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.