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Misinformation and disinformation are undermining environmental action

Misinformation and disinformation are undermining environmental action

How to spot false content online

Misinformation and disinformation are undermining environmental action

How to spot false content online

By Jaime Clifton-Ross, Communications and Outreach Curator, National Environmental Treasure

Misinformation and disinformation circulated on social media are undermining environmental action. Learn how to spot false content online.

The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation on social media are creating roadblocks for addressing various environmental issues. A recent report published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences highlights how targeted bot attacks on social media are undermining support for actions needed to tackle climate change, including reducing emissions.

Hand holding phone with Twitter
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Bots, Algorithms and Social Media

Bots are software applications that run automated tasks on the internet. While they carry out simple and repetitive tasks, they can generate content, retweet content and interact with social media users at lightning speed (much faster than humans). And many bots are designed to undercut initiatives that address climate action. Because they can mimic human behaviour on platforms like Twitter, they have the ability to influence or change people’s opinions, alter their behaviour and influence or even dominate conversations about the environment. This can undermine various organizations that are driving deliberate dialogue about important environmental topics like climate, sustainable development and biodiversity.

It’s also no secret that social media fuels polarization. Algorithms used to deliver content are often designed to create niche bubbles where users receive affirmation of their existing beliefs (intentionally and unintentionally) instead of a variety of information that may help grow our understanding of a given topic. This can lead us down content rabbit holes making it difficult to decipher what’s false and what’s legit.

Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre told the Guardian that “this is undermining democracies, which in turn is limiting our ability to make long-term decisions needed to save the planet”. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science report suggests that a combination of “legislation, best-practice agreements, and individual skills of judging the quality of sources” may eventually tackle the negative side-effects of social media and eventually shift the world towards just and sustainable pathways.

Types of False Content

To improve your judgment of online content, there are some key pieces of information to know. First, false content comes in many different shapes and forms. The United Kingdom Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee suggests some useful definitions for the kinds of false content (they use the term fake news) you’re likely to see online.

FABRICATED CONTENT: content that is completely false.
MANIPULATED CONTENT: content that distorts information (i.e., sensationalist or ‘clickbait’ headlines).
IMPOSTER CONTENT: content that impersonates genuine sources.
MISLEADING CONTENT: content that misleads readers by presenting comment as fact.
FALSE CONTENT OF CONNECTION: content that is factually correct but is framed through false context (i.e., headlines not reflecting the content of the article).
SATIRE AND PARODY: Humorous but intentionally false content (i.e., the Beaverton).
DEEPFAKES: Manipulated video, audio or images that seem real but are fake.

Man looking at news content on tablet
Photo by Kaboompics.com from Pexels/Canva

What are Misinformation and Disinformation?

Second, knowing the difference between misinformation and disinformation is also helpful when judging online content. Misinformation is when you share content not realizing it’s false or misleading. For example, various social media posts began circulating about how dolphins and swans were returning to the deserted canals of Venice at the beginning of the pandemic. As debunked by National Geographic, these “bogus stories of wild animals flourishing in quarantined cities [were giving] false hope”. While this example is less consequential, it shows how easy it is for well-meaning people to unintentionally circulate false information. Disinformation on the other hand is when people deliberately create or share false information to mislead people.

Venice canal with boats
Photo by iSailorr from Getty Images/Canva

Questions to consider when evaluating the quality of content and sources

While this is an incredibly complex issue, there are some basic questions to consider when evaluating the quality and reliability of online content. To learn more, visit the CBC’s guide on how to spot misinformation and disinformation.

CREATOR IDENTITY: Who wrote the content? Is the writer or producer’s name listed? Are they a real person? Does the writer or producer have a presence on social media? Can you learn more about them?

WEBSITE, ORGANIZATION OR PLATFORM LEGITIMACY: Can you find out more about the website or news organization posting the content? Can you contact them? Who else is involved with the organization? Are they using a legit domain name or is it a variation (or typo) of another popular domain?

WEBSITE, ORGANIZATION OR PLATFORM SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE: Do they have active social media channels? What type of content are they sharing? Who are they following and who are their followers?

CONTENT LEGITIMACY: Is the content detailed and well-researched? Does it link to reliable sources? If you Google the topic, what are other sources saying about it (confirm or counter)? Does the content confirm stereotypes? Is it racist or prejudice? Is the content misleading?

PUBLIC REACTION: Who else is talking about this content? Are legitimate and trustworthy websites, organizations and/or people sharing this content? If so, who and which ones?