How to tell if there’s climate misinformation on your feed

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Climate misinformation has permeated the online discourse in a way that can be difficult to parse through. How can we accurately call it out? Graphic by Cristobal Spielmann. 

By Cristobal Spielmann

Living in the social media age means getting bombarded with misinformation on a daily basis, whether that information comes in the form of videos, memes or poorly researched and written news articles. With climate change, that misinformation can be both pernicious and dangerous. It perpetuates myths about climate change not being real and not being caused by humans. 

Patrick Moore and PragerU 

Take the 2015 video “The Truth about [Carbon Dioxide],” presented by Patrick Moore, whose title is “co-founder of Greenpeace,” and produced by Prager University. On the surface, it’s a well-made video about CO2, featuring sharp visuals and an authoritative voice presenting the information at hand from a source with “university” in the name. 

But if you were to watch the video more fully, some elements might appear strange. Moore spends much of the video talking about the origins of CO2 in planetary history, making sweeping statements and implications that environmentalists want to eliminate all CO2 and carbon to the last atom. He says fossil fuels are “100% organic” and “were produced with solar energy,” which is technically true, but clearly misleading for a non-scientific audience. 

He also makes the case that there should be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, drawing allusions to CO2 levels during the Cambrian explosion literally hundreds of millions of years ago before humans even existed. He even questions CO2’s status as a pollutant at all. 

Moore does not mention the temperature increase on Earth due to recent carbon emissions or what that means for the planet, as he would have to explain why eras with higher CO2 emissions have temperatures several degrees hotter than pre-industrial times, or talk about the astronomical rise in emissions in just the last hundred years. 

This kind of video, filled with dubious scientific information, would be incredibly easy to spread across the Internet. In fact, it already has been spread, accumulating millions of views. Fortunately, there are some critical steps that we can take to minimize the impact of climate misinformation, should you ever come across a post on climate change you’re not 100% sure is legitimately sourced or reported accurately. 

Professionalism versus credibility 

With so many sources and news sites online, it can be difficult discerning whether or not a source has a reliable track record. Author John Green, in a Crash Course video series about online literacy, used one example of a study where students unfamiliar with fact-checking skills looking at the design or supposed professionalism of a website instead of the website’s actual credibility or arguments. 

Doing a quick search on a source by searching keywords associated with the post or looking up names of the producer of the post through an online search engine and reading up on outside sources can help give needed information and perspective that you wouldn’t otherwise get. 

If you were to search outside the example PragerU video and the site, you would find more concerning information. Googling “Patrick Moore” and “climate change” would bring up news stories about Moore’s history of conservative-aligned climate change denialism, misrepresenting research and overstating his early role at Greenpeace

DeSmog, an environmentalist blog dedicated to debunking misinformation surrounding climate change, has an entire documented history of Moore’s controversial claims, including partnering with several climate change denialist think tanks. The same blog post also highlights Prager’s contributions from conservative groups and details the group’s partisan and non-academic leanings. 

In short, it’s not an informative video from an educational channel; it’s a pro-fossil fuel propaganda piece from an unabashedly conservative website. 

Fact-checking information 

However, just knowing that a post may have a compromising history or background information from a questionable authority isn’t enough to dismiss the claim out of hand, as that would fall into fallacious thinking. The so-called genetic fallacy isn’t enough to support a strong argument against a claim, since it doesn’t address the claim itself, despite whatever poor circumstances it might have originated from. 

There are still more steps you can take to make sure you not only familiarize yourself with problematic sources, but also get the correct information. 

Many websites and organizations specialize in fact-checking popular stories and claims, and those claims often relate to climate change. Snopes and Politifact are likely the ones you’ve heard of and mainly cover political claims. 

Others include FactCheck.org’s SciCheck, which has done extensive coverage of COVID-19 misinformation like tweets missuggesting the vaccine status of Pfizer’s CEO, and Bellingcat, an open-source investigative website that’s looked into issues such as the air-polluting impact of Iraqi oil fields and addressing false claims of “spiking radiation levels” in the wake of 2020 wildfires near Chernobyl. 

Because of the growing importance of and misinformation surrounding climate change, there are now also specific climate change and science-focused fact-checkers to account for the amount of misinformation surrounding climate change. 

Climate Feedback, a more climate-focused site from the fact-checking website Science Feedback, is the most notable, providing reviews of scientific articles on a five-point scale: +2 means the claim in question is very high in scientific credibility, while -2 means the claim is very low in scientific credibility. Scientific claims are reviewed similarly on a five color scale, from very high credibility to very low credibility. 

What to do now? 

Claims and articles are reviewed by an expansive community of climate scientists, researchers and professors. Climate Feedback is nonpartisan and models its community standards on high academic rigor, neutrality and respect. Though the website hasn’t updated any reviews since May of this year, it remains a useful resource as to how to look at scientific information online. 

These website tools, along with the aforementioned steps, are incredibly useful in battling misinformation surrounding climate change online. As more news comes out about climate disasters and international climate reports in the coming months and years, it’s critical that the information we’re seeing on our timelines and feeds is accurate, and these steps could serve useful in that fight. 

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