Humans are causing climate change, and global action needs to be taken to limit any negative effects on humankind and the Earth. This paper will show that, although climate activism on Facebook and Twitter by individuals has increased in popularity and effectiveness in the last two years, the ongoing dissemination of disinformation to these same social network sites (“SNSs”) causes confusion, which results in public interest in action to curb climate change remaining limited. SNSs produce a networked public, with influencers such as Greta Thunberg and organizations such as Fridays for Future and the Climate Council able to use platform affordances to effectively advocate for climate action, encouraging likeminded individuals to form networks on Facebook and Twitter which assist with online and offline actions to pressure policymakers to act on climate change. Simultaneously, the widespread release of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter means these same affordances lead users to innocently share disinformation and distribute misinformation which is reinforced and amplified in users’ filter bubbles and echo chambers, resulting in ongoing public confusion about the reality of climate change. Such misinformation limits the number of participants acting to achieve social change, restricting real social change and effective collective action.
The existence of climate change should now be accepted as reality. Ninety seven percent of scientists and other climate experts agree humans are causing climate change (Cook et al., 2016). Consolidated global action needs to be taken now to limit the negative effects of such change on people, economies, and ecosystems (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018). Individuals interacting on social network sites (“SNSs”) use personal profiles, lists of Friends and communication tools to form a networked public (boyd, 2010). Facebook’s and Twitter’s affordances include methods to easily copy and share information (shared posts and re-tweets), increased information searchability (hashtags), and the possibility (particularly for influencers) to instantly reach a massive global audience (boyd, 2010). These affordances can assist individuals in connecting with likeminded people. As public awareness of the existence and effects of climate change spreads, evidence shows online climate activism by individuals is increasing, with growing numbers vocal on SNSs about the need for urgent action. Strikes and protests encouraging policymakers to act on climate change increase in frequency and popularity each year. Regrettably, networked publics also support offline biases and division (boyd, 2010). As a result, the same affordances which assist activists can lead to others occupying echo chambers and filter bubbles which sustain misinformation and disinformation, limiting the possibility of real social change and effective collective action. In broad terms, misinformation can be defined as incorrect information, while disinformation is incorrect information created with the intention to deceive (Treen et al., 2020). These two terms can be somewhat interchangeable, as disinformation can be innocently shared by other parties as information, resulting in them contributing to misinformation. Unfortunately, the continual release of misinformation and disinformation on SNSs means public opinion on even the existence of climate change remains highly polarized. Consequently, although climate activism by individuals on Facebook and Twitter has increased in popularity and effectiveness in the last two years, the ongoing dissemination of disinformation and misinformation on these same SNSs causes confusion, which results in public interest in action to curb climate change remaining limited.
More people than ever before are now active online. Internet usage has grown significantly in the past ten years, with a little over 51% of the global population now able to access the internet (International Telecommunication Union, n.d.). This provides individuals with increased access to SNSs, encouraging online social participation which has the potential to reach global audiences. People interested in acting on climate change have found Twitter and Facebook facilitate mobilization of likeminded activists by providing features which allow them to discuss issues, share information and invitations for specific events, and identify other members of their social networks who are also interested (Papacharissi, 2010). While some may believe online activism by individuals is simply ineffective “slacktivism” or “microactivism”, social media networks such as these can play a significant role in fueling protests and facilitating social and political change (Tufekci, 2017). The strength of online networks formed by activists may differ across SNSs, for example Facebook “friends” are often frequently connected by strong ties offline as well as online, while members of Twitter are more often linked by weak ties, such as hashtags alone (Papacharissi, 2010). Hashtags are a common method used by online activists to connect with their networks on both Facebook and Twitter. A wide variety of hashtags relate to climate change in general, including #climatechange, #climate #environment, and #savetheplanet. Other hashtags relate to specific organizations fighting climate change, such as #fridaysforfuture and #extinctionrebellion, and well-known influencers advocating for climate change, most notably #gretathunberg. Such hashtags aid individuals in locating others who share the same interests and views. A quick search of Facebook or Twitter will reveal hundreds of thousands of such tagged posts and tweets from both organizations and individuals.
