. While many have been used to spread conspiracy theories (among them that she is tied to Soros, the billionaire financier and the right’s favorite bogeyman), others have gone further. “The stuff on the internet about her—the violence and vilification, the pure hatred—is really quite scary,” Catherine Fieschi, a political analyst who tracks dissent against climate policy in Europe, told me. Her latest study reproduced some of most popular memes, including one portraying Thunberg as akin to a member of the Hitler Youth. “There’s literally millions of those images going around the world,” she said.

Inherent in the attacks against Thunberg is a desire not only to undermine her credibility and her activism, but also to use her as a proxy for other left-wing movements. According to a 2020 study by the German Marshall Fund, which looked at the proliferation of online disinformation about Thunberg from 2018 to 2019, the most common narratives have focused on her mental fitness (Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which she calls her “superpower”), as well as her purported affiliations with Soros and “antifa,” a loose group of radical anti-fascist and anti-racist activists. The common thread in all of these narratives is a desire to make Thunberg appear untrustworthy and to be seen as less a person than a pawn—of her parents, of nefarious movements, and of the global elite.

“Part of her power is that she doesn’t seem to represent any other interest but the interests of the climate and young people,” Karen Kornbluh, the director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund, told me. “Casting aspersions on that and trying to tie her to some other interest tries to take away some of her power.”

Such tactics have been tried and tested against other bogeymen of the far right. In the case of Soros, that has meant pervasive conspiracies about him bankrolling every movement reviled by the right—not only antifa but Black Lives Matter—with the ultimate goal of destroying the United States. With Gates, it’s the claim that he has invested billions of dollars into the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines (which is true) with the intent of using them to control people via microchip (which is false). Unlike both men, however, Thunberg is not a billionaire. She isn’t a patron of left-wing causes (though she has donated prize money to climate groups in the past). She doesn’t claim to be the climate-movement figurehead that many have made her out to be.

That the far right has had to resort to often misogynist and ableist attacks against Thunberg is in itself a testament to how difficult she is to discredit. Part of that challenge is due to the fact that her activism is rooted in science rather than politics (she leaves policy making to the policy makers). But it also has to do with the fact that she’s genuine. Unlike other high-profile climate activists, she can’t easily be accused of even occasional hypocrisy: In addition to being vegan, she abstains from plane travel and mass consumerism. “The last time I bought something new was three years ago and it was second-hand,” Thunberg told Vogue Scandinavia in a recent interview. “I just borrow things from people I know.”

Katrin Uba, an associate professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University who has been studying Thunberg’s impact on climate activism, told me that her rise to global prominence wouldn’t have been possible without social media—the same tool that her detractors are trying, and by all accounts failing, to use against her. Thunberg has already had a demonstrated impact on how her generation views the climate crisis, with one recent survey showing that nearly 70 percent of people under the age of 18 believe that climate change is a global emergency compared with 58 percent of people over the age of 60. Her influence, on the general public as well as on politicians and corporations, has been termed by Uba and others as “the Greta effect.”

Thunberg isn’t daunted by her status. The way she sees it, the demonization is a diversion from climate science, to which skeptics have few answers. It is proof that she and her fellow activists are having an effect. Those who attack her “are not evil,” she said in her interview with Vogue Scandinavia, extending a level of empathy that few of her detractors are ever likely to return. “They just don’t know better. At least that’s what I am trying to think.”