Research Summary

Responding to misinformation about climate change

Countering Misinformation About Climate Change on Social Media

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2017

Consensus exists among more than 97% of credible scientists that climate change is occurring and caused by human activity, yet U.S. public opinion remains divided. Recently, social media platforms, such as Facebook, have become instrumental in guiding public discourse and opinions around such polarized issues. Given this background, this study’s researchers sought to address two questions: First, how do individuals respond to climate change-related misinformation on social media, and how might their responses be different based on political orientation? Second, which social media messages are most effective in countering climate change-related misinformation?

To address those questions, the researchers recruited participants through messages posted on open Facebook groups that promoted, denied, or discussed climate change issues in English. The final sample included 406 individuals (87% U.S. based) who completed an online questionnaire; of those, 59% identified as female and 41% as male, and the average participant was 38 years old. With regard to political affiliation, 45% identified as Democrats, 21% as Republicans, 11% as Libertarians, and 5% as Green Party supporters (the researchers do not list the political affiliation of the remaining 18% of respondents).

The researchers asked participants to report their initial reaction to imagining that one of their friends had posted a Facebook message that denied climate change. They were then invited to write a response, indicating the likelihood that they would post that comment on their Facebook feed. Subsequently, researchers randomly assigned participants to read a reply to the initial post that either corrected the misinformation (correction group), disregarded the denial and urged for collaboration on clean air and water (collaboration group), or ignored the issue of climate change altogether and discussed general weather-related topics (control group). The authors used a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) to analyze the data.

Regarding the first question on how individuals respond to climate-change misinformation on social media, the researchers found that those with a liberal political orientation were more likely to feel frustrated and disagree with the initial climate-denying post. However, political affiliation did not correlate with the tone of the first response comment: Although liberals were more frustrated with the comment, they tended not to express that tone in their response, suggesting that liberals might self-censor while crafting a response to misinformation. The most common response among all participants was to provide more evidence to support their existing view, underscoring the erroneous belief that misinformation can be corrected through providing more information.

Regarding the second research question, related to which messages are most effective in countering misinformation, the authors found that for the participants who received the correctional comment, it tended to solidify their preexisting belief. This result was consistent with research demonstrating that people process information in a biased manner that often supports their pre-existing beliefs. On the other hand, the collaboration comment (which disregarded the denial and urged for collaboration on working for clean air and water) received a more positive response and increased the likelihood that participants would engage in conversation through a follow-up post.

The Bottom Line

To counter misinformation about climate change, environmental educators should resist the temptation to respond with an information-focused, fact-based approach. Research suggests that such a strategy may not only be ineffective, but might actually backfire: the person spreading the misinformation might end up solidifying their pre-existing beliefs. Instead, educators might try responding to potentially controversial issues, such as climate change, with a collaborative approach. This does not address climate change directly, but rather encourages collaboration on more neutral, socially beneficial areas, such as issues related to clean air and water. This encourages and supports productive dialogue and discussion.