In the last few weeks, as my networks have been expanding, I’ve been exposed to more examples of climate change misinformation and disinformation than has been the case in the past. At first, I attributed this to coming into contact with more climate change sceptics. I’m fine with that – healthy scepticism is a good thing. The science of human-driven climate change is essentially settled in all major respects, as demonstrated by the 97%+ consensus among active, credible climate scientists as reported by the IPCC. But there are still some areas of uncertainty. Healthy scepticism helps in the study of those areas, from which the uncertainties can be gradually reduced.
However, I found, by following more closely what was happening in some of the exchanges between people on social media, that there were quite a few climate change denialists masquerading as sceptics. Many of them were directly connected with, or relying heavily on communications from, climate change denial organisations such as CO2 Coalition, Friends of Science, Watt’s Up With That and so on.
Some of the signs that these people were engaging in disinformation, on social media, were as follows, between a poster (presenting correct information) and a responder (the disinformer):
1) Responding to a poster, stating some incorrect information, and/or stating that what the poster has presented as correct information has been debunked.
2) failing to provide credible evidence that the correct information has been debunked, and repeating or expand the misinformation,
3) trying to discredit the legitimate scientifically respected sources the poster has signposted,
4) descending quickly into personal abuse, in an attempt to throw the poster off course or to elicit an emotional, less logical response,
5) attempting to distract from the original challenge, adding other points irrelevant to the original piece of disinformation (red herrings),
6) failing to follow a scientific approach to the matter in hand (or mis-framing a scientific hypothesis style of reasoning in a way that attempts to derail, misdirect or confuse the logical argument about the original proposition/hypothesis or piece of information),
7) accusing the poster of failing to follow a scientific approach.
8) using logical fallacies, such as polemic arguments, false dichotomy, impossible expectations, incorrect inferences about directions of causality
Disinformers sometimes travel around on Social Media platforms in “packs” or can be found in their own echo-chambers where normal people enter at their peril. The unwary can end up getting censored from those echo-chambers, blocked out or sent into retreat by abuse and derision.
It’s worth pointing out that when anyone challenges a disinformer (or group of disinformers) it’s quite possible that the disinformer(s) will sometimes accuse the challenger of deploying any or all of the above tactics (a classic case of disinformers accusing their protagonists of using the very tactics they themselves are using). This can result in a form of “deadlock” in an argument. The thing to remember is that disinformers are quite happy to reach such a deadlocked position, because this could leave the audience with an element of doubt in their mind about whether anyone “won” the argument. If there is no clear winner, then the disinformers have succeeded in placing doubt in the mind of the audience. That, at the end of the day, is the disinformer’s objective.
One way to break a deadlocked argument is by reference to trusted, credible science (and scientists). This is why, in the field of human-driven climate change, some climate change deniers who are also disinformers put a great deal of effort into attacking the 97%+ consensus among credible climate scientists that human-driven greenhouse gas emissions have been driving dangerous climate change.
It’s dangerous to ignore harmful disinformation if it is getting a high degree of visibility and onward publication or attention, because often all that disinformers need to do to achieve their objectives is sow some doubt, any doubt. There are numerous historical examples of this. Consider the history of:
If you do decide to respond to disinformation, some of the techniques you might want to consider are:
Debunking (there are numerous excellent guides, from credible sources, on how to do this effectively)
Pre-bunking or “disinformation inoculation”. This is a process of pointing out to people how the disinformers might operate. Once the intended audiences of the disinformers know about what disinformers might be doing, those audiences are far more likely to take measures to fact-check to reliable, trustworthy sources of information, and to use a healthy degree of common sense in assessing what the potential disinformers are telling them.
We need to end the perception that Social Media companies are “just platforms” – and hold them more to account (especially where they make money from the spaces they moderate).
There needs to be a balance between freedom of speech and cracking down on harmful disinformation.
It’s a problem about behaviour rather than content per-se - so the behaviours of disinformers matters, especially if they are in positions of authority, and they need to be held to account.
Disinformers exploit people’s lack of trust.
It’s often about what (or who) they don’t trust, rather than what (or who) they do trust.
It’s hard to work out exactly where it started in online discussions. Disinformation as a deliberate action has been around for centuries. Online media give it greater reach and immediacy.
In many parts of the online world, holding onto attention earns money – so some disinformation is motivated by this. A committed minority do it for certain reasons – to get followers, or get money (some are well-funded politicised organisations) - and some really believe the things they publicise, and others become followers.
An online safety bill is going to the UK Parliament later in 2021, and it is hoped that this will begin to seriously tackle the growing problem of disinformation.
In the meantime, watch out for the signs of disinformation, and work out who you trust as sources of reliable information.
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