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The social dilemma worsens the political and climate change dilemma

The social dilemma worsens the political and climate change dilemma

The Social Dilemma documentary continues to dominate conversations in pop culture and political spheres. Through The Social Dilemma’s exploration of the wide-ranging implications of social media use, we’re shown how the most popular social media sites in the world contain all the algorithmic ingredients that widen the gaps between our knowledge base, politics and personal worldviews. 

In the film, climate change is referenced as a perfect example of a serious issue often overshadowed by online division. The co-inventor of Google Drive, Gmail Chat, and some of Facebook’s most popular features explains that when someone Googles the term, “climate change is,” different results are shown in the autocomplete box, not based on facts, but according to location and collected Google data about that person’s interests. These autocompleting algorithms prompt Google searchers to investigate further and validate biased information that influences their perception of the world and voting decisions.

An international study conducted by a research team of communications scientists at the University of Bern found that echo chambers on the internet shape online climate conversations worldwide as opposing sides gravitate towards other like-minded individuals, sharing hyperlinks that validate their views. But climate change deniers tend to share more links online, which can make their opinions more visible. 

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With over 270,000 climate news stories published last year, 2019 set a record for the most articles written that relate to climate change. The expanding climate conversation online is a positive signal that society is becoming more willing to discuss and engage on the topic. But further investigation into social media behaviors when sharing climate information led to an alarming discovery. Shares and engagement were highest for CNN's coverage of the burning Amazon rainforest, but at a close second for shares and engagements was an article that claimed NASA had confirmed global warming could be attributed to Earth’s orbit instead of fossil fuels. The website that posted this article is known for failing to meet the standard for credible information.

Because scientific data can be easily misinterpreted and catered to personal beliefs, sharing valid scientific facts fails to create social consensus. When Penn gave data on climate change data to 2,400 social media users who identified as Republicans and Democrats, 40 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats were wrong in their personal assessments of the data.

Amazingly, when the same participants interacted in a bipartisan social media network, their judgment about climate data improved. 88 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats correctly analyzed and agreed on the findings. But the political affiliations of the social network were anonymous. When political party affiliations were revealed within the social media network, those positive results faded away, circling back to polarization and misconceptions about climate change. 

Outside of the echo chamber, social media users are less polarized but still express negative feelings towards people with different views on climate change. Research by C. Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University, found that echo chambers filled with people in agreement create a lack of trust towards anyone outside the chamber. His research suggests that epistemic bubbles, like those formed on social media, could be more powerful than echo chambers. In the epistemic bubble, all shared information comes from people advocating in favor of the same views. 

Social tactics that divide us into groups based on our similarities are just part of human nature, as psychologists explain. The exchange of ideas and resources to support groupthink within the epistemic bubble could explain why social media plays such a pivotal role in the polarizing climate conversation.

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Conflicting views that challenge our beliefs, especially when friends promote these views on social media, can negatively impact our emotions and actions. When disagreeable posts are shared, at least 10 percent of people lose a “friendship”; thus, further highlighting social media is a powerful tool that influences how we view other people. When we unfriend people on the internet, we’ve often decided to unfriend them in real life, too.

However, social media still deserves credit for giving voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless without its reach and exposing injustices in ways that the world cannot ignore. And I don’t believe that social media is something everyone should denounce. Any tool that can be customized for intentional and disciplined use can be educational and fulfilling. Along with over three billion other users, I post to social media recreationally. I’ve also noticed an abundance of uplifting initiatives that seek to serve and educate the public for the greater good through social media outlets. 

Even respectful social media debates should be appreciated because it’s important to know the other side's views to gain a better understanding. Communication that builds trust instead of hostility is the only way to burst the bubbles that isolate our information sources and create dangerous misjudgments that further threaten our democracy and decision-making.

Taking a break or taking a stand using social media platforms is a personal decision. Still, part of the social dilemma is that every individual decision made online is one stroke of a brush that paints a much bigger picture of how society views climate change and the willingness to take action.

As more concerned citizens and elected officials call for accountability and demand a higher level of transparency for personal data usage, social media CEOs continue to struggle with the ethical management of content. But, as social media users, we can begin working together right now to lessen the divisive online rhetoric on climate change. 

The first steps to effective climate communication online will include being more receptive to opposing ideas, making the extra time to fact-check information sources and being open to communicating across party lines. Because the more we understand the power of social media algorithms to filter information in a way that heightens political and social tensions, we can better support the building momentum for policy solutions that will likely arise in the future.

Princella Talley is a fellow at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. She is also a Development Associate for Citizens’ Climate Education.