Global Climate Change: Social Media and the Spread of Misinformation

As cliché as it may sound, global warming/climate change is one of the “hottest” topics of this decade. Unfortunately, much of the controversy about its legitimacy has been challenged through social media. Fake news or “alternative truths” have been circulating all over the internet and social media applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.

One of the primary reasons why global climate change remains a questionable topic stems from the cynical tweets, posts, and comments from well known politicians, conglomerates, and various media sites. With so much information being strewn in front of people—and often times from seemingly reputable sources—it can become difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.

This information can influence people into thinking about an issue such as climate change negatively or allows them to accept it as complete fallacy.

The Spread of Misinformation

If you think about it plainly, though, why would these groups not want people to believe that climate change is real or take it as seriously as they should? Do people or companies have agendas or ulterior motives? More often than not, it all boils down to the little green monster: money.

Politics and business are intimately linked. Legislation is enacted by politicians who create laws and regulations that impact business. Businesses employ lobbyists, make campaign donations, and find other ways to influence politicians to enact legislation that is in their interests. Corporations also go to great lengths to influence the public’s perception through media, advertising and even “sponsored studies.” This can be seen in various industries from big tobacco to big food.

It’s no different with climate change. If changes are made to mitigate climate change, many of these corporations would be affected, particularly those that emit the most heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as the agricultural and energy industries. It is easier to disregard an entire field of science than accept it as truth and risk losing money by changing or adapting their business models to be more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Let us consider a tweet from President Donald Trump posted in December 2017, which emphasizes that the amount of money that would be put into mitigating climate change is absurd and unnecessary:

This tweet, liked by over 200,000 people, comes from a man whose campaign for presidency was partially based on backing the fossil fuel industry and bringing jobs to the energy sector. He also appointed Scott Pruitt, who has extensive ties to the oil and gas industry, as head of the EPA. Could that have anything to do with his motivations for spreading this kind of information?

So how does social media alter facts and influence the public? Quite simply, actually. Social media does not filter fake news from actual. Sometimes social media apps can work like wiki pages. Everyone can write what they please and others can add to it even if what was originally stated is not authentic. It is hearsay.

However,  because it is on the internet and has been reposted thousands of times, gaining broad exposure, it is viewed as factual. Not by any means! Here is one well-known tweet and example of the spread of misinformation from, once again, Mr. Trump:

Cue the jaw drop. If the most important representative of our country is guilty of feeding the public false information, it becomes pretty apparent to see how easy it is for people to become confused with the different information they see. In reality, the only way to become educated is to take the time to research this subject and not simply take headlines and social media posts as fact.

Evaluating Sources and Fact Checking

Here are a few helpful tips on making sure your science news source is reliable and factual:

Start off with a news outlet that is well-known in the field of science. For example, Nature, Live Science, National Geographic, The Smithsonian, New Scientist, etc. Even The Guardian and The New York Times are great options!

Fact check or cross reference. If you find an article and are questioning its authenticity, check multiple news sources that have covered the same story. By cross referencing facts and matching statistics, you can assure yourself you have done the proper research and put in the extra effort to verify the claims.

Fact check using scientific articles. Many news articles that have been published, if it is not a new discovery, most likely have prior research or experimentation that have been recorded in a scientific article or literature review.

Take it a step further. Many articles contain quotes or excerpts from secondary sources or references to support their statements. These citations can provide you with original research and factual data that you can view yourself.

In summary, the more research and cross referencing you do, the better chance you have at finding reliable information. This is how a scientist works!

Understanding Global Climate Change

In regards to global climate change, social media has provided people with false claims and confusing explanations and statistics. The confusion around what global climate change is, as well as if global warming has indeed been accelerated by humans, is not easily understood when people get their news from unreliable sources or believe everything they see on social media.

While it is understandable if people think they are sharing factual information, it’s easy to see how misinformed people can spread information through social channels. On its own, global climate change is a very complicated topic to understand if one does not take the necessary time to research and ask questions. This is actually a very common dilemma even for those who do “believe” in this global issue.

Here’s some information to help clear things up. One of the more common misconceptions is the idea that meteorology and climatology are interchangeable terms. They are not. Scientists have not claimed global warming has been increasing at an alarming rate based off of one day or one week of weather data. The data collected is from decades of climatological and meteorological records.

Simply stated by National Geographic, “Climate isn’t the same thing as weather. Weather is the condition of the atmosphere over a short period of time; climate is the average course of weather conditions for a particular location over a period of many years.”

