How fences could save the planet

As politicians get bogged down in debating complicated strategies to fight climate change, Mark Stev

Nobody would blame you for being pessimistic about the future. After all, if you listen to the media (and, it seems, anybody over 25) we're all going to hell in the proverbial handcart, as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - economic meltdown, climate change, terrorism and, who else, Simon Cowell - bear down on us.

But I have news. Some people are rather fed up of this narrative and are quietly getting on with solving the grand challenges our planet faces, using both new technologies and forgotten wisdom. Their mantra? "Cheer up, it might just happen." I've spent the past 18 months researching a book about these people.

One of them is Tony Lovell, an accountant from Australia, where farming has become synonymous with drought. A decade of low rainfall, heatwaves and wildfires has scorched much of the land. Australians call it "the Big Dry" and it means that when the rains come - as they are doing now on the eastern seaboard - water runs over the parched surface, resulting in devastating floods. Many farms survive on "drought assistance" handed out by the government. Rural suicide is depressingly common.

Lovell thinks he has the answer. At a climate-change conference in Manchester, I find him talking about a new method of farming. "This is a typical ranch in Mexico," he explains, showing an image of a terracotta dust bowl with bare, compacted soil. Then he puts up a second image of lush green vegetation. "This is the ranch next door. Same soil, same rainfall. These pictures were taken on the same day."

I am astounded - it seems too good to be true. Later, I ask his business partner, Bruce Ward, what caused the difference. "Management," he says. "Just management."

To find out more, we travel to New South Wales to a sheep farm owned by Tim and Karen Wright. The Big Dry isn't so big on their land - it looks more like Sussex than the images of the bush that we're used to seeing on TV. The couple have also tripled their sheep stock, with half the labour associated with herds the size of theirs. And yet, Tim says, the rainfall had been low for nine years. What is his secret?

Back to nature

Driving to another farm, Ward and Lovell show me. They point to a paddock by the side of the road that is almost totally bereft of vegetation. "Is that from lack of rain?" I ask. "Look down at the fence," says Lovell. And then I see it, and from that moment on, I see it everywhere we go. Outside the fence there is grass. Indeed, we are standing in it up to our knees. "Things can grow just fine here," says Ward. He bends down and grabs a lump of vegetation. It comes away in his hand. "This is dying, though. That's the other half of the problem."

Back in the car, Lovell tells a story. "If you go back in time, our grasslands were dominated by large herds of grazing animals - bison in America and wildebeest in Africa." There are still a few places where you can witness this. The Serengeti, for instance, is one of the few remaining natural grasslands on the planet and is home to huge migrating herds of wildebeest and zebras. There is no beginning or end to their journey, but a constant clockwise trek in search of water and fresh grass. Every year, two million animals cover 1,800 miles. The herds stay closely packed as a defence against predators.

“What happens is the herd eats the grass but then moves on, looking for the fresh stuff. In the Serengeti, that herd won't be back on the same ground for at least a year," Lovell says. "That's important," says Ward. "There's a natural relationship between grasses and grazing animals. The growing buds are at the base of the plant and they need sunlight. If the plant gets too tall it starts to kill itself by hiding those buds in its own shade. It can't photosynthesise." "That's why that grass came away in my hand," Lovell explains. "It's dead material. In nature, the herd would have come along, eaten the tops off the plants, exposing the growth buds, and moved on. By the time they came back, the grass would have regrown."

“The problem with the way we farm livestock is we don't let them roam," says Ward. "We split up big herds between separate paddocks and keep them there for way too long. With no predators, they can wander where they like in that space. The grass never gets a chance to grow back. An animal will have a go at it as soon as it starts sprouting."

“Why doesn't anybody notice this?" I ask. "Did you?" Lovell replies. It's a fair point.

The effect of such poor land management is a sharp decline in soil carbon levels across grasslands over the past 150 years, directly related to the loss of vegetation. Ward tells me that grass plants grow roughly the same amount of root matter as leaf matter. If the plant gets nibbled by a cow or sheep, it'll slough off a corresponding amount of root matter into the soil in minutes, enriching it with carbon.

“A plant is roughly 58 per cent carbon - from CO2 in the air," says Ward, "and while nearly all of the lost root matter will rot, returning that carbon to the atmosphere, it leaves behind a small amount of residue."

“It's only a small amount of the carbon that makes up the plant," says Lovell, "but a little bit of a bloody big amount soon adds up." He's not wrong. The UN estimates there are 3.5 billion hectares of agricultural grasslands on our planet. Increase the organic carbon content of their soils by just 1 per cent, and this would offset nearly 12 years of global CO2 emissions.

Rotating cows

Some worry about cattle belching methane (another potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere and call for us to relinquish meat-eating. But if what Ward and Lovell are saying is right, it's not that we have too many cattle, it's that we have too little grass. Working correctly together, animals and plants are a huge natural "carbon pump" that can take vast quantities of CO2 from the sky. As a bonus, richer soil is far more effective at retaining water, ending the destructive cycle of drought and flood.

What is more exciting is that almost any farmer can adopt the system. All you need is a few fences. Then you build lots of small paddocks, form your cattle into a big herd, and put them in each one for just a day or two.

So why isn't everyone doing it? "The problem is that farming's a traditional business," Ward explains. "Changing the way you farm is the same as saying that what your dad and your grandad did was wrong, which isn't easy when they're still living on the property."

That's why he and Lovell want Australia's government - and other governments - to pay farmers to increase soil carbon. "It's a carrot instead of a stick," Lovell says. "They can tell Dad the change is to bring money in."

It's a wonderful thought - that something as simple as a fence could save the world - and I remembered the words of another farmer I met on my trip, a typically salty Australian called Michael Coughlan. "The thing is, in Australia and America, we've absolutely pillaged our land. We've just fucked the whole thing. But I think we can turn it round really quickly."

“An Optimist's Guide to the Future" by Mark Stevenson is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Three easy ways to make a difference

Send Klaus Lackner some money

This professor of geophysics at Columbia University has developed a carbon scrubber that removes CO2 from the sky cheaply and efficiently. Now, his team wants to create a commercial prototype - and it needs $20m to do it. Why not help him out by chipping in at giving.columbia.edu?

Create some charcoal

Charcoal has undergone a makeover in recent years. Creating it (and then burying it) is seen as one of the most promising ways to mitigate global warming.

By burning all agricultural waste such as corn and rice stalks, branch and leaf litter (as well as animal dung) in a "low-oxygen" environment to create charcoal, we could "halt the increase and actually decrease the level of atmospheric carbon by 0.7 gigatonnes a year", according to Johannes Lehmann, a soil science expert at Cornell University. The bonus is that charcoal in the soil tends to increase crop yields, too.

Cut your energy bill
Haven't got around to insulating the loft or buying any draft excluder? Energy efficiency is the quickest way to reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Your wallet will appreciate it, too. Just sticking some boards over the beams in your loft will make a difference. And you can use the lovely power tool you got for Christmas.
Mark Stevenson

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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