Defamation By Internet? Part 1 - Murry Salby's Short-Lived Blog Storm

Read time: 12 mins
Defamation? Murry Sa;by's Short-Lived Blog Storm

Climate anti-science adapted well to the Internet. A blog storm (in this case the “SalbyStorm”) can surge through well-linked blogs to spread misinformation or unsupported accusations.  Some blogs act as tribal echo chambers where people reinforce others' anger, in this case resembling a famed witch-burning scene, with Macquarie University as main, but not only, witch.

As in the “Climategate” blog storm, the noise was intended for the mainstream. This reached The Australian, but the main SalbyStorm lasted less than a week.

Some earlier storms generated serious harassment of targeted climate scientists. In pre-blog 1996, Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer made personal attacks on Ben Santer via the Wall Street Journal. Later, blogs were employed to continue, as by Paul Chesser in this or this(Warning: those URLs are OK, but every once in a while, WebCite gets overloaded and gives odd error message. Ignore for now and try later.)

Michael Mann has replaced Santer as favored target, but there have been many other victims, such as Katharine Hayhoe. Only a small fraction of readers need get angry enough to produce reputational damage, hate mail, death threats, a dead rat on the doorstep or floods of email.

Some “skeptical” bloggers routinely accept and repeat both silly anti-science ideas, and other unsuppported claims, as here. Apologies or corrections almost never occur and even if they do, they rarely flow through the network, leaving waves of misimpression there.  First impressions stick.

On July 9-12, Macquarie suffered this kind of attack (Wave 1).  Ex-Professor Murry Salby made serious, but unsupported and sometimes contradictory, accusations against Macquarie, by the unusual route of email to bloggers. Joanne Nova (Australia), Anthony Watts (Watts Up With That, USA), and Andrew Montford (Bishop Hill, UK) republished them.

After 4 days and 1,500+ comments at those blogs alone, SalbyStorm's Wave 1 ended quickly when Salby's checkered past was detailed at DeSmogBlog.  Discussions stopped, although with little apology or introspection about gullibility at “skeptical” blogs.  A very few people had wondered at oddities of Salby's claims, searched for his past history, and independently started finding problems within a few hours. Salby supporters did not do that, preferring to specualte and comment.

People believed the worst and repeated it, sometimes expanding defamatory accusations with little concern for evidence. A few of the phrases applied to Macquarie or mainstream climate science included criminal, dictatorial, barbaric, Orwellian, Nazi, Stasi, Deutsch Physika, Marxist, Stalinist, Lysenko, thugs, Mafia, and extended further to “goose-stepping, alarmist, fascist, progressives.”  Salby was praised as a science hero, compared to Galileo, Copernicus or Einstein,  despite the evident problems in his scientific claims.

Salby sent accusations to bloggers who republished them with little visible effort to calm the mutually-reinforcing commenter outrage.  Finally, the story got repeated by The Australian.  Experienced watchers have seen this before, but  SalbyStorm makes a compact case study to document and recall in future storms.

SalbyStorm's short duration and bounded set of blogs help illustrate roles in the network and behavior inside echo chamber blogs. Part 1 lists the blog posts and graphs their chronology.  Soon, Defamation by Internet? Part 2 - SalbyStorm Surges Through (Un)skeptical Blogs, annotates the 1700+ blog comments in detail and summarizes the results.

Part 1 -Tight-coupled blog network

A crosslinked blog network rapidly spread the accusations beyond the key blogs.  Steven F. Hayward (Powerline) wrote, “The Climate Mafia Strike Again…” and called Tim Flannery a thug who must have been behind this. Marc Morano (Climate Depot) rapidly reblogged one blog after another for his readers. Australian NO CARBON TAX Climate Sceptics party (NCTCS) and Lord Monckton Foundation followed. YouTube got 5 videos by 1000frolly, seemingly Monckton himself, although those had been removed with no comment by August 16. The prize was The Australian's article by Environment Editor Graham Lloyd, quickly copied by the UK's Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) and then reblogged by Morano.  The Australian published twice later.

