What is climate mis- and disinformation, and why should we care?
Lead author: Victor Galaz, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Our living planet is facing a multitude of interacting crises. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, inequality, pandemics, and war and conflict are just a few of them. In these times of turbulence, it is vital that decisions about our common future are well-grounded in science. False information and intentional attempts to manipulate public opinion pose serious risks to our joint capacities to create a safe and just future for all.
Mis- and disinformation play a crucial role in forming public opinion and thus influencing the actions taken at all levels of society, from individuals to central policy-making. Misinformation about covid-19 vaccines for example, has notable impacts on whether people are willing to take the vaccine (Loomba et al., 2021). A growing body of work also explores to what extent misinformation has affected political elections around the world (for example, Howard, 2020; Machado et al., 2019). Scientists engaged in science communication also face an increased number of attacks on social media as they struggle to inform the public to mitigate the spread of fake news and misinformation (Nogrady, 2021).
It is becoming increasingly clear that misinformation is taking its toll on public opinion on climate and sustainability issues as well. A recent study shows that U.S. citizens, partly due to biased and incorrect media reporting, systematically underestimate public support for ambitious climate policies, thus falsely assuming that a vocal minority who dismiss climate change are representative of the broader public opinion (Sparkman et al., 2022). A cross-national study conducted by the Climate Action Against Disinformation and Conscious Advertising Network (2022) shows a considerable spread of serious misconceptions about climate change in the surveyed countries. 33% of the surveyed population in the US and Australia believe that ‘the climate has always changed, global warming is a natural phenomenon and is not a direct result of human activity.’ In Brazil, 30% believe that climate change is not caused mainly by human activity, and 24% believe that the “temperature record is unreliable or rigged”. In the United Kingdom, 29% believe that a significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change (Climate Action Against Disinformation and Conscious Advertising Network, 2022). Misinformation and conspiracy theories about wind energy farms are already affecting the expansion of renewable energy negatively, and thus the prospects for achieving a transition to zero-carbon energy sources (Winter et al., 2022).
One key and challenging issue is how to define and identify mis- and disinformation. Here we refer to misinformation as information whose inaccuracy is unintentional. Disinformation on the other hand, refers to information that is deliberately false or misleading (Jack, 2017). While the definitions of mis- and disinformation might seem straightforward, their differences in the real world are not (Jerit and Zhao, 2020; Treen et al., 2020).
Climate mis- and disinformation has a long history, and its underlying motivations and strategies have become increasingly visible in the last years (e.g., Supran et al., 2023; Franta, 2018). Attempts to sow confusion about the science of climate change include lobbying campaigns by vested interests (Brulle, 2018), the funding of climate change denialist think tanks (Farrell, 2019), and corporate climate “sceptic” campaigns in conventional media (Dunlap & McCright, 2011; Supran & Oreskes, 2017).
In parallel to this type of coordinated disinformation activities there are other much more fluid and complex self-organized patterns of information sharing and engagements on digital platforms. In the case of fossil fuel companies’ documented attempts to influence public opinion on climate change issues their agency is straightforward (Supran and Oreskes, 2017; Supran et al., 2023). But the type of mis-and disinformation that flows effortlessly across social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Youtube, is another type of beast. The former has a clear intent, plan and coordinating agent, while the latter form tends to emerge and evolve as information, algorithmic systems and digital social networks interact in complex ways. These two forms of mis- and disinformation are of course, often combined in reality (Starbird and Wilson, 2019).
Digital media plays a key role in this regard (Pearce et al., 2019; Treen et al., 2020). Five hundred million tweets, 294 billion emails, 4 petabytes of content on Facebook, 65 billion messages on WhatsApp, and 5 billion searches on Google are conducted every day (from Howard, 2020, p. 4). Social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is particularly important in this context. Survey data shows that between 40% and 60% of adults in most developed countries, receive their news from social media (Nic, 2017). The fact that social media platforms are participatory by design allows them to shape individual attitudes, feelings and behaviours (Williams et al., 2015), and facilitates social mobilization and protests (Steinert-Threlkeld et al., 2015).
Climate change and the loss of biodiversity require collective action and public deliberations that are global in scope, ambitious in their goals, and over very extended periods of time (Galaz 2020). Polarization, mistrust in science, and incorrect climate and environmental information amplified through digital media could undermine such much-needed collective action in detrimental ways.
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About the author
Victor Galaz is an associate professor in political science at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. He is also programme director of the Beijer Institute’s Governance, Technology and Complexity programme. His research includes, among others, societal challenges created by technological change.
He is currently working on the book “Dark Machines” (for Routledge) about the impacts of artificial intelligence, digitalization and automation for the Biosphere.
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