To hear some climate scientists and activists tell it, there are actually encouraging signs that climate skepticism is on the decline. The evidence for climate change that’s all around us—temperatures in Antarctica were recently 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they’re supposed to be—has made it harder and harder for deniers to, well, deny.
But fossil fuel interests can’t afford to let public opinion settle on the side of science. And so, with their profit margins very much on the line, these interests have replaced outright denial with spreading climate misinformation meant to undermine climate science and solutions. Their aim is to sow enough doubt to delay real climate action. Unfortunately, our current social media ecosystem makes doing so all too easy.
Misinformation is just what it sounds like: the sharing of information that is false or incorrect. When someone deliberately spreads misinformation with the intent to mislead, we call it disinformation. Much of this intentionally misleading content about climate change or renewable energy is funded by a handful of industries, particularly the fossil fuel industry, and is often conceived by conservative think tanks and front groups. Then various “influencers” like these help amplify it.
The average individuals who end up resharing this content aren’t necessarily trying to mislead; they may feel like they’re merely “asking questions,” or that they’ve happened upon an underreported news story worth passing along. By this point, the distinction between disinformation and misinformation can be almost nonexistent. What’s important to fossil fuel interests is that the information is out there, circulating.
Climate misinformation has even been incorporated into the marketing plans to help sell the public on the continued use of fossil fuels. Trade groups for the natural gas industry have actually paid Instagram influencers—often young women with large followings among foodies and cooking enthusiasts—to talk up the benefits of cooking on a gas stove as opposed to an electric one, in an effort to make the burning of this particular fossil fuel seem like a requirement for successful recipe outcomes.
Much of this overall messaging is often reinforced by the biggest individual spreaders of misinformation online, some of whom receive funding from fossil fuel interest groups.
Together, this is basically a recipe for discourse disaster. Cognitive bias means we’re much more likely to believe—and share—information that sounds true to us without taking the time to confirm whether it is, indeed, true. Social bias means that we’re even more likely to believe and share that information if it has come to us via someone in our social (or ideological) circle. And algorithmic bias means that once we’ve liked and shared this bit of maybe-true, maybe-not-true information, we’re going to be seeing a lot more posts in the same vein.