Part 2 - (Un)skeptical echo chambers, conspiracy theories, vitriol

Eager discussions ensued at the key blogs and a few elsewhere, with cross-posting showing clear overlap of readership.  Many took Salby on faith. They compared him to Einstein, Galileo or Copernicus as a martyr for good science, despite the clear technical absurdity of his claims, at Skeptical Science or more technically, at Macquarie in 2011 by MU Professor Colin Prentice. Some amplified the accusations to attack the reputations of MU and specific people in various ways, including a cartoon by “josh.”

The University of Colorado had not publicized Salby's departure, although he chose to generate court records by suing in 2008 and 2009.  MU had not publicized Salby's 2nd departure until forced by blog storm and The AustralianMU issued press releases, but was criticized strongly by people obviously unaware of rules about personnel actions that tend to minimize publicity.  They demanded details and complained that MU made few available and that MU should appear at WUWT and defend itself.  A few commenters commendably counseled caution, but most ignored early hints of awkward evidence.

Salby history unearthed, comments rapidly evaporate, interest lost

On July 12, DeSmogBlog ran a post by Graham Readfearn and one by me that detailed past deceptive behavior by Salby, his subsequent NSF debarment and other personal credibility issues.  In 5 days, the 3 key blogs got 7 posts and 1,500 comments. but then the excitement ended as commenters suddenly lost interest. Of the 1,584 comments in the 3 blogs accumulated July 9-21, only 81 comments (5%) occurred from July 14 onward, most irrelevant to Salby. Blogs had spread a wave of unsupported accusations across a slice of the Internet.

The Australian persisted anyway, Wave 2, very small

On July 23, The Australian's Bernard Lane and an editor somehow had missed or ignored the July 12 exposure and two articles then appeared, including quote:

'Asked about the case, Dr Salby said he could not say much because it was “headed to court”.'

Given Salby's past record of deceptions, it is hard to know what that meant. Was that intention or a claim that he or MU had already filed suit? If Salby filed, when?  Before mailing bloggers July 9?  Before exposure July 12?  Since then?  He now can avoid answering any inconvenient questions, but one might wonder if a lawyer would have advised him to publish via blogs.

On July 28, Readfearn published Top Physicist Withdraws Support For Climate Sceptic Professor Sacked By Australian University. Wave 2 did not get far.  Salby has often been to court, with little success.  Many facts are yet to become public, and university administrations can perform badly, so reasoned caution is appropriate, although some accusations made little sense.  In past cases he made serious, misleading accusations that rarely got far.  Some of his accusations could be correct, if unlikely, but are irrelevant to this study, which simply illustrates a widespread willingness by many people to accept and amplify unsupported accusations in an outpouring of confirmation bias and conspiracy thinking that extended far beyond Macquarie.

In Wave 3, a month after July 12's DeSmogBlog posts, Salby gave a reply in NOVA.3, reblogged by  DEPOT.8 and WUWT.4.  After a few days, most comments diverted from Salby himself into long, old arguments claiming natural origin for CO2 rise in the last 150 years.

Chronology and overall flow among climate anti-science blogs

Dates and times can be tricky in tracking worldwide Internet events, but can be estimated using a time zone converter to get UTC. Web servers are assumed to be located in same time zones as blog owners unless other evidence is found.  Although unclear when Salby sent the email, it was republished in NOVA.1 (July 09 afternoon) and WUWT.1 (late evening, Jul 08).  About 3 hours later, in the UK morning, BISHOP.1 appeared.  Many blog posts referenced others, so had to follow.  Some posts' times were unknown, but had to precede first comments. 

  Local July
dd time
Estimated July
dd time UTC
AU +10   ?? ?? Salby email, ~Sydney
AU +8   09 01:00pm- 09  05:00am- NOVA.1, ~Perth
US -7   08 10:40pm- 09  05:40am- WUWT.1, ~California
GB +1   09 08:50am- 09  07:50am- BISHOP.1, ~UK

If nothing else, readers might scan the titles, often the only things people recall.  Bloggers used strong language for events far away, with no evidence.  Approximate chronology is shown for the key posts and a sample of others, first as a table, then graphically, excerpted from a detailed spreadsheet that shows the timing analysis.  People often copied titles, but sometimes amplified stridency.  The first occurrence of author is linked to a DeSmogBlog profile if available.  Each title is linked to the file and when possible a WebCited version ~July 21.  The large comment #s were at NOVA, WUWT and BISHOP.  The list includes a few blogs that allow comments but rarely get any, just as added evidence that those bloggers had read and accepted others.  Many more blogs may exist and commenters are typically outnumbered by others, “lurkers.”  Blogroll links are shown on the 2nd sheet. 

