+ -
Complete lies! (01/2024)

Not all that bad?

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

Targeted disinformation downplays the risks of climate change. Large sections of society are affected by the allure of absolution that such lies offer.

Girl riding an alligator
Downplaying the risk. (Image: University of Basel, AI-generated by Benjamin Meier)

Ninety-nine percent of climate scientists agree that the climate crisis is caused by humans and that the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of global warming. Despite this, most people underestimate both the sheer unanimity of these scientific findings and the broad public support for climate change mitigation measures. How is this possible?

“Since the turn of the millennium alone, coal, oil and gas companies have spent billions of U.S. dollars lobbying to avoid decisive climate protective legislation because shifting away from fossil energy sources would be a major blow to their business,” says Zahra Rahmani, PhD student in the Psychology of Sustainability and Behavior Change working group at the University of Basel. “The industry hires communication experts to help them hone their messages to appeal to large segments of the population, particularly via social media.”

Intentional deception through disinformation.

A recently published registered report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour demonstrates that the investments of the fossil fuel industry in climate disinformation are paying off. A team of researchers at the University of Basel and the University of Geneva exposed around 6,800 participants in 12 countries with disinformation concerning climate-related topics. One such example was the claim that wind and solar power are more expensive than electricity generated from fossil sources and that these alternatives would inevitably destabilize the power grid.

The 20 different disinformation statements were based on an analysis of around 20,000 tweets that the researchers evaluated prior to the study. These statements were therefore based on real climate disinformation posted on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Disinformation affected participants on three different levels: They were less concerned about the consequences of climate change, less willing to engage in pro-environmental behavior and became worse at differentiating between disinformation and factual statements.

“The more we're exposed to disinformation, the harder it is for us to discern between correct and incorrect information,” explains Professor Ulf Hahnel, head of the Psychology of Sustainability and Behavior Change group. “Actors from the climate change countermovement are intentionally leveraging this confusion effect,” he says.

The researchers also investigated whether evidence-based information could attenuate the negative effects of disinformation. To this end, around 5,100 of the 6,800 participants were given one of six brief written statements before being exposed to the disinformation. These centered around various factors such as the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, our moral responsibility toward future generations, or the positive side effects of pro-environmental behavior.

Ulf Hahnel
Ulf Hahnel (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

This includes, for instance, the fact that cycling not only reduces carbon emissions – it’s also healthy. A theory developed by social psychologist William J. McGuire posits that these types of “psychological inoculations” help immunize recipients against disinformation. “But the results of our study were sobering,” says Hahnel. “The inoculations had little effect and only protected participants against the first disinformation statement but not against multiple ones.” Even participants’ political orientation, which, in other studies, proved to be one of the most significant predictors of climate change attitudes, had no effect. “Disinformation is equally effective across groups. Even well-informed individuals aren’t immune,” says Hahnel.

Against change and for the status quo.

Zahra Rahmani is currently investigating how people search for information on climate change in a polarized information environment. One hypothesis is that people seek out statements that confirm their existing beliefs. Yet a preliminary study did not fully support this hypothesis: When participants were able to choose freely between facts and lies, most of them selected evidence-based information and disinformation in equal measure. “All of our participants chose to read disinformation statements, as well; even though most people in our sample were very concerned about climate change,” says Rahmani.

Zahra Rahmani
Zahra Rahmani (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

On the positive side, the sample overall still agreed after the information task far more strongly with statements supporting the need for climate action than they did with the counterarguments. On the negative side, however, after reading an anti-climate action statement, concern about climate change immediately decreased in participants. So, the disinformation appeared to work.

Hahnel sees an explanation for the strong effect of disinformation in its reassuring nature: “It suggests that it’s fine to maintain the status quo – a very convenient message.” He explains that it’s easier simply to blame China for the climate crisis than to question one’s own lifestyle. Given that disinformation is so effective, Hahnel recommends making systemic changes at a societal level as well, for example, by regulating social media.

Ulf Hahnel is a professor at the Faculty of Psychology and heads the research group "Psychology of Sustainability and Behavior Change".

Zahra Rahmani has been a doctoral student in Ulf Hahnel's research group since 2022.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

To top