How to (productively) discuss climate change online

The results may surprise you

It took less than five minutes to destroy my YouTube recommendations.

I’ll admit that sometimes I go undercover to lurk around climate skeptic Facebook groups. In order to be effective at my job, I need to understand the nuances of the climate change misinformation campaign and there is no better place to do this than in Facebook comments. Most of what gets posted there, especially recently, are videos. I recently watched a few while scrolling, reacquainting myself with classic misinformation pieces from PragerU and puzzling through a video against anthropogenic climate change that featured elaborate dinosaur cosplay.  Nothing about the content or the comments really struck me as novel, so I returned to the brighter parts of the Internet, forgetting about the details of this particular foray into climate denial.

Woman looking at a computer, chewing pencil

Then I logged into YouTube and found myself surrounded by climate change misinformation.

I watch a lot of YouTube (87,000 minutes in 2019 ... sigh), so I expected that YouTube’s algorithm had enough data on me to understand I was doing opposition research and not impact my recommendations. While it is worrying that it cannot, what’s more worrying is that suggestions from the algorithm account for 70% of what an average person views. That means that a few clicks on the wrong content posted from within your social network can expose you to greater amounts of misleading information. As social media platforms fight to be the base ecosystem for ideas, what you watch online can affect the news you see and the ads that you are shown. It is far too easy to become trapped inside an endless feedback loop of misinformation.

Combating a system set up to expose you to more polarizing ideas can be challenging. In the Breaking Down Barriers program, we use the no-conflict approach to engage with climate misinformation off-line. This technique involves de-escalating tensions by recognizing shared values and repositioning debates as friendly conversations.

Too often, the comment sections of social media platforms involve the loudest factions screaming at each other. This rarely, if ever, has the desired effect.

Thinking about applying this technique to online discourse might seem absurd, as it is often the antithesis of what you see online. However, if we are motivated to help stem the tide of misinformation, we should strive to understand who we are trying to reach. Too often, the comment sections of social media platforms involve the loudest factions screaming at each other. This rarely, if ever, has the desired effect. However, what many of these commenters don’t realize is that the debate is being viewed by a silent majority of lurkers. Slightly interested and slightly informed, these masses should be the real target of your messaging. It takes a change in mindset to direct your messaging to a group of people who may never engage directly, but who are larger and potentially more receptive than those who have already made up their minds.

Here are three tips for reaching your intended audience on social media platforms:

  1. Choose messaging that reflects their values.  Most people use online spaces to both reflect upon and construct their identity. Therefore, part of reaching people through social media is helping them realize how your message aligns with what they already want. While you don’t have access to the thousands of pieces of data that political campaigns and corporations do, you can use what you know about your network to reach people on an individual level. Whatever you have in common to connect you is a great place to start. Also, remember to keep your messaging “local and hopeful.” The average person is much more likely to engage with climate change content that is directly relevant to them and makes them feel like they can make an impact. 
  2. Make comments appropriately. If you must comment, do so in a way that gives readers the space to be wrong and change their minds. Open-ended questions and inserting direct links to the evidence from publications people trust can be a great way to get people exploring the evidence on their own. 
  3. Make the platforms do the work. You aren’t responsible for explaining the flaws with every piece of misinformation that materializes in front of your social network. While eventually platforms must wrestle with misinformation policy more broadly (and perhaps even take some responsibility), for now you can report individual posts, tweets or videos. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is the coward’s way out. We know that even passive exposure to fake ideas can lead to confusion, and that people rarely take the time to critically think about any of the overwhelming number of ideas exposed to them online. 

The way that people gain access to information has changed so quickly that it is hard to know how far-reaching the impacts will be. For the next generation, they have the benefit not only of growing up with access to the internet, but also the existence of lessons designed to inoculate them against misinformation.  To combat fake science in the adult population is going to take a lot of people working together, but it is becoming increasingly necessary to do so. 

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.