Salby blog storm - estimated chronology
Code Author or Com     Title  F Link to original file, maybe changed since ~July 21
Bold: key  Reblogger # F w  w         Link to WebCited file, when possible
Wave 1         Jul 09-14, mostly
Salby email Jul 09       Before 1pm local time, ~Sydney

Joanne Nova

458 F w Did Macquarie University sabotage, exile, blackban, strand and abandon Murry Salby?
WUWT.1 Anthony Watts 376 F w Professor Murry Salby who is critical of AGW theory,
is being disenfranchised, exiled, from academia in Australia
BISHOP.1 Andrew Montford 219 F   Climate of fear
TALLBLOKE.1 Roger Tattersall 18 F w Professor Murry Salby who is critical of AGW theory,
is being disenfranchised, exiled, from academia in Australia


Ingemar Nordin 103 F w Murry Salby drabbas av bannbullan (Swedish, Google Translation gives “Murry Salby suffer bannbullan” ~ NOVA.1.
DEPOT.1 Marc
- F w Professor who is critical of AGW theory
is being disenfranchised, exiled, from academia in Australia
NCTCS.1 Geoff Brown 4 F w Murry Salby and Macquarie University
POWERLINE.1 Steven F. Hayward 11 F w The Climate Mafia Strikes Again:
The Curious Case of Murry Salby
LMF.1 Chris Dawson 0 F w Prof. Murry Salby at Macquarie University.
From Science to Dismissal, in his own words
PSI.1 J. O'Sullivan 1 F w Scientist Fired by University for Exposing Truth on Climate Fraud
—– Jul 10       —–
WND.1 Monckton 31 F w Academic freedom? Not if you question climate change
DEPOT.2 Morano - F w Murry Salby and Macquarie University
DEPOT.3 Morano - F w Macquarie “University” sabotages, exiles, blackbans, strands and abandons Murry Salby
DEPOT.4 Morano - F w The Climate Mafia Strikes Again: The Curious Case of Murry Salby 
DRINK.1 Fred Pontius 0 F w Dr. Murry Salby, stabbed in the back by Macquarie University or the Boulderians or…? I wonder…
Macquarie.1 MU - F   Statement regarding the termination of Professor Murry Salby
NCTCS.2 Geoff Brown 1 F w Murry Salby and Macquarie University - MU Reply
DEPOT.5 Morano - F w Update: Murry Salby and Macquarie University – University Replies
WUWT.2 Watts 226 F w Macquarie University responds to Murry Salby termination issue
NOVA.2 Nova 210 F w Macquarie Uni responds to Murry Salby.
What they don’t say speaks volumes
JOSH.1 “josh” - F w Climate of smear, BH  home for many
BISHOP.2 Montford 63 F   Climate of smear, BH  home for many
WUWT.3 Watts 30 F w Josh on the Salby – Macquarie University affair
CCDIS.1 Hayward 0 F w The Climate Mafia Strikes Again:
The Curious Case of Murry Salby
1000FROLLY.1 Monckton 5 F   Macquarie University Fires Prof Murry Salby Part 1  (YouTube)
1000FROLLY.2 Monckton 0 F   Macquarie University Cans Prof Murry Salby Part 2
1000FROLLY.3 Monckton 1 F   Macquarie University Sacks Prof Murry Salby Part 3 
1000FROLLY.4 Monckton 1 F   Macquarie University Dumps Prof Murry Salby Part 4 
1000FROLLY.5 Monckton 2 F   Macquarie University Terminates Prof Murry Salby Part 5
—– Jul 11       —–
LMF.2 Dawson 0 F w Statement regarding the termination of Professor Murry Salby
THE.AUST.1 Graham Lloyd - F w Climate chair left high and dry by uni
DEPOT.6 Morano - F w Macquarie Uni responds to Murry Salby.
What they don’t say, speaks volumes
PONDER.1 kim2000 0 F w Macquarie University responds to Murry Salby termination issue
PONDER.2 kim2000 0 F w Josh on the Salby – Macquarie University affair
TURBLE.1 Sizzle
0 F w Professor Murry Salby vs. University of Macquarie -Scientist Fired by University for Exposing Truth on Climate Fraud
GREENIE.1 John Ray
0 F w Dissident scientist fired:  Shades of the old Soviet Union
—– Jul 12       —–
AUSPOLITIC.1 Ray 0 F w Dissident scientist fired:  Shades of the old Soviet Union
GWPF.1 BennyPeiser? - F w Climate Chairman Left High And Dry By University 
DEPOT.7 Morano - F w Climate Chairman Left High And Dry By University
Salby was ‘left stranded at Paris airport
Macquarie.2 MU - F   Professor Murry Salby and his dismissal from Macquarie University
DeSmogBlog.1 Graham
  F   Climate Sceptic Professor Sacked From Australian University Was Banned By National Science Foundation For “Deceptive Conduct”
DeSmogblog.2 Mashey   F   Murry Salby: Galileo? Bozo? Or P.T.Barnum?
—– Jul 15       —–
PAPUNDITS.1 John Droz,Jr   F w Recent Energy And Environmental News …  Salby and Carter
—– Jul 23       —–
Wave 2         July 23-28
THE.AUST.2 Bernard Lane - F w Academic's dismissal could face scrutiny
THE.AUST.3 Editorial - F w Are academics whingers or just really unhappy?
Jul 28       —–
DeSmogblog.3 Readfearn   F   Top Physicist Withdraws Support For Climate Sceptic Professor Sacked By Australian University
Wave 3         August 11- (ongoing, but mostly at NOVA.3)
Nova.3 Joanne Nova 137 F w Murry Salby Responds to Attacks on His Record
WUWT.4 A, Watts 214 F w Murry Salby responds to critics (later WebCites may occur)
DEPOT.8 Marc Morano - F w Skeptic Murry Salby responds to the attacks on his record…

