We’ve all heard the saying “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet” before. Well, a recent study by Brown University shows that that knowledge is as relevant now as it’s ever been.
The unreleased study, as reported by the Guardian, revealed that a whopping 25 percent of all tweets about the climate crisis come from “bots”: automated accounts programmed to take actions online like real people.
Though it's not the first time that journalists have put a spotlight on climate misinformation bots, the sheer magnitude of this finding does beg three crucial questions:
- Why do these bots exist?
- Do these bots actually change people’s opinion on climate change?
- If so, how much?
Undoubtedly, these answers have never been more important.
ALL ABOUT OPINION
First things first, why are these bots even out there? It all comes down to two words: public opinion.
Today, the main obstacle to solving the climate crisis isn’t a lack of technology – it’s public support for real action. That might be changing in the US and all around the world, but it, unfortunately, is still steering us toward catastrophic climate outcomes.
Long story short, without enough public desire for action, we won’t see the change we need.
Special interests, unfortunately, understand that as well as anyone.
Now, we might not know who exactly is pulling the strings of this online facade, but as climate scientist Michael Mann explained to Inside Climate News in 2019, "I believe this is a concerted effort, likely by bad state actors and fossil fuel interests, to create disinformation, discord, and division”.
Really, it makes perfect sense.
Scientists can call for emissions reductions as loudly as they want. But if their voices can be drowned out by waves of automated misinformation, is the message even breaking through?
Which means the question that matters isn’t “Who’s behind the bots?”, it’s “What's their actual impact?”
HEARING FROM THE EXPERTS
Researchers have studied the relationship between social media and climate change denial for years. We can’t talk about it, though—be it with bots or not — without first discussing the “echo chamber effect": a social media phenomenon that causes users to only see personalized content that reflects their own worldview.
As one academic study explains, in these echo chambers “Climate-skeptical readers ﬁnd information that is consistent with their own beliefs, and hence gives them the impression that their opinion is the prevalent one in society.”
Dr. Dana Fisher, a researcher at the University of Maryland who led another similar study, reiterated that same point: “Information has become a partisan choice, and those choices bias toward sources that reinforce beliefs rather than challenge them, regardless of the source’s legitimacy”.
It’s as true with climate change denial as with many other topics – social media gives users content that reflects their worldview. To put it another way, social media often just tells us that what we already believe is true. Not just about puppies and Pete Davidson either, but about politics and current events. As Pew Research Center reports, 55 percent of US adults get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes”.
Of course, the cause-and-effect of belief formation is next to impossible to measure accurately in a large population. But it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how the one in four tweets from bots spewing misinformation about the climate crisis could be a major factor fueling those echo chambers and, sadly, climate denial.
Some experts, however, have pointed out that the existence of echo chambers isn’t even necessary for these fake tweets to have an impact.
As John Cook, a researcher at George Mason University, recently explained to Gizmodo media:
“When people are exposed to both facts and myths, if they have no way of resolving the conflict between the two, then they disengage and the two cancel each other out. This is what makes misinformation from bots so dangerous. Misinforming tweets don’t need to be especially convincing or successfully persuade people—its mere existence is all that’s needed to reduce the effectiveness of accurate information.”
Stephan Lewandowsky, an academic at the University of Bristol who co-authored the recent Brown University research, similarly told the Guardian: “The more denialist trolls are out there, the more likely people will think that there is a diversity of opinion and hence will weaken their support for climate science.”
As he goes on to add, however, “In terms of influence, I personally am convinced that they do make a difference, although this can be hard to quantify.”
Other experts, like Abhishek Samantray and Paolo Bin, have come to a different conclusion. According to their study, there is strong evidence that, because of their low credibility, tweet bots might not sway public opinion on climate change nearly as much as we fear. As their findings prove, the sheer quantity of these bot-tweets might not overcome their lack of quality.
Clearly, perspectives on their impact are still mixed and more research is needed. One thing is certain, though. We might not know bots’ exact impact on public opinion, but at least we know that they’re out there. And recognizing that a problem exists, of course, is the first step to solving it.
It’s clear that climate misinformation isn’t just alive and well – it’s thriving to a degree we hadn’t realized. It’s for this reason that countering deniers with the facts has never been more important.
Want to stay up to date with the facts? Join our email list and we’ll keep you posted on the most important developments for our planet and how you can help solve the climate crisis.
Before You Go
At Climate Reality, we work hard to create high-quality educational content like blogs, e-books, videos, and more to empower people all over the world to fight for climate solutions and stand together to drive the change we need. We are a nonprofit organization that believes there is hope in unity, and that together, we can build a safe, sustainable future.
But we can't do it without your help.
If you enjoyed what you’ve just read and would like to see more, please consider making a generous gift to support our ongoing work to fight climate denial and support solutions.