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Coronavirus shows how to fight disinformation about climate change

Americans have stayed vigilant against conspiracy theories about coronavirus. Experts say there are lessons for how we deal with climate change.

Coronavirus shows how to fight disinformation about climate change
[Source Images: ffikretow/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]

With both coronavirus and climate change, misconceptions abound. In each instance, people have downplayed the impact or blamed China, and many believe that news outlets are exaggerating the threat.

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But with coronavirus, news outlets and tech companies have done a much better job of quashing misinformation, experts say, which could provide lessons on how to fight conspiracy theories about climate change.

“The big difference between coronavirus and climate change is that people’s bullshit detectors are on high alert on this issue compared to climate change,” says John Cook, a cognitive psychologist at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and co-author of a new handbook on how to debunk conspiracy theories. “They just have a much lower tolerance for misinformation—both the public and the media.”

Here are the big takeaways.

Coronavirus is an urgent crisis. Climate change has to feel the same way for people to take misinformation seriously.

With coronavirus rapidly spreading through the United States, correcting misinformation has become a matter of life and death. Climate change doesn’t share the same sense of urgency.

“The media have been clamping down on misinformation much harder than they normally would. The difference is that with coronavirus, it’s a much more immediate threat,” Cook says. “It’s like climate change on fast-forward.”

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Thus, while brand-name news outlets like The New York Times have been willing to run op-eds skeptical of climate science, they wouldn’t do the same with coronavirus, says Cook’s collaborator Stephen Lewandowksy.

“People in The New York Times might develop some edifice inside their heads that justifies their denial—by appealing to uncertainty or whatever—but that’s very different from saying, ‘No one is dying of coronavirus.’ There is a qualitative difference there,” says Lewandowsky, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bristol and co-author of the handbook. “That makes it much harder for well-adjusted people to engage in this nonsense.”

With coronavirus, round-the-clock reporting has made the extraordinary stakes of the pandemic clear, spurring people to be more skeptical of conspiracy theories. Experts say that news outlets have to do the same thing with climate change. We take their cues on the scale and urgency of a problem from the volume of news coverage.

We also learn from the people around us. In response to the grim news about the coronavirus, Americans are donning masks, stockpiling food and canceling dinner plans, creating a new norm around the illness, says Margaret Klein Salamon, a trained clinical psychologist who now heads The Climate Mobilization Project. She says we need to take a similar approach with climate change, treating the issue with the seriousness it deserves, while staying watchful for misinformation.

“How we evaluate risks is by looking to each other,” says Klein Salamon, author of Facing the Climate Emergency. “With coronavirus, the social signaling has been so strong.”

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People embrace conspiracy theories because they’re afraid. The remedy is to make them feel empowered.

Where people have bought into conspiracy theories about coronavirus, it may simply be a defense mechanism, Lewandowsky says. It’s easier to believe the crisis has been orchestrated by a cadre of mustache-twirling ne’er-do-wells than to accept that it’s the result of a chance or some broader systemic failure. That is true of any vast, unwieldy problem, be it a quickly spreading virus or a rapidly warming planet.

“Whenever there’s a huge, threatening event, some people will resort to conspiracy theories because—if you can blame this on some evil people like the Chinese government developing biological weapons—it gives you a greater sense of control in some funny way,” he says.

Crucially, he says, conspiracy theories don’t have to be coherent. A theorist might say that coronavirus is both a hoax and that it was created by the Chinese. And hardcore believers are happy to brush off evidence that challenges their theory—if the CDC says that China isn’t responsible for the pandemic, they will say that it must be because the CDC is in on the conspiracy, Lewandowsky says.

That’s why challenging the facts or logic of a conspiracy theory doesn’t always work. In some cases, the best way to fight misinformation is to empower people, Cook says. For coronavirus, that means telling people that they can slow the spread of the illness by washing their hands and staying indoors. For climate change, it could mean encouraging people to call their congressperson or join a protest.

“If you just talk about a problem without the solutions, people tend to lose hope. It can paralyze people,” he says.

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Misinformation erodes trust in official accounts. Debunk conspiracy theories early and often.

It is crucial to stop conspiracy theories before they spread because, even when they are debunked, they can have a pernicious effect, Lewandowsky says.

“What conspiracy theories do demonstrably—that’s been shown in experiments over and over again—is they reduce peoples’ trust in an official account,” he says. He points to one study in which people exposed to a conspiracy theory about the federal government manipulating unemployment data were less likely to trust local police and local schools. “You can’t run a democracy unless people trust the government, at least to some extent,” he says.

Misinformation can also affect policymaking. Despite warnings from health experts, elected officials downplayed the extent of the coronavirus crisis, as did conservative news media. President Trump even called it a “hoax.” Unsurprisingly, the government has been slow to roll out tests and supply ventilators.

The same can be seen with climate change, where political leaders have dismissed the warnings of scientists for years. The problem, Lewandowsky says, is that you can only dismiss the facts for so long. Eventually, the truth catches up.

“Within the next three weeks, there will be such a massive disaster unfolding in the U.S., I really don’t see how you can avoid that,” he says. “The epidemiologists have been warning us for months about this.”

On a more hopeful note, debunking conspiracy theories about coronavirus may help weaken other conspiracy theories, Cook says, including theories about climate change. Some public figures are already connecting the dots.

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“If you can debunk one, and a person all of a sudden realizes that it’s wrong, then yes, I would expect them also be responsive to corrections of other conspiracy theories,” Lewandowsky says. “The underlying theme is that the scientists told us this ahead of time, and if we had listened we could have done something about it.”


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.

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