Red lines are clear references, blacks show cases where Australians or NOVA posters visited blogs elsewhere or referenced those blogs at NOVA.

Thus, unsupported accusations spread rapidly through key interconnected blogs read by many, in Wave 1.  They spread later into isolated blogs that attracted little attention, but served to record belief in the original posts.  The Australian published 3 articles, presumably reaching a larger audience, although Wave 2 failed in its objective of misleading a French physicist into support.  In Wave 3, once again Salby worked through Nova, this time arguing with selected minutiae of the NSF case, still not offering any evidence regarding Macquarie.

Defamation by Internet? Part 2 - SalbyStorm Surges Through (Un)skeptical Blogs continues the analysis to examine the behavior patterns, starting with a sample of fascinating quotations.

Update 01/15/2016: fixed table broken by website changes.

Image Credit: ramcreations / Shutterstock.

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Your investigations into this sordid affiar are, as always, of high quality and good to read. I look forward to your cintuing exposes of these cranks.

JM, this is a powerful analysis.   And ads to investigation techniques. 

Comments really can move public opinion.   One method is called the Spiral of Silence - and it is very effective at controlling those who might speak out.   It uses isolation and defamation.   Quite cruel but effective.  And a technique that lends itself to large organized, professional campaigns.

In AGW denial, the stated plan was to promote controversy - and so, in any article or press posting, even a few critical words can sabotage a message and taint the expert.  

So organized trolling is very effective and PR campaigns deem it worth professional funding.    I can confirm seeing this used by the Clean Coal campaign of a few years ago  - when they foolishly put out a public call for paid trolls.   Recruiting is certainly more secret now, but you demonstrate that it can be very organized and can be uncovered.    Thanks. 

Thanks for the kind words … and I think you will like Part 2, comign in a little while, after I finish annotating and analyzing & summarizing 1700+ collected comments.

I am a great admirer of your work. Not only is the specifics of the climate long emergency important, but the study of antiscientific disinformation is fascinating. Looking forward to the continuation of this series.