The content of Facebook posts relating to climate change has not been well researched, but studies show most tweets related to climate change activism are for information sharing rather than calls for protest mobilization (Boulianne, Lalancette, et al., 2020). Such tweets can serve a larger purpose, using shared hashtags such as #schoolstrike4climate and #fridaysforfuture to form a networked public enabling individuals to connect local events to worldwide events and indicate a global community’s displeasure to encourage political leaders to act on climate change (Boulianne, Lalancette, et al., 2020). Fridays for Future is an organization which aims to pressure policymakers into action in just such a manner (Fridays for Future, n.d.-a). They use SNSs including Facebook and Twitter to share information on climate change protests and other actions, with many of these posts “retweeted” or “shared” from groups and individuals which have “tagged” their username or used the hashtag #fridaysforfuture to alert them (Fridays for Future, n.d.-b; Fridays for Future, n.d.-c). Each country is encouraged to have its own Fridays for Future social media channel, and the Fridays for Future website features a feed from Twitter of all such channels they have identified (Fridays for Future, n.d.-d). Statistical numbers of strikes and attendees are not readily available, but the data self-reported by Fridays for Future activists shows their numbers have risen from zero in August 2018 to an estimated total of 14 million strikers attending 94,000 events in 8,000 cities between then and late March 2021 (Fridays for Future, 2021). This shows that hashtags are an efficient method of linking climate activists and protest events, increasing the numbers of activists taking effective action and thus increasing the pressure on policymakers to act on climate change.
These figures support Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, et al.’s (2020) analysis of protest survey data, which found individuals who post to Twitter or Facebook about a protest are three times as likely to participate in the protest, and those individuals who join a relevant social media group are five times as likely to take part. Fisher and Nasrin (2020) note the number of studies researching the direct effects of actions such as strikes and protests on climate change is minimal, however those which do exist, like Munoz et al.’s (2018), have found a positive correlation between pro-environmental protests and results which reduce CO2 emissions. This supports a large body of research which indicates such tactics were very effective in achieving government action to introduce environmental laws and the government agencies to enforce them (Fisher & Nasrin, 2020). Crowdfunding contributions from more than 16,000 individuals successfully transformed the Australian Government’s defunded Climate Commission into the Climate Council, an independent Australian climate change communications organisation (McLean & Fuller, 2016). In March 2021, the Climate Council’s Facebook page had over 272,000 followers, their Twitter account had over 57,000 followers, and they claim to have been the source of over 20,000 Australian media stories (The Climate Council, n.d.-a; Climate Council, n.d.-b; The Climate Council, 2016). These results demonstrate that even people who do not consider themselves activists can use online networks to achieve effective action which combats climate change, indirect as it is (McLean & Fuller, 2016). Those who do consciously use the power of online networks to advocate climate action can be particularly influential in sharing awareness of climate issues and stirring others to action.
Social media influencers are individuals with large numbers of followers on SNSs who influence their followers to take interest in particular brands or topics. Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s lone school strike in September 2018 went viral, originally on Instagram, but soon spreading to many other social media platforms (Jieun et al., 2020). This initial exposure gained Thunberg a large following on several SNSs and provided her with virtual podiums online where she communicated her passion to combat climate change with her audience, further increasing her followers. This enabled Thunberg to draw worldwide attention to the climate crisis. By March 2019 Thunberg’s influence was powerful enough to successfully motivate around 1.6 million students to participate in a worldwide school strike in March 2019 to raise further awareness of climate issues (Jieun et al., 2020). When Thunberg spoke at the United Nations Climate Action summit a year after her original solo strike, millions of posts on SNSs had ensured she was already an international symbol for the climate movement, influencing diverse groups of people and inspiring many more teenagers to become involved in climate activism (Jieun et al., 2020). In March 2021 Thunberg had nearly five million Twitter followers and over three million Facebook followers (Thunberg, n.d.-a; Thunberg, n.d.-b). SNSs thus allow the views and opinions of a teenage student to be easily shared with a large worldwide audience and has enabled Thunberg to become the focal point of a loose social network composed of widespread individuals who share a similar viewpoint. Of course, not all those who wield influence and encourage network ties have altruistic motives.
