It is Hard to Eliminate Fake News, but We Will Still Try to Fight Against It

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Qifeng Yan, C+S ’17

It is difficult to estimate how detrimental fake news has been to the world, but it is almost undeniable that it is playing an influential role. Fake news is not a fresh invention, but the internet has made it more prevalent and accessible than ever before. Controversial issues like climate change are frequently the battleground for the truth.

Social networks are where information, including fake news, spreads. Readers with no scientific background who heavily relies on social networks for updates about climate change are especially vulnerable to distorted information.

This summer, I joined Climate Feedback, a global network of scientists working on fact-checking climate change media coverage, as an intern. I conducted a case study on the media coverage of climate change’s role in polar ice melt, which was widely covered by news outlets around the world.

There have been two big ice-related stories this year: the record winter low sea ice extent in the Arctic and the breakup of Larsen C ice shelf in the Antarctic and the iceberg it calved. Both prompted discussion regarding the impacts of climate change on ice in polar regions, with dozens of articles published over the past few months.

So we decided to look at whether the claims in the media are based on scientifically credible information. We analyzed the articles that received the most attention on social media, measured by the total number of shares according to Buzzsumo.

I carried out an analysis asking the following questions:

1) Are the sources scientifically credible?

2) What have scientists actually said?

3) Are their statements accurately represented by the media?

To answer these questions, I tried to trace each piece of information back to the original source if possible. And in order to better visualize the results and make them more easily comprehensible, I compiled all the data into a spreadsheet, and produced an interactive map by using Kumu.

Each element in the map above represents an organization or person. The arrows between nodes show citations from an article or news organization to the source it relies on. Readers can click on any of the node to get more information about involved organizations and people, and see how one piece of news is spread throughout the media.

I also contacted some scientists at the center of the story to ask for comments on articles citing their work.

Adrian Luckman is a scientist at the University of Swansea who has been frequently cited in stories about Larsen C. I asked him about his opinion on an article by the Washington Post. The article was among the most-shared, and it is representative of the other mainstream articles that do not deny the human influence on polar climate. He explained that even though the way in which the article interpreted the issue is somewhat more alarmist than he himself would have done, the article was still accurate overall.

There are also cases in which scientists denied that they have made similar statements that articles referred to, or that they disagreed with how the media represented their work. One example is The Blaze’s citation of Heidi Soerensen’s work. Soerensen is a researcher at the University of Southern Denmark and the first author of a paper about nutrient availability in Arctic melt ponds. Her work was cited by The Blaze, a conservative-leaning website, to support its claim that global warming is actually helping Arctic animals. She disagreed with how the Blaze interpreted her work and said that “statements from the paper are taken out of context.”

Another example is Conservative Tribune and Breitbart, which reported on a cancelled scientific expedition to the Arctic in response to the reports of record winter low ice extent in the Arctic. The news was originally reported by the New York Times and the Guardian.

Conservative Tribune and Breitbart claimed that there was too much ice in the Arctic that created troubles for even the most powerful icebreaker. They quoted David Barber, a scientist from the University of Manitoba, who was the lead scientist of the expedition to add credibility. However, in a university press release, Barber dismissed Conservative Tribune and Breitbart’s claim and explained that “climate-related changes in Arctic sea ice not only reduce its extent and thickness but also increase its mobility meaning that ice conditions are likely to become more variable and severe conditions such as these will occur more often.”

Among the articles we analyzed, we found that most articles acknowledging the connection between ice loss and climate change phrased the evidence in a way that is generally true to the original source, and by and large relied on scientifically credible sources.

The contrarian articles express skepticism towards the link between glacial ice loss and climate change. However, these articles tended to support their statements with low-credibility sources like blog posts or made conclusions based on scientific evidence taken out of context. Even though many of the sources that these articles referred to are scientifically credible, the scientists that they quoted often indicated that they were misrepresented in ways that misled readers.

I was surprised and even a bit disappointed by what I have found. Some media can be so irresponsible, spreading information that has not been verified and misinterpreting scientists’ work to mislead their audience. But it’s heartening to see others taking this issue seriously, and not just about climate change but fake news in general. Major social networks like Facebook and search engines like Google are adding functionalities that notify readers what they are reading something might not be verified. I also really appreciate the opportunity to work with Climate Feedback, whose work is small but an important part contributing to the battle against fake news.

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