You are now probably wondering how scientists gather climate information on long-term scales. The best way they do this is by using climate proxies rather than just meteorological records. Climate proxies are any natural medium that have recorded climate. Confused yet? Tree rings, lake varves, speleothems, shark teeth, and ice cores are just a few of the many different climate proxies out there. All of these natural mediums have been affected by climate change throughout hundreds to thousands of years.

tree rings

Source: NASA

For example, tree rings not only provide us with the age of the tree (each concentric ring is one year), but can also tell us the climate that occurred a specific year. (This field of study is called dendrochronology, the study of tree rings).

Just by looking at tree rings from a core or cross-section, you might notice some rings are wider or thinner than others. If the trees are growing in a dry environment, like the US Southwest, wider rings usually mean that year received a lot of precipitation allowing for optimal growth. A thinner ring from these regions reflect drought conditions or a decrease in precipitation or even an environmental harm, such as a forest fire or volcano eruption, which can hinder its growth. These observations are the most minimal that can be made from tree rings.

Of course, there are numerous different reasons as to why the width and appearance of the rings are the way they are, but climate scientists are careful in collecting clear climate signals that are free of any disturbances. By collecting trees from a specific location and analyzing their rings and climate data, you can create a climate reconstruction.

Although this example is solely about tree rings, some other climate proxies work in the same way. Some proxies contain layers that reflect one year or more’s worth of climate information, like lake varves and ice cores, and others whose chemical composition can be analyzed because of the variable environmental conditions over time (as they are in shark teeth).

On NASA’s climate page, it explains that “Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas level.” It goes on to further explain that the evidence “reveals that current warming is occurring roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.”

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Source: NASA

Global climate change is a very real and heavily researched topic in many different fields of science because it affects every single organism on the planet. If we don’t take action and try to mitigate climate change, future generations will suffer.

One of the simplest ways to be proactive is be mindful in the information you spread and to not rely on social media for credible news. Take the time before reposting or spreading the word on new findings about global climate change to fact check, cross reference, and verify the authenticity of the news source. This will make a monumental difference. Happy findings!

Recent Environmental Sustainability graduate. I love all things STEM and plan on pursuing a Journalism degree!

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Global Climate Change: Social Media and the Spread of Misinformation

As cliché as it may sound, global warming/climate change is one of the “hottest” topics of this decade. Unfortunately, much of the controversy about its legitimacy has been challenged through social media. Fake news or “alternative truths” have been circulating all over the internet and social media applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.

One of the primary reasons why global climate change remains a questionable topic stems from the cynical tweets, posts, and comments from well known politicians, conglomerates, and various media sites. With so much information being strewn in front of people—and often times from seemingly reputable sources—it can become difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.

This information can influence people into thinking about an issue such as climate change negatively or allows them to accept it as complete fallacy.

The Spread of Misinformation

If you think about it plainly, though, why would these groups not want people to believe that climate change is real or take it as seriously as they should? Do people or companies have agendas or ulterior motives? More often than not, it all boils down to the little green monster: money.

Politics and business are intimately linked. Legislation is enacted by politicians who create laws and regulations that impact business. Businesses employ lobbyists, make campaign donations, and find other ways to influence politicians to enact legislation that is in their interests. Corporations also go to great lengths to influence the public’s perception through media, advertising and even “sponsored studies.” This can be seen in various industries from big tobacco to big food.

It’s no different with climate change. If changes are made to mitigate climate change, many of these corporations would be affected, particularly those that emit the most heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as the agricultural and energy industries. It is easier to disregard an entire field of science than accept it as truth and risk losing money by changing or adapting their business models to be more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Let us consider a tweet from President Donald Trump posted in December 2017, which emphasizes that the amount of money that would be put into mitigating climate change is absurd and unnecessary:

This tweet, liked by over 200,000 people, comes from a man whose campaign for presidency was partially based on backing the fossil fuel industry and bringing jobs to the energy sector. He also appointed Scott Pruitt, who has extensive ties to the oil and gas industry, as head of the EPA. Could that have anything to do with his motivations for spreading this kind of information?

So how does social media alter facts and influence the public? Quite simply, actually. Social media does not filter fake news from actual. Sometimes social media apps can work like wiki pages. Everyone can write what they please and others can add to it even if what was originally stated is not authentic. It is hearsay.