As early as 1968, America’s national trade association for the oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute (“API”), was warned by scientists that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels could cause severe environmental damage to the world (Robinson & Robbins, 1968). If the public became aware that fossil fuel companies were knowingly damaging the environment, the profit margins of the API’s members would be threatened. So instead of alerting policymakers and the public to the potential dangers of increased fossil fuel use the API published their first verifiable piece of disinformation in 1980, designed to downplay climate change, and reassure the public (Franta, 2021). This first item of disinformation went unnoticed for roughly the next fifty years, apparently encouraging the fossil fuel industry to continue their deceptive tactics. Fossil fuel companies have since paid millions of dollars to disinform the public, although post-2008 such funding has become more difficult to prove (Brulle, 2014; Frumhoff et al., 2015; Farrell, 2016). Fossil fuel companies are not the only ones with an incentive to confuse the public about the reality of climate change, nor are they the only ones proven to have shared incorrect information to mislead the public on this topic. Conservative political groups opposing market regulation have also been determined to be significantly involved in the release of misinformation aimed at promoting environmental skepticism (Jacques et al., 2008). While neither the fossil fuel industry nor political groups have been specifically proven responsible for the widespread dissemination of misinformation and disinformation on Facebook and Twitter, studies reviewed by Treen et al. (2020) suggest they are ultimately the cause of a large portion of it. Detailed knowledge of the way networks share information on SNSs has even led to the creation of automated systems for spreading false information, such as bots.
Bots are an automated example of the type of misinformation and disinformation released every day on many SNSs. With large numbers of bots active on Twitter it should be no surprise that some are specifically set to target discussions on climate change. A study by Marlow et al. (2021) of the activity of climate change focused bots on Twitter determined that although less than 10% of the user accounts studied were identified as bots, these accounts posted around 25% of all climate change tweets on an average day. The idea that a quarter of all climate change tweets are issued by bots is already worrying, but with researchers Marlow et al. (2021) noting daily bot activity may have been underestimated, it is even more concerning. Veltri and Atanasova (2017) determined 67% of hyperlinks shared on Twitter led to professional media articles, which would be encouraging if Pearce et al. (2018) did not point to data suggesting even articles by media organisations are not necessarily exempt from misinformation. Regrettably, data suggests bots are more likely to promote polarization of social media users by supporting denialist views of climate science (Marlow et al., 2021). These findings are especially disturbing since most people find it difficult to distinguish a tweet by a bot from a tweet by a real person (Edwards et al., 2014). This reflects the notion Twitter users are mainly connected by weak ties and often have no little to no offline interaction with the users they network with online. Interestingly, very little bot participation was recorded in tweets by activists advocating action on climate change (Marlow et al, 2021). This indicates both that bots are actively spreading disinformation on Twitter and that, despite this, activists can effectively use Twitter to create positive social change within their networks with limited interference from such bots.
