When I was working on the first drafts of Climate Newswatch and watched our feeds come in, I found myself feeling down. The news wasn’t good. Lot’s of biased skeptic headlines questioning the science of climate change and generally uninformed opinion-making. Things seemed noisy and ignorant. After feeling down for a day or two, I noticed that the first draft of the front page featured feeds from social media sites like Digg, Twitter and YouTube and that they were in prominent positions next to more mainstream news sources like Reuters.
Unwittingly, I realized, I had made the same mistake that environmental journalists made in the early days of global warming reporting – namely, I had given equal space to opinions that were not based on peer review and as a result were helping to perpetuate and even amplify a non-existent debate over the causes and potential consequences of man-made climate change. The news sources I had selected were coloring my perception of the global conversation on climate change.
I've since remedied this editorial weighting by hiving social media off as its own section on the site – readers can fend for themselves – but the whole experience raised some disconcerting questions.
If you type “climate change” into a mainstream news search like Google News, you’ll be bombarded by a cascade of articles. If you’ve done it in the past few days, you’ll have been bombarded by an inordinate amount of skeptic/denialist articles. That’s because news currency on the web, as determined by real-time search engines like Google is dependent on a whole host of factors that have very little to do with the validity of a story.
Skeptic stories are published frequently, linked to and commented on rabidly by other emboldened climate denialists and as a result rise to the top of search rankings. The beauty of social media is that you can say whatever the heck you want, and skeptics have seized on the tools as a means of reinvigorating and continuing the “conversation” on climate change.
Skeptics and denialists are making more and better use of social media to advance the skeptic agenda than are those communities working to fight climate change.
All of this is frightening as it means that those who scream the loudest and most often can have their opinion (no matter how ill-informed) rise to the top of the general web surfing public’s radar. Unfortunately the mainstream media are not immune to the amplified effects of the social media echo chamber, resulting in skewed coverage (taking time to deal with the noise) and potentially delaying political action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
How Can We Combat This?
Good old fashioned critical thinking and editorial street smarts for individual news consumers are important, but take time to develop and can’t move as fast as the spread of doubt and half-truths.
Right now it’s critical that communities like the environmental movement and the institutional scientific bodies behind climate science and risk assessment (e.g. the IPCC) make bigger plays in online social media…rapid reaction needs to become the norm (a quality not naturally possessed by bureaucratic entities).
We also need to develop more truthful, balanced information sources and perhaps even search providers like Google will find a way to build in measures of peer-review and scientific credibility in the ranking of scientific news stories.
What do you think?