5 WAYS TO INOCULATE AGAINST CLIMATE DISINFORMATION
by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.
Since the 1970’s, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have been promoting climate disinformation, They first cast doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming, an approach that they borrowed from tobacco companies.
As I have written previously, between 2000 to 2020, the type of climate disinformation claim changed, with the main claim from about 2007 onward being that "solutions won't work.”
Recently, there has been a new twist to climate disinformation. These articles and social media incorporate false narratives about restrictions on individual freedom and supposed federal governmental plots that force individuals to buy products they claim people don’t want. For example, a plethora of right-wing commentators have angrily described a supposed plot to take away peoples’ existing gas stoves as well as their gas cars. None of that is true. While the Biden administration is incentivizing purchase of electric stoves and cars, they are not restricting people’s purchase of their gas counterparts. Unfortunately, this type of disinformation feeds into conspiracy theories about the supposed nefarious motives of government officials to restrict choice.
I’ve just read the book Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity by Cambridge University social psychologist Sander van der Linden. The book provides a great historical account of mis- and dis-information, from Roman times to today, and why it is such a problem. According to Dr. van der Linden, misinformation is information that is something that is simply false or incorrect, for whatever reason. Disinformation is misinformation combined with a psychological intention to deceive or harm others.
While mis- and dis-information have long been around, what has changed in today’s world is their spread by social media. The speed with which the false narratives spread, the number of people that can be reached with false tales, and the social context have all changed. Falsehoods can spread more quickly than truth because they often raise negative emotions such as anger or fear. For example, a study of an antivaccination website showed that roughly 80% of the messages used emotional appeals.
Dr. van der Linden provides concrete ways to protect yourself and others from the onslaught of viral disinformation. Here are five tips.
1. Learn the tell-tale signs of conspiracy theories. When people feel powerless in the context of socio-political turmoil, they are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories to gain a sense of agency and control over their lives. Identifying conspiracy theories, such as the supposed conspiracy to take away your gas stove, is the first step to boosting your resistance to disinformation. The acronym CONSPIRE helps one to remember these six traits. They include: Contradictory logic (i.e., beliefs are not updated despite new evidence), Overriding suspicion (i.e., being suspicious about governmental motives), Nefarious intent (i.e., suspicion that government wants to control you), Something must be wrong (i.e., feeling that things cannot be as simple as they seem), Persecuted victim (i.e., a favorite trope, that the person is a marginalized victim of an elite conspiracy), Immune to evidence (i.e., even when evidence cannot be found for a given theory, the person says that’s because the conspirators have been so good at hiding the evidence!), and REinterpreting random events to make a connected story (i.e., seeing a pattern where none exist).
2. Make the truth fluent, not lies. As a behavioral neuroscientist by training, I know that learning something is the result of repeated activation of a neuronal pathway. Our brains, like AI, make predictions about what we see. Thus, if we hear words combined over and over, it makes it easier for our brain to process the information and remember them, despite the words being false. Think of ‘climate hoax’, ‘deep state’, etc. Not only do we remember false claims, repeated false claims can become very familiar to us, and so we think that they are more likely to be true. This is called the illusory truth effect, as coined by Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino (although behavior analysts would provide a different account of this phenomenon). The researchers showed that simply seeing the same 20 statements in a mix of 60 false and true statements three times over six weeks caused the subjects to rate the false, repeated statements as true. We need to be better at creating catchy and memorable framing of messages that are true. Could “climate truths” catch on?
3. Learn to recognize the Six Degrees of Manipulation These universal manipulation techniques, summed up as the DEPICT framework, include Discrediting (i.e., attacking the source of the criticism), use of Emotional messaging (to get people upset), Polarization (i.e., a deliberate attempt to drive people apart), Impersonation (i.e., impersonating a person, social media account ,or website), Conspiracy (i.e., using real events to create doubt about a mainstream explanation), and Trolling (i.e., posting inflammatory messages to provoke a response).
4. Inoculate yourself. van der Linden writes, “How does our brain discern fact from fiction?” Certain techniques, first proposed by Yale scientist Bill McGuire, can help build an immunity to falsehoods. Much like a vaccine, you can learn to recognize weakened doses of fake news to help build up your immunity to false information. One can either learn about fact-based inoculation, which addresses a specific claim; or technique-based inoculation, where one learns the broad principles behind misinformation. Dr. van der Linden has created three games of different length to teach both techniques. Check out GetBadNews; GoViral, or HarmonySquare. These games alone changed peoples’ ability to detect fake news by 20-25%.
How does inoculation work? Basically, one is forewarned about an upcoming misinformation story. Then, one is provided with the arguments and cognitive understanding that they need to counter-argue (prebunking). Interestingly, if people were presented with both a true and false statement simultaneously, they did not accept what was true, underscoring the power of misinformation. Dr. van der Linden tested subjects’ perception of the scientific consensus that global warming was real and human-caused. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists this consensus. The prebunking approach led to an increase in the perceived scientific consensus by 13%, compared to an increase of 20% when the person was presented with the facts alone. Remember that the point is to inoculate people against false information. While presenting facts alone generates the strongest response, this effect vanishes completely when presented with the false information. Interestingly, Dr. van der Linden found that the technique-based approach may generate less resistance than a fact-based approach, especially if the fake story is one in which people feel passionate about.
5. Finally, try to inoculate your friends and family. van der Linden writes, “Studies show that false stories are believed more when they are presented in a context that reinforces, rather than challenges, peoples’ political views.” Where possible, start with a conversation. Actively listen to what people are saying. Then try a ‘truth sandwich’ to change someone’s mind. If you can, present scientific and bipartisan consensus on facts. Start with facts, warn about the false story that is being spread (once), show how the false story is manipulative, and reinforce the facts with a credible alternative explanation. There is one more similarity to a vaccine. In order to stay immune, one needs a periodic booster – a reminder of a manipulation technique.
Dr. van der Linden ends the book with an inspiring quote. “If we could start from scratch, how would we rebuild Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms to bring out the best of humanity? To make sure facts and evidence go viral? To prevent false or misleading information from being special at all?”
Armed with these tips, together, we can stop the climate disinformation spread and accelerate climate action.
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