The spread of incorrect information online is augmented by several key features of SNSs which are responsible for the way misinformation and disinformation is amplified amongst users. Homophily refers to the way in which SNSs algorithms encourage users to connect and engage with people in their online network who have similar opinions (Treen et al., 2020). Homophily can lead to users forming filter bubbles and echo chambers, which support and increase any existing confirmation bias they may have by providing more of the information they like and less of the information they dislike, potentially leading to opinion polarization (Brugnoli et al., 2019; Treen et al., 2020). These factors can make the spread of information on Facebook and Twitter much easier and faster. The Oregon Petition is an excellent example of misinformation. In a story shared over 555,000 times on Facebook during six months in 2016, it was claimed 31,000 scientists had signed the Oregon Petition, declaring global warming a hoax (Lewandowsky et al., 2017). Without further investigation those sharing this story had no way of knowing that less than 1% of the 31,000 “scientists” who had signed the petition eighteen years earlier had any climate science expertise, or that numerous fake signatories included Charles Darwin and the Spice Girls (Lewandowsky et al., 2017). In a more recent example of disinformation with a global spread, Twitter bots and trolls were found to be responsible for a campaign wrongly claiming arsonists were responsible for Australia’s many bushfires in the 2019/20 summer, when actually climate change was determined to be a significant factor (Knaus, 2020). Worryingly, research has shown exposure to misinformation can permanently undermine an individual’s perception of the truth, even when it is later revealed as misinformation (Van der Linden et al., 2017). In this way, misinformation has led large numbers of the public to doubt even the extent of agreement amongst the scientific community about the reality of climate change (Van der Linden et al., 2017). When individuals doubt climate change exists, or that humans are causing it, they are disinclined to take any action to counter its potential effects (Cook et al., 2018). This constrains the speed with which numbers of effective online climate activists grow.
The scientific consensus is humans are causing climate change, and we have a limited span of time in which to take action to prevent catastrophic consequences from befalling humankind and planet Earth. SNSs such as Facebook and Twitter provide affordances allowing individuals to participate in climate change activism by connecting with likeminded people in online networks to share information and mobilize to take part in offline actions such as strikes and protests, pressuring policymakers to achieve meaningful social change. Unfortunately, these same affordances also enable the quick and easy spread of misinformation and disinformation amongst other members of the networked public, leading many to doubt both the existence of climate change and the need for any action to limit its effects. Given most existing research in relation to sharing of climate change content is focused on Twitter, it is recommended more research be undertaken to analyze the content and spread of climate change posts shared on Facebook. In addition, while the origin of climate change disinformation in mainstream media has been thoroughly investigated, further research is needed to try and conclusively prove the sources of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter which is discouraging public action on climate change, so that they may be effectively countered.
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14 thoughts on “Disinformation is Limiting Participation in Online Climate Change Activism”
REPLY TO AMANDA:
Thank you for your reply, Amanda. The idea of a “worldwide internet police” has been raised before! The first item in the recommendations provided by Lewandowsky et al. (2017) is similar – “An international NGO is required that could create a recognized rating system for disinformation and would provide tools with which it can be recognized.” I used to think that sharing misinformation was a disadvantage for politicians. Such naivete was dashed by seeing what has happened in American politics in the last few years, with the entire country polarized by misinformation spread in significant part by politicians, with little or no repercussions for their actions.
As per the personal experience with misinformation I shared in my reply to Kymberly’s comment, I believe some members of the public will never be willing to accept facts that clash with their opinions. It saddens me, but such people have always existed. For example, just look at the existence of “flat earthers”, despite over two millennia of scientific consensus contrary to their beliefs! A lot of people in a lot of different disciplines are working on preventing and limiting misinformation, and with practice the methods used will improve. Unfortunately, as such tactics are refined, I anticipate the devices used to spread disinformation and misinformation will also be adjusted. That does not mean that we should give up trying to combat misinformation. Both from an academic viewpoint, and from a personal one, it is worth fighting. Please, do not stop! Regards, Karena
A super interesting paper Karena!
This is the first I am hearing of Fridays for Future. With disinformation and the old saying, “don’t believe everything you see on the Internet”, I have found it really hard to decipher what information is correct. Something I have always found difficult is believing people in high positions who are making large profits from something, so your mention of members of the API really stood out to me.
Your paper has made me want to research more and extend my current knowledge on climate change and to research more on activism. I might have to engage more on Twitter (but of course further research what I am reading on there) as this seems to be where it is all happening!
