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Knowing is Half the Battle: How Higher Ed Can Combat Climate Misinformation

By Sharon Chen
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Climate skepticism is a barrier to collective, bold climate action. Getting everyone on the same page about climate change and necessary responses is half the battle, and with the prevalence of social media, it is easier than ever to disseminate and receive misinformation. Researchers have come a step closer to figuring out why pockets of climate skepticism persist even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Researchers have found that online, confirmation bias (the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or to believe information that supports beliefs they already hold) is the driving force in spreading misinformation. As study author Walter Quattrociocchi puts it, “once you choose a narrative, the selection criteria is basically confirmation: ‘I will choose evidence that coexists with things that I already believe are true.’”

“Individuals want to maintain their self-identity and self-image. They’re not going to read something that challenges their values, their self-worth, their identity, their belief system," Quattrociocchi continues. So how then can scientists and academics, with their access to knowledge and facts about climate change, address the issue of confirmation bias?

To speak to people on their terms, it is necessary to frame the climate challenge in terms of personal values. For instance, conservatives respond well to messages about freedom and self-reliance; highlighting energy independence as a co-benefit of wind and solar power is much more effective than continuously presenting them with scientific facts that don’t square with their existing beliefs. Additionally, by making the issue of climate change more local, more personal, and more easily actionable, people are less likely to feel that their entire belief system is being challenged. To find out more about how higher ed can take climate action, join us on the Path to Positive.

Here’s how scientific misinformation, such as climate doubt, spreads through social media 

Chelsea Harvey | The Washington Post | January 4, 2016

Social media is no doubt a powerful force when it comes to the sharing of information and ideas; the problem is that not every article shared on Facebook or Twitter is true. Misinformation, conspiracy theories and rumors abound on the Internet, helping to propagate and support sentiments such as climate doubt and other forms of environmental and scientific skepticism.

Figuring out how such ideas diffuse through social media may be key to scientists and science communicators alike as they look for ways to better reach the public and change the minds of those who reject their information. A study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds new light on the factors that influence the spread of misinformation online.

The researchers conclude that the diffusion of content generally takes place within clusters of users known as “echo chambers” — polarized communities that tend to consume the same types of information. For instance, a person who shares a conspiracy theory online is typically connected to a network of other users who also tend to consume and share the same types of conspiracy theories. This structure tends to keep the same ideas circulating within communities of people who already subscribe to them, a phenomenon that both reinforces the worldview within the community and makes members more resistant to information that doesn’t fit with their beliefs.

The researchers conducted their study by examining the diffusion of content on Facebook, examining the spread of both conspiracy theories, or “alternative, controversial information, often lacking supporting evidence,” (for example, the idea that vaccines can cause autism) and scientific news. They found that highly segregated communities, or echo chambers, existed around each type of content, and then content tends to circulate only within its own community.

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