Misinformation, Manipulated Data and the Battle for Truth

Words by Maeson (they/them), 22 WA 

Misinformation and disinformation are increasingly pervasive problems in today’s society. Misinformation is often unintentionally spread, while disinformation is deliberately shared to mislead people.

Arguably, one of the most impactful and harmful circumstances of widespread misinformation campaigns are those developed by climate denialists and major fossil fuel companies and interest groups who have provided millions of dollars to fund carefully planned campaigns and deception about climate change.

Social media platforms are the perfect breeding ground for false information, unintentional or not, with sensational and emotional headlines often used to make stories go viral.

 

Australian Youth Coal Coalition

 

For example, this photo (on the left) of a park taken over by litter was shared in September 2019 by a Facebook page claiming it was the aftermath of a Sydney climate change protest.

It’s easy to see how the post went viral. The idea that people protesting for climate change had created so much litter was such a catchy story that it drew outrage from climate deniers, sceptics, and everyday people on the edge of the climate debate. It was used to label protestors as hypocrites. Many who believed the story, were victims of confirmation bias – believing in it because it reinforced their existing beliefs about climate change being a hoax.

 

 

 

Soon, the truth came out that the photo wasn’t taken after the Sydney protest, it wasn’t even taken in Australia. It was taken earlier that year in London (UK) after an annual cannabis event.

When I first saw it floating through my feed, I believed it.

I believed it because it had been shared by a friend and I had no reason to think they would share something that was a lie(not that they knew they were sharing one). But I’m lucky; I followed the right pages on the internet, that it didn’t take too long for me to get the info about it being fake.

Not everyone will have seen this information – some people’s algorithms will have had them stuck so deep in an echo-chamber of climate denial that to this day, they may still believe it.

False information can spread so fast, it’s hard to keep up. And if you believe one post, and engage with it, the algorithm will show you more posts just like it. So how do you fight it?

The most common advice given to young people about identifying ‘fake news’ is to check the facts – is there data to support the claim? Where is the data sourced from?

But what happens when the misinformation is supported by valid evidence?

Perpetrators of misinformation will catch you out by sharing a controversial headline with facts quoted from reputable sources – but they’ll display those facts to you in such a way that the meaning of the data gets changed. Sometimes the fact that data is displayed at all, means people are more likely to perceive the claim to be credible.

People trust things that look science-y. Climate denialists use our faith in science against us, dressing misinformation up in a lab coat to make us more likely to believe it.

This is one of the scarier aspects of misinformation – when it turns intentional.

The information shared might be correct, the claim made is supported by evidence, but it’s presented in a way that’s misleading – that is, in a way that confuses the reader or leads them to a false conclusion. Because of this, fact-checking ends up requiring a lot more nuance than a lot of people are willing or even able to give.

It’s sneaky, underhanded, and happening all the time.

Average Annual Global Temp

In 2015, conservative platform, National Review, tweeted a graph claiming it was “the only #climatechange chart you need to see.” – a catchy headline that would draw in any person, sceptical about climate change or not.

The graph is correct, it shows the right data taken from NASA, a reputable source. But it uses “a scale that intentionally hides the actual change in temperatures”.

The problem with this graph is that it sets the upper and lower boundaries of the chart at two extremes that the earth won’t have to come anywhere near before the catastrophic effects of climate change start to become irreversible. They make it seem like the earth will only face those catastrophic effects if gets close to those extremes – which is false. “National Review zoomed so far out on the problem that it became impossible to see”.

They did that because if you can’t see the problem, it’s easy to believe there isn’t one.

 

Average global temperature by year

The Washington Post shared another way of presenting the exact same data.

The earth only needs to warm 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit before the damage will be irreversible.

Washington Posts graph was built with that context in mind, showing the data in a way that more accurately depicts the increase of average global temperature per year.

Misrepresentation of data like the National Review’s contributes to people’s increased likelihood of denying well-established scientific claims.

It’s not enough to “check the facts,” we also need to know how to assess them to ensure that the story they tell is accurate.

Is this a skill that the general public has? Is it something that people are willing to spend time on?

We doom-scroll the internet, are drawn in by sensational headlines, get shocked by data with surface-level markers to indicate it’s accurate, and immediately forward it on. Where in that process do we spend half an hour on Google checking the statistic matches the claim?

Sure, a level of personal accountability for assessing information needs to be held, but whose responsibility is it to make sure the skewed graphs don’t make it to our screens in the first place? Whose responsibility is it to make sure we know how to assess information? Are they fulfilling them?

 

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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