However,  because it is on the internet and has been reposted thousands of times, gaining broad exposure, it is viewed as factual. Not by any means! Here is one well-known tweet and example of the spread of misinformation from, once again, Mr. Trump:

Cue the jaw drop. If the most important representative of our country is guilty of feeding the public false information, it becomes pretty apparent to see how easy it is for people to become confused with the different information they see. In reality, the only way to become educated is to take the time to research this subject and not simply take headlines and social media posts as fact.

Evaluating Sources and Fact Checking

Here are a few helpful tips on making sure your science news source is reliable and factual:

Start off with a news outlet that is well-known in the field of science. For example, Nature, Live Science, National Geographic, The Smithsonian, New Scientist, etc. Even The Guardian and The New York Times are great options!

Fact check or cross reference. If you find an article and are questioning its authenticity, check multiple news sources that have covered the same story. By cross referencing facts and matching statistics, you can assure yourself you have done the proper research and put in the extra effort to verify the claims.

Fact check using scientific articles. Many news articles that have been published, if it is not a new discovery, most likely have prior research or experimentation that have been recorded in a scientific article or literature review.

Take it a step further. Many articles contain quotes or excerpts from secondary sources or references to support their statements. These citations can provide you with original research and factual data that you can view yourself.

In summary, the more research and cross referencing you do, the better chance you have at finding reliable information. This is how a scientist works!

Understanding Global Climate Change

In regards to global climate change, social media has provided people with false claims and confusing explanations and statistics. The confusion around what global climate change is, as well as if global warming has indeed been accelerated by humans, is not easily understood when people get their news from unreliable sources or believe everything they see on social media.

While it is understandable if people think they are sharing factual information, it’s easy to see how misinformed people can spread information through social channels. On its own, global climate change is a very complicated topic to understand if one does not take the necessary time to research and ask questions. This is actually a very common dilemma even for those who do “believe” in this global issue.

Here’s some information to help clear things up. One of the more common misconceptions is the idea that meteorology and climatology are interchangeable terms. They are not. Scientists have not claimed global warming has been increasing at an alarming rate based off of one day or one week of weather data. The data collected is from decades of climatological and meteorological records.

Simply stated by National Geographic, “Climate isn’t the same thing as weather. Weather is the condition of the atmosphere over a short period of time; climate is the average course of weather conditions for a particular location over a period of many years.”

You are now probably wondering how scientists gather climate information on long-term scales. The best way they do this is by using climate proxies rather than just meteorological records. Climate proxies are any natural medium that have recorded climate. Confused yet? Tree rings, lake varves, speleothems, shark teeth, and ice cores are just a few of the many different climate proxies out there. All of these natural mediums have been affected by climate change throughout hundreds to thousands of years.

tree rings

Source: NASA

For example, tree rings not only provide us with the age of the tree (each concentric ring is one year), but can also tell us the climate that occurred a specific year. (This field of study is called dendrochronology, the study of tree rings).

Just by looking at tree rings from a core or cross-section, you might notice some rings are wider or thinner than others. If the trees are growing in a dry environment, like the US Southwest, wider rings usually mean that year received a lot of precipitation allowing for optimal growth. A thinner ring from these regions reflect drought conditions or a decrease in precipitation or even an environmental harm, such as a forest fire or volcano eruption, which can hinder its growth. These observations are the most minimal that can be made from tree rings.

Of course, there are numerous different reasons as to why the width and appearance of the rings are the way they are, but climate scientists are careful in collecting clear climate signals that are free of any disturbances. By collecting trees from a specific location and analyzing their rings and climate data, you can create a climate reconstruction.

Although this example is solely about tree rings, some other climate proxies work in the same way. Some proxies contain layers that reflect one year or more’s worth of climate information, like lake varves and ice cores, and others whose chemical composition can be analyzed because of the variable environmental conditions over time (as they are in shark teeth).

On NASA’s climate page, it explains that “Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas level.” It goes on to further explain that the evidence “reveals that current warming is occurring roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.”

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Source: NASA

Global climate change is a very real and heavily researched topic in many different fields of science because it affects every single organism on the planet. If we don’t take action and try to mitigate climate change, future generations will suffer.

One of the simplest ways to be proactive is be mindful in the information you spread and to not rely on social media for credible news. Take the time before reposting or spreading the word on new findings about global climate change to fact check, cross reference, and verify the authenticity of the news source. This will make a monumental difference. Happy findings!

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