The phenomenon of disinformation - the act of propagating false information - has been with us since time immemorial. But with the advent of social media, it has grown exponentially because of social media’s wide usage and the speed at which information can travel on it. We saw a great deal of disinformation during the COVID pandemic. Climate change is certainly not immune to this phenomenon.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “disinformation is one of the main risks in the fight against climate change in North America. At a time when our action must be both rapid and ambitious, disinformation is slowing us down by casting doubt on the need to act and on the measures to take. It increases the risk of polarizing public debate and politicizing climate issues.”
What is climate disinformation?
The concept of climate disinformation refers to misleading or deceptive content that casts doubt on the existence or impacts of climate change, and on the solutions that could help combat it. It attempts to minimize the impact of human activity on the climate, and includes conspiracy theories.
Disinformation is when someone deliberately propagates false or deceptive information. It’s done with the intention to deceive or to serve specific interests, be they political, economic or ideological in nature.
Climate disinformation often misinterprets scientific data or leaves out certain key elements to cast doubt, discredit the science or to influence public opinion with regards to climate action.
Contrary to disinformation, misinformation occurs when false information is spread without malicious intent. It often results from a misunderstanding of the data. The complex nature of climate science can sometimes be misinterpreted, leading to false ideas about climate change.
Greenwashing refers to deceptive attempts by a business or organization to present certain measures as environmentally friendly while concealing their negative impacts on the environment. This strategy is often employed to enhance a business’ reputation. For example, a company might claim that its products are fully recyclable when they are not, or that its oil is “green” because it is less polluting than coal.
How does false information spread?
Online platforms are often the main driver of disinformation. Individuals, groups and even States can exploit social media to disseminate conspiracy theories or false information on climate to polarize debates, taking advantage of the speed at which information spreads and the breadth of social networks to amplify this false information.
The Quebec government has identified social media sites as accelerators of the propagation of false information around the world, because “their current economic models, based mainly on the monetization of audience attention, favour disinformation and radicalization to the detriment of democratic debate.”
An obstacle to climate action
According to the United Nations, misinformation and disinformation are “widespread on the issue of climate change”, are “major obstacles towards progress in tackling the climate crisis” and “distort the perception of climate science and solutions, create confusion, and often lead to delays in action or even harmful action.”
Disinformation also undermines the work done by organizations like Équiterre in our efforts to mobilize, inform, educate and raise awareness among the public.
Climate disinformation is not new
Climate disinformation has been around since the first attempts to raise awareness about planetary warming. Oil giants were among the first to call into question the reality of climate change in order to protect their financial interests. For example, in the 1970s, Exxon muddied the waters of debate and sought to block and delay measures to attack the problem, despite knowing full well that oil contributed to climate warming. Corporations have even funded disinformation campaigns to question the validity of scientific evidence.
These arguments have been taken up by certain groups and individuals (commonly known as climate skeptics) in their efforts to spread false information, as we have seen with certain politicians and business interest groups.
Digital platform algorithms make climate disinformation even more dangerous. A false piece of information can be shared on a massive scale and can go even viral, undermining the truth. These algorithms can also create echo chambers by offering users similar content to what they have previously consulted, making it relatively easy to fall down a rabbit hole of false information.
How to curb disinformation
To counter climate disinformation, it is essential to promote scientific literacy and to further educate the public about the pitfalls of social media. Governments, digital platforms and the media all have a vital role to vigorously scrutinize shared information, to strengthen their ethical standards for the dissemination of information, and to disclose their sources.
By encouraging cooperation among scientists, leaders, the media and the public, we can do a better job of informing people and raising awareness about climate issues, while curbing the spread of disinformation.
How do I know if I’m dealing with disinformation?
Read the content completely
First, read the content completely, not just the title.
Next, ask yourself this question
Next, ask yourself whether the content is eliciting an immediate emotional response in you or if it contains surprising information. Does the content seem too good to be true? If so, proceed with caution and refrain from sharing the information right away.
Use reliable sources to verify the information
Use reliable sources to verify the information, such as major media outlets or scientific resources. Their work shows the truest reflection of reality and can serve as a reliable fact-checker. Beware of content for which there is only one source.
Verify the author’s credibility
Is he/she a specialist in the field, or merely offering a personal opinion?
Check the date of publication
Older content may no longer be true.
Are there spelling mistakes?
That can be a sign that the opinion or media is not reliable.