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Fake climate news, real fallout

Michaela Cavanagh
July 24, 2018

The science of climate change is complex, and in the era of "fake news," that complexity can be used to mislead and manipulate the public and decision-makers. How do we know who to trust?

COP23 UN Klimakonferenz in Bonn Protest
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

The rapid deterioration of the very conditions that support life on Earth is something we should all have an interest in keeping abreast of in the news. But climate change is an extremely complex scientific problem, and tackling it is an expensive proposition in which many powerful players stand to lose.

Which means it isn't always easy to know if what you're reading in your morning paper or social media feed is entirely accurate.

"World leaders were duped into investing billions of dollars over manipulated global warming data," a Mail on Sunday headline shouted in February 2017. Below it, an article alleged that US government scientists had used misleading, unverified data in a report that greatly exaggerated global warming and rushed it to publication in time to sway the 2015 Paris climate talks.

Read more: Four climate change myths, debunked

One problem: The UK newspaper got its facts wrong and misrepresented the study it was criticizing.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London School of Economics' climate research institute soon filed a formal complaint against the Mail on Sunday with the UK's press regulator, the IPSO, detailing 30 false claims in the story.

"Fake news stories about climate change are a significant threat to the public interest …The expert community must continue to fight back against the deluge of propaganda from climate change deniers," Ward wrote.

Seven months later, the IPSO ruled that the Mail on Sunday article was indeed inaccurate and misleading. The newspaper was forced to publish the regulator's adjudication above the original article, pinpointing its flaws and inaccuracies.

But had the damage already been done?

'Enough to make your head spin'

By the time IPSO made its ruling, the story had garnered more than 211,500 shares, likes, comments and other interactions on social media. It was picked up by climate-skeptic blogs and outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller.

Protesters demand action on climate change in London, 2015
Despite significant support for action against climate change around the world, not everyone is convinced by the evidenceImage: picture-alliance/empics/D. Lipinski

Those working to combat false reporting on climate change warn that it can circulate unchecked, leading us to make lifestyle decisions and cast votes based on untruths.

That could mean the difference between polluters living up to climate protection commitments and President Fake News himself walking away from the 2015 Paris Agreement, a decision backed up by distorted facts and unbalanced claims.

And you don't have to be willfully resistant to the realities of climate change to be befuddled by climate news. Understanding climate change involves interpreting data and parsing statistics that are confusing, to say the least. Not to mention the jargon: Ocean acidification, loss and damage, cap and trade, carbon budget, UNFCCC, IPCC, REDD — it's enough to make your head spin.

Nora Kaup is an environmental technology student in Berlin. Even for her, it can be tough: "It's a science that sometimes only makes sense if you know the vocabulary, the background theory, or the debate about the topic," she told DW.

Misinformation and disinformation

Climate Feedback is a network of scientists that fact-checks climate change news from outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, and also mainstream new sources such as The New York Times and National Geographic. They base their assessments on factors like factual accuracy, the quality of the sources used in the article, and whether the logic of the argument is sound.

Emmanuel Vincent, a climate scientist and founder of Climate Feedback, said people increasingly get their climate news from unreliable sources.

"We may not understand the difference of who it is that really writes the news," Vincent told DW. "More and more, what becomes influential online is not always written by journalists. This opening of the world of journalism to many more people, like PR people and bloggers, is bringing a lot of inaccurate information online."

Busting climate myths

And journalists get it wrong too, misinterpreting or cherry-picking the data, or taking conclusions out of context. In cases like this, articles can be misleading even if they aren't deliberately manipulative. "Misinformation is typically what we see on climate change," Vincent said. The problem of disinformation, on the other hand, "can be much bigger."

"It's an active campaign to lead people to believe something that might be wrong or that might be a partial view of reality for your own benefit," he added.

Read more: Unspoken truths about objectivity and science

Fake news has become a buzzword ever since Trump came to power and began to attack unfavorable press as outright lies. When we talk about "fake news," we're talking about more than just a bit of online clickbait — but the deliberate spread of fabricated information with the intention to mislead.

Once you throw social media in the mix, it can be a recipe for disaster. "It's often hard to know whether the articles are real or partly fake, but it's very clear that it's engineered," Vincent said. "The sharing happens extremely fast and it goes from zero to 10,000 or 20,000 shares in just a few hours."

Read more: Why are Google and Facebook financing climate skeptics?

US President Donald Trump announces US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement
Trump downplays temperature rise as he announces his decision to pull the US out of the Paris AgreementImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Get your facts straight

At a time when the online landscape is dominated by those who shout the loudest, the voices of climate experts like Vincent's are at risk of being drowned out.

"People have come to realize the scale of the issue with the 'fake news' phenomenon," he said. "The reach of this information is very hard to encompass, but fact-checkers are never going to be fast enough to check things in real time."

Kaup finds fact-checking websites like Climate Feedback helpful to assess the credibility of the news she encounters online. But she also uses her own judgement to discern fact from fiction

"I can tell from the content and how it's presented, since I'd assume that 'fake news' is rather unscientific and unserious," Kaup said. "I think my judgment is also based on how trustworthy I consider the source — how reliable or reputable it is."

So how can we untangle fact from fiction in our own newsfeeds? Vincent has a few pointers:

  • Research the website: "Who is actually saying something about the topic? Really pay attention to who is writing," Vincent said. "Is it actually a journalist, or a blogger? Is it a news outlet that has a clear bias?"
  • Verify the sources: "If there are no sources at all, or if the sources are just outliers or someone who doesn't know about the topic, that's a red flag," said Vincent. Can you verify the credibility of the sources with a second source?
  • Be critical: "Look at the structure of argumentation, and whether it's backed by sources," said Vincent. Is the article up-to-date, or is it old? Are the claims based on peer-reviewed articles? Ask yourself who has interests at stake in what you're reading about.