Research Summary

Responding to misinformation about climate change

A Collaborative Approach to Responding to Misinformation

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2017

Social media is a common outlet for public misinformation about climate change, and people may not know how best to respond to a misleading post. Educators might assume that the misinformation needs to be “corrected,” but this approach often backfires, leading to more argumentative responses. By approaching communication from a different perspective, such as seeking common ground, people can create more positive discussions about environmental issues on social media. This study provides an example of how to create those positive discussion, by highlighting social media user’s reactions to different types of messages about climate change on Facebook.

The authors compared two different approaches to responding to misinformation about climate change on social media: the first is “correction,” or simply providing information. The second is “collaboration,” which does not try to fix the misinformation, but instead offers an alternative statement on the subject that may be more agreeable.

The study used an online questionnaire to compare approaches to responding to climate change misinformation on social media. The authors posted the questionnaire in Facebook groups related to climate change action, climate change denial, and general discussion of environmental or political issues. 406 adults completed the questionnaire. The participants primarily identified as white, under 40 years old, college-educated, and politically liberal.

The questionnaire began by presenting a Facebook status update denying climate change and asked participants to rate their reaction, their likelihood of responding, and to write a sample response that they might post. Next, the questionnaire presented one of three comments on the initial post: either “correction,” “collaboration,” or a control response. The control response was a neutral statement that did not address the topic of climate change. The correction response stated that climate change “…is a very real issue. The overall temperature of the planet is rising, resulting in climate change.” The collaboration response said, “Whether you believe in global warming or think it is a lie, I hope we can all agree that we should do whatever it takes to reduce pollution. Clean air and water are good for everyone.” The participants then provided their reaction to the comment, their likelihood of posting a response, and the content of their likely response. The authors identified common themes and trends in the participants’ reactions towards the post and comments, as well as the tone and content of their responses.

The results show that liberal individuals were more likely to react with frustration to the initial post, but most participants were not likely to respond. The content of the initial responses was mostly information-oriented, regardless of agreement or disagreement. All participants, regardless of political orientation, were significantly more likely to react favorably and respond after the “collaboration” comment compared with the “correction” comment. The “correction” comment may have produced some backfire effect: the authors noted that the content of the responses to the “correction” comment was significantly more argumentative than the responses to the “collaboration” comment.

The demographics of the participants in this study may have influenced these results: the participants were primarily of US nationality, and did not represent a diverse population. There may have also been some selection bias among participants, considering the possibility that those with strong feelings about climate change would be more likely to want to participate. The results of this study are also limited by the method of focusing on a single comment, which is unlike real online conversations that often have multiple responding comments.

The authors of this study conclude that trying to correct misinformation about environmental issues on social media is not effective. Instead, they recommend using a collaborative approach to seek common ground outside the bounds of the misinformation. These results offer insight on how individuals can best engage in productive conversations on social media. The authors’ recommendations could also be applied to broader science communication: for anyone who faces misinformation on a controversial environmental issue, using a “collaborative” approach instead of just providing information can help produce a more positive discourse.

The Bottom Line

People often encounter misinformation about climate change on social media. But responding to these posts with a “corrective” approach may not have the desired effect. The authors of this study conclude that a “collaborative” approach to communication, attempting to seek common ground, can foster more positive reactions and lead to more productive climate change discussion on social media, regardless of individuals’ political orientation. The authors’ recommendation may also be useful for environmental educators and communicators who need to respond to misinformation on a controversial issue.