Thanks, Alicia! I did not realise until recently myself, but Fridays for Future is also known under alternate names including School Strike 4 Climate, Youth for Climate, Climate Strike and Youth Strike for Climate. There are a lot of different organisations out there now spreading awareness of climate change, and so many of them are driven by young people! I am really impressed by how many youths are willing to give up their spare time and devote their energy to fighting for our planet. This great article by earthday.org (2019) https://www.earthday.org/19-youth-climate-activists-you-should-follow-on-social-media/ refers to some of their achievements. Do you follow any climate change influencers on social media platforms? I could have focused my entire paper entirely on influencers such as these!
However, disinformation and misinformation really fascinate me. The more I learn, the more I become aware (as you say) that you generally cannot trust information on the internet at face value. When I was younger, I believed that photographs and video footage could be used as evidence of something. Not anymore! Now they have “deep fakes” (Smith & Mansted, 2020: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/weaponised-deep-fakes) which can be so good that a layperson like me cannot tell them apart from the real thing. It does make me start to wonder just how much “official” information we can believe, and I can understand how easy it would be to go down a “rabbit hole” and only believe information that fits with my current world view, refusing to believe anything else no matter what “facts” are presented to me.
Yes, people making large profits do not gain my trust easily either. I know it is a generalisation, but I tend to believe that you cannot earn billions of dollars if you are entirely altruistic. Like any generalisation there are exceptions, such as Chuck Feeney, owner of Duty Free Shoppers. He established a foundation to secretly give away nearly all his wealth! There are a few articles on him, you could try reading Neate (2020) at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/sep/19/billionaire-chuck-feeney-achieves-goal-of-giving-away-his-fortune, it is quite heart-warming!
Climate change, and online activism in general, are interesting topics. I have been pleased to see my son assigned schoolwork on climate change, as I feel this important subject should be taught to our young people sooner rather than later. Please do not feel you need to engage on Twitter, though. I could have researched many SNSs but thought it best to focus on just a couple. Climate change activism is surely occurring on any social media platform available! Which platform do you use the most? A few minutes searching should lead you to a group of activists. Please have a quick look, I would love to know what you find! Thank you, Karena.
Thank you for the extra information so I can further my knowledge on this topic. I will definitely be reading up on what you’ve mentioned in your reply!
I do not follow any climate change Influencers as I have never heard of many mentioned. I do know of Greta Thunberg but I do not follow her myself, and I have to admit I didn’t know there was such a plethora of such Influencers!
I use Instagram and TikTok mainly and despite not following climate change Influencers I have seen a handful of people on my ‘for you page’ on TikTok talking about these issues.
I have looked at Instagram and have found one Influencer to follow in particular, @climatediva Summer Dean, and other pages as well (@chicksforclimate and of course @unclimatechange).
Hello, Alicia. Thank you for looking into climate change activism on your SNSs. I knew you would easily find some examples! As you can tell, I feel climate change is a crucial topic that will affect the lives of everyone in the future – whether by changes to our local environment and ecology, or by government actions to limit such effects globally. I am pleased to think that I have inspired you to research it a little further. Regards, Karena
Hi Keri ! What an interesting topic and very well written.
Perhaps more than any other topic, climate change has been subject to the organised spread of spurious information. This circulates online and frequently ends up being discussed in established media or by people in the public eye. I believe that misinformation may be seen in the types of behaviour and information which cast doubt on well-supported theories, or in those which attempt to discredit climate science.
These may be more commonly described as climate “scepticism”, “contrarianism” or “denialism”.
In a similar way, climate alarmism may also be construed as misinformation, as recent online debates have discussed. This includes making exaggerated claims about climate change that are not supported by the scientific literature. There is a negligible amount of literature about climate alarmism compared to climate scepticism, suggesting it is significantly less prevalent.
