Climate change: fighting fake news

Why is there so much fake news out there, and how do we fight it?
31 January 2017

Interview with 

Sander Van Der Linden, Cambridge University, and Doug Crawford Brown, Cambridge University


Searching the internet on a laptop


With 2016 being announced as the hottest year on record, lots of people are talking about Climate Change. But not everyone agrees that humans are in fact altering our climate. Donald Trump famously tweeted it was a hoax orchestrated by the Chinese. And there are plenty of websites arguing this too, which can cause confusion for the average person. Thankfully, scientists at Cambridge University have come up with a way to protect people against fake news, in the form of a vaccination. Georgia Mills went to get inoculated, but first checked in with climate specialist Doug Crawford Brown to find out whether scientists really do agree on the issue.

Doug - The large majority are. Typically you see numbers of 98% of relevant scientists agreeing with 2% being on the outside. And it’s about as certain as one needs to be at the moment to do the policy measures. But certainly there are some conflicting signals that we get so we would expect that perhaps continuously the temperature would be going up, but it’s not, it’s stabilised since about 2005/2006 and is only now again starting to go back up again. So that little bit of information provides a sort of counterweight against an overwhelming body of information suggesting that the climate is, in fact, changing at the moment and will change very dramatically in the next several decades.

Georgia - Why is there this stabilisation?

Doug - Well, it has a lot of different causes. Some of them have to do with the El Nino La Nina cycle. Some of them have to do with issues of heat being pushed down into the ocean until the ocean has equilibrated and then it comes back into the atmosphere again. So there are lots of causes of it but it does produce this escalator or step function in the temperature.

Georgia - So scientists, by enlarge, are agreed… but are they? There’s a petition on line signed by 30,000 scientists stating that climate change is a lie - sounds pretty convincing. It’s even been signed by Charles Darwin and the Spice Girls!. Wait a minute - this sounds like it might not be genuine. And as Sander Van Der Linden from Cambridge University found out, show someone a fake petition like this alongside a real article, and they effectively cancel each other out. So how do you fight this? Well, him and his team reasoned if fake news is the virus, perhaps you could vaccinate against it.

Sander - Is it possible to preemptively inoculate people against fake news. And the way we went about doing that is that in the brief inoculation we first warned people that there’s politically motivated groups out there with an agenda. In the detailed inoculation we went beyond that specifically debunk the misinformation that people were shown, so basically arm people with facts that counteract that information. Then we showed peopled the actual misinformation, and found that they were more resistant to the information after they were pre-exposed and inoculated to it. And this process of pre-exposing people preemptively to information (debunking it) that helps people build this kind of repertoire of counter arguments that they can use to resist this influence and misinformation.

Georgia - By showing people this warning or disclaimer, Sander and his team found you could effectively vaccinate people against the fake news stories so they had less of an effect on your overall opinion. Legitimate new sites like the BBC or social media services could implement this as a way of tackling the rise in this trend. But why does fake news seem to have such an attraction?

Sander - One of the things that I’m interested in is what I call the psychology of consensus. So we tend to pay attention to consensus in a lot of domains and one is the social domain. They way it works is that where there’s an implicit consensus or social proof that something is important, we tend to interact with it without deeply thinking about it. So if something has been shown a million times, and a video has been viewed two million times, people simply share it without thinking. So I think just because it’s attractive and it signals to people this must be important because everyone’s paying attention to it and that creates a sort of self-sustaining mechanism. Where something gets shared, much like a virus, it’s replicated at a very high rate and at that rate it might overturn the rate of actual news. And I think intervening in that process is a actually one of the most crucial elements to try to prevent people from sharing information before they’ve processed the facts hopefully science will win out.

Georgia - Science for the win. But why does climate change in particular seem to attract these fake news articles and conspiracy theories? Douglas Crawford Brown again…

Doug - Partially it’s simply because the science is still relatively new, despite the fact that we’ve been looking at it for 200 years. The science is relatively new and it’s really been in the last 15 years that we’ve started to get really strong information. So the public partially is simply lagging behind the development of the science. But the main issue is that if there isn’t in fact climate change going on, which I think there is, then we’re looking at some potentially dramatic changes in people’s lifestyles and people generally don’t want to have to change their lifestyle. They would rather have a policy that focuses on bad industry or something like that. They don’t like to think in terms of  their own lives as causing the problem, and whenever you know that a policy is going to lead to you having to do something dramatic there’s a tendency to back away and say maybe there’s not a problem at all.

Georgia - I know there’s this issue on social media of people being in bubbles of things and which bubble would you rather be in - the bubble that tells you everyone’s going to have a real problem in a couple of years or the bubble that says we’re all going to be fine?

Doug - Yes. That’s actually been the problem associated with social media, particularly as people increasingly get their news from things like Facebook and so forth where you can get into a little bubble. You go into there because you like something that you’ve heard there, and then because you like it you tend to keep going back to that same place. If these sources of social media information were being complete and unbiased and giving you the full information, then I wouldn’t be so worried about it. But of course, they’re not, they’re attempting to be sensationalistic, they’re attempting to attract a lot of likes and so forth, and you tend to believe things that you like.