Sunday, March 3, 2024

Can Social Media Platforms Solve the Climate Denial Problem?

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Climate denial is alive and well on social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. Can it be stopped?

Back in April, TikTok vowed to do more to stop the climate misinformation that runs rife across its platform. “Trust and authenticity fuel the creativity of TikTok — and we believe we have an important role to play in empowering informed climate discussions on our platform,” the social media juggernaut published in a statement. It pledged to “ramp up enforcement of a new climate change misinformation policy,” which would include content “denying the existence of climate change or the factors that contribute to it.” 

And yet, months on from that Earth Day statement, entering “Is climate change real” into the search bar brings up the very thing TikTok is claiming to try and prevent: climate change denial. There are videos supporting climate crisis education, too, but without a doubt, the misinformation is hard to miss. And, this was also the conclusion of a recent BBC investigation, which identified 365 TikTok videos in English denying man-made climate change, and dozens more in Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian.

After the BBC alerted TikTok to its findings, it did remove numerous accounts, but the fact remains that climate denial videos still aren’t hard to find on the app. But what can TikTok and other social media platforms really do? And is it time to accept that this is all a game of whac-a-mole that can’t be won?

Climate denial is rampant across social media

TikTok is far from alone in dealing with climate misinformation across its platform. In January, a report found that denial is also rampant across Facebook, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter). On the latter, things have been considerably worse since Elon Musk took the reigns, research suggests.

man on phone
Photo courtesy Ilias Chebbi

Over the summer, The Guardian reported that some of the top climate scientists in the U.K. were becoming targets of a major rise in abuse on the platform. Climate science professor Ed Hawkins confirmed to the publication that he had seen a significant increase in climate denial Tweets, with a large fraction of his comments becoming “personal and abusive.” He explained: “Any mildly popular tweet from a climate scientist is now targeted for a barrage of replies.”

YouTube isn’t exempt either. In fact, in May, researchers found 200 climate disinformation videos with ads on the sharing platform, which, despite YouTube’s policy against the monetization of such content, means they were generating profit.

This is all dangerous for one obvious reason: the climate crisis is real. It is being fuelled by human activity, it is getting worse, and it does threaten the future of every living being on the planet. But the more people deny that it exists, the harder it is to bring about vital, urgent change. 

What can be done to mitigate the situation?

All of the major social media companies claim to have policies against climate misinformation. Meta, for example, claims it strives to add warning labels to content when it is rated false by fact-checkers, and it also tries to reduce its visibility, too. And as aforementioned, TikTok is trying to remove more of its dangerous fact-denying content.

But, not all experts believe that climate misinformation can ever really be stamped out on social media for good. And maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Climate scientist Dr. Doug McNeall, for example, believes that social media companies could benefit from employing a more positive-leaning approach. “As a scientist, I’m happy to be challenged. Maybe we should focus on promoting good climate science information, rather than just removing the content that we perhaps don’t like,” he said.

sustainable smartphone
Photo courtesy Jonas Leupe

Because there is a lot of good content on these platforms, too. The TikTok hashtag #sustainability has more than 5 billion views, for example, and #sustainableliving has 1.6 billion views, while #ecofriendly has 6.7 billion views. Most of this isn’t aimed at well-informed scientists, but at young adults and teens, who make up the biggest user base of social media. In fact, earlier this year, one poll from the EdWeek Research Center found that more than 50 percent of teens learn about climate change from social media apps.

For that reason, the onus may not just be on social media companies to control misinformation on their apps, but also on schools, universities, and parents to teach children and young adults how to separate the good from the bad, and, ultimately, fact from fiction.

As well as the removal of harmful climate content, education about algorithms and how they work may prove an effective tool in mitigating the impact of any misinformation or disinformation when users see it. One high school teacher, Jeff Adkins, told EdWeek: “I want people to examine the scientific claims: Is it primary or secondary information? All that dovetails with media literacy.”

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