I believe that the spread of misinformation is intertwined with a number of online and offline social processes. One of these is “homophily” – the tendency for people to form social connections with those who are similar to themselves, as captured by the common saying “birds of a feather flock together”.
This behaviour is encouraged by social media platforms in the way new connections are recommended. Together with social norms and the observation that people tend to trust information from people in their social network, this can lead to “echo chambers” where information and misinformation echoes around a particular group. In turn, this can lead to polarisation, where communities can form around sharply contrasting positions on an issue.
Another factor which can contribute to polarisation is the way online social networks promote content based on being engaging and aligned with your previous viewed material rather than on trustworthiness. This is known as “algorithmic bias” and amplifies the psychological finding that people tend to prefer to consume information that matches their belief systems – known as “confirmation bias”. Social media platforms are also susceptible to the existence of malicious accounts which may produce and manipulate misleading content.
Well, I could talk so much about it! I want to choose this topic at first for my paper but then I opted to communities and social media. Overall, you nailed it with well supported arguments!
Please find my paper in the link below and share your point of view with me!
Hello Ruby! Thank you for your comments on my paper, I am glad you enjoyed reading it. You are correct, there have been large amounts of disinformation about climate change circulating for a long time. Disinformation is unwittingly shared by people, who thus turn it into misinformation, and it is then encouraged and amplified by social media users in echo chambers and filter bubbles, enabling it to spread further. If you are interested in the way in which confirmation bias can reinforce selective exposure to information and create polarization amongst online communities, you should read the article Recursive Patterns in Online Echo Chambers by Brugnoli et al. (2019) found here: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56191-7. They analysed the patterns of 1.2 million Facebook users engaged in sharing scientific and conspiratorial news. While it can be challenging reading, if you persist it is very interesting. It helps to explain why there are still plenty of people in the world who are sceptical about climate change or deny it altogether, despite overwhelming scientific evidence confirming it is occurring. Of course, there will always be some people who simply refuse to accept reality, as shown by the existence of “flat earthers” despite over two millennia of scientific consensus contrary to their beliefs!
Yes, I agree that climate alarmism counts as disinformation or misinformation if it is not based on facts. Most people interested in climate activism can find quite enough to be alarmed about in existing scientific evidence, without having to invent outlandish claims. Climate alarmism could be seen as just another way of “muddying the waters”. If you can convince someone that the planet is doomed no matter what action we take globally, they may lose interest in taking any action at all! One of the most depressing things I found in my research was how much proof exists that the fossil fuel industry and political groups have been actively disseminating disinformation to discourage action on climate change, which would threaten their profits. Their disinformation campaigns have been similar to those undertaken by tobacco companies, when they still denied that smoking was harmful to health. They even used some of the same executives to organise and lead them! With growing public awareness, they are finally being forced into diversifying their energy production methods. Do you think that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for climate change by their victims, in the same way tobacco companies were held accountable by theirs? What do you think about current global political actions regarding climate change? Are they taking enough action?
Hi Karena, awesome paper!
There’s so much coming to light now about how misinformation spreads online – particularly where there is corporate interest involved. I read an interesting article about Amazon paying employees to monitor content on SNS’s like Twitter, and providing tip sheets and information to respond to anyone who says working conditions are bad at Amazon. It’s really interesting and feels so propaganda-ry. I read so many articles about this type thing, including corruption in Governments around the world using fake accounts to comment positively on their posts!
I think climate change is such a great topic to analyse because it’s so interesting that the science is in, and so much irrefutable information to say it’s real and something needs to be done, and yet there is so much misleading information that can still manage to muddy the waters!
Do you think the bot issue is something that will be regulated eventually? It seems such a dangerous element of the internet today!
Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I am very interested in online misinformation and disinformation. I find it fascinating that most of it can be correctly identified using a quick internet search, yet so many people believe misinformation at face value and do not attempt to confirm its authenticity. I once had an acquaintance helpfully send me some information full of lies about COVID-19. When I replied with a link to a fact-checking website, they replied “Yes, sounds plausible. A story that has obvious discrepancies and is corrected by Snopes might be a good way of putting people off the scent, don’t you think? A clever ruse.” At that point I realised that no amount of factual information will ever be enough to convince some people that they are being duped by misinformation.
The journal article I cited by Lewandowsky et al. (2017) titled Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the “Post-Truth” Era was essential to my understanding of misinformation. Did you know that exposure to misinformation can cause users to not only reject official information, but potentially reject the facts completely (Lewandowsky et al., 2017)? That appears to be what has occurred in the case of my acquaintance. You are correct, disinformation is being purposefully released by many different people in many different situations, with the aim of misleading others. Sometimes they do so with profit in mind, sometimes they are doing so just for fun, as appears to have been the case with “Q” of QAnon.
While I already believed in climate change, I had not previously realised that so many experts had reached agreement that climate change is both real and caused by humankind. A 97% consensus is a lot of agreement! Disinformation and misinformation about climate change has been released in so many ways for so many years that it is not surprising that many people still believe it. I still feel a bit betrayed that there are companies actively fighting for their right to pollute the world to the ultimate detriment of people and nature, simply so that they can make more money. Such selfishness! Twitter is trying to control the bots. They identify them and remove them, but they return using a new account. It is never-ending. It will probably be easier to spread awareness that they exist, and teach people how to identify bots, rather than trying to regulate them. Lewandowsky et al. (2017) noted that misinformation cannot be countered by technology alone, but that any solution must include psychological principles which can interact with an individual’s “personal epistemology” (their beliefs, experiences, values, political orientations, etc). I agree.
This is a great (but very disturbing!) paper.
Your points about how online activism is often dismissed as “slacktivism” reminded me of another paper I read today by Grace Cayley (here: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/tiktoks-bimbo-feminism-feminist-activism-in-the-digital-age/). Grace mentions the same thing in regard to the #metoo movement. It’s interesting that there are two major examples here of movements organised online by young women (#metoo and the school strike for climate) that are being dismissed as “slack” because they don’t take the form people are used to seeing protests take.
You mention that further research is needed to pinpoint the sources of disinformation in order to counter it, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts about what kinds of strategies could potentially be employed to do so? It’s definitely no easy task, especially with the issues of homophily perpetuated by SNSs as you discuss.
Thanks for your comments. I’ve yet to read Grace’s paper, but it sure sounds interesting! Before I researched this paper, I did not even know that the term “slacktivism” existed. There is no doubt that slacktivism is a real thing. We all know people who just share a link on their Facebook profile or sign an online petition, and then do not think about the topic again, let alone try to actively change society in any other way. In fact, I have been guilty of doing that myself! That is slacktivism. It occurs every day. However not all online activism falls into this category. While individual participants in movements such as the School Strike for Climate can be guilty of slacktivism, many online activists use social media extensively. They are both willing translate online involvement into offline involvement and seem to intuitively understand how to increase online exposure of their cause to encourage other offline participants. I think that many people do not understand online activism because they cannot see that involvement online often leads to offline participation. Unless you are personally in direct contact with online activists, this connection can be hard to see. Luckily, I found the statistics in Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, et al.’s (2020) analysis of protest survey data to support this link.
No, I have not given any serious consideration to how to identify and prove the identities of those individuals or groups actively creating and seeding disinformation. That topic needs research by someone a lot wiser than I! I do understand that this would be a very difficult undertaking. It would require active participation by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, but even then, I am not sure it is possible. My limited understanding is that while they could identify the accounts originally posting disinformation, (and I believe they often do so), given the ease with which a fake profile is created, it is next to impossible to conclusively trace the disinformation back to an identifiable real-life source. I still believe this would be a valuable undertaking, as people seem to forget that groups with vested interests are funding disinformation to protect their profit at the expense of our climate, ultimately negatively affecting us all! If we could prove a link to one such group, I believe the time and effort involved would be worth it. Sadly, it is probably not a realistic expectation. Still, technology constantly changes! I live in hope that one day a method to trace disinformation to its source will be possible. Of course, if that day comes, we might fight against the use of such a method for privacy reasons… but that is another topic entirely.
“I think that many people do not understand online activism because they cannot see that involvement online often leads to offline participation. Unless you are personally in direct contact with online activists, this connection can be hard to see.”
Yes! This is so true! It’s the case with a lot of criticism of online communications, I believe. There’s this arbitrary mental barrier some people put between online and “real life” offline communications.
Thanks for expanding upon your thoughts about identifying and countering disinformation. It certainly seems like a huge undertaking, but I hope you’re right that it will be able to done in future.
I haven’t focused a lot on this kind of disinformation in my own learning so far, but I am very interested in online scams, which is a similarly difficult area to tackle. There are so, so many people (or perhaps entities is a better word) who spend so much time and energy on trying to deceive and mislead others online, that the task seems impossible, certainly within the limited resources of the relatively toothless government organisations tasked with fighting them. I imagine this problem is made even more daunting when governments may not necessarily have the incentive to do anything at all.
I think the key to dealing with these kinds of issues is to educate the public on how to think critically about the information in front of them, and also greater scrutiny of the algorithms that lead to echo chambers where people may only see information that confirms their existing understanding. Again, though, this is a huge task that is going to take more than just a disclaimer on an article posted on Facebook or Twitter post.
Amanda, you are right – online and offline communications connect in so many ways, but many people still tend to disconnect themselves from their online actions. The easy availability of online anonymity encourages this, but even when online and offline identities are easily matched, it still seems to occur. Cyber bullying and catfishing are great examples of this. Can you think of any more examples?
Online scams are a great example of disinformation. They are so prevalent these days! There are always people willing to make a profit with no regard to the impact on others. I do not know much about the government organisations created to combat disinformation and fraud. What do you think they need to be able to tackle such problems better? More funding, more resources, more experience, new laws?
I agree that public education and platform algorithm scrutiny is essential in combating disinformation and misinformation. I do believe the public is generally becoming more aware that misinformation exists. Continual online and offline discussions of COVID-19 have certainly raised awareness of how widespread misinformation is, no matter which “side” you believe. As I mentioned to Kymberly, I found the article Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the “Post-Truth” Era by Lewandowsky et al. (2017) an incredibly useful resource to guide my understanding in this regard. They describe a range of tools which would greatly assist in enabling the facts to receive priority over other information, however they also note that politicians and the public must want to both be well-informed and to inform others accurately for such tools to be set in place. What do you think? Will a political arena ever exist where politicians are disadvantaged by and disciplined for sharing misinformation? Will the public ever be willing to accept facts which are in direct disagreement with our opinions?
Some big questions there!
Regarding what is needed to combat scams – I actually attended another online conference last weekend (because one wasn’t enough!) dealing specifically with the issue of multi-level-marketing (a polite word for pyramid schemes, more or less). The speakers included representatives from several consumer protection agencies in North America and Europe, and it was clear that lack of power under the law, and jurisdictional issues, were a massive and persistent issue.
Since these schemes operate largely online, the founders are able to establish head offices in areas where laws are particularly lax, such as Utah, USA, and still reach potential victims in places like Canada and Ireland where laws are more restrictive. So without some kind of worldwide Internet police, it seems pretty hopeless. The best hope is consumer education, but what prevents this is lobbying and payoffs from those perpetrating the schemes, and, as you mention, a lack of funding and resources.
The Lewandowsky article you mention sounds very interesting, I will definitely seek it out, thank you!
As for your last few questions – I don’t know, but I hope so. That’s what led me to this course; the hope that I can be part of the change that is so desperately needed. But it really does seem like such an impossibly daunting task from here. What are your predictions?