The pandemic’s tough lessons on misinformation are critical to fight climate change
For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, there is cause for a vigilant-hope in the world’s fight against the coronavirus. Although the virus was, in many ways, granted free rein over much of the world’s population this past year — globally, cases are now softening toward a more shallow slope, Moderna and Pfizer are now increasing their available supply projections, the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine has been approved in the United States — and in countries such as Israel, where over 50 percent of the population has been vaccinated, we now know that vaccination greatly reduces transmission rates of the virus.
There is a light starting to pour through the cracks. But not so easy.
Although we are badly wounded, we are beginning to emerge from the most lethal pandemic in the last 100-years, only to find ourselves standing on the precipice of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced: climate change.
It is in this fraught moment that we also begin to take stock of our response to the pandemic, assessing, in particular, those impediments which hindered our ability to meet it head on. In doing so, and as we refocus global attention on the climate, we will come to the realization that extinguishing online disinformation is among the most important first steps toward enacting the mass mobilization of our societies and economies that will save our planet.
Throughout the pandemic, we have learned important lessons about disinformation. For one, we have seen how in a world gone remote with enhanced and instant connectivity, disinformation mutated, evolved and became considerably more lethal. But for our hardships we are also the wiser about how to fight it. And now, it’s imperative we heed what lessons the pandemic has taught us about managing disinformation in a time of global crisis.
The first of these lessons concerns the precariousness of the public’s trust and the seriousness of preserving the authority of a few aptly-called experts. Toward the very beginning of the pandemic, in their desperation to communicate a definitive, comprehensible message, scientific and government authorities made the error of conveying certainty and simplicity when in actuality there was very little.
Among other instances, authorities first made decisive statements about the futility of masks before completely walking back their stance. Health officials later gave definitive answers about who in fact a mask protects — the wearer, those around, or both — before reversing that position (in some cases, multiple times). Urged again and again to place faith in officials, citizens worldwide were baffled by the multiple 180-degree reversals. The contradictions undermined their faith in the supposed authorities.
Even when done with the best of intentions, failing to convey uncertainty and complexity, it turns out, can quickly lead to an erosion of public trust in messaging. An environment of murky messaging and diminished trust is even more ripe for disinformation.
In the end, disinformation once more proliferated, leading to great inconsistencies in peoples’ knowledge of key facts. In retrospect, the necessity of preserving and nurturing trust in health officials would have been much better served if these authorities had been willing to honestly report the present limitations of our knowledge.
Now, as we call upon the citizenry to support and comply with reforms tackling climate change, it’s crucial to remember that the public understands uncertainty better than contradictory messages. Honestly keeps credibility intact. And in the absence of credibility, disinformation runs amuck.
In the past year, we also saw once more just how naive it is to expect big tech to safeguard us from disinformation. Technology companies again failed to uniformly confront misinformation on a wide range of subjects. In June 2020, for example, 90 percent of COVID-19 disinformation, including miracle cures, was allowed to remain on Facebook even after being reported.
If it weren’t sufficiently clear before, it’s now paramount that governments across the globe create and authorize new regulatory commissions to tackle politically-motivated disinformation. These bodies must enlist the aid of the social platforms themselves to develop action plans and anti-disinformation software. Platform liability, the pandemic proves, is a must. Although tech companies should not be cast in the corruptible role of sole “arbiter of truth,” they should be made legally accountable for neglecting to implement the disclaimer requirements, fact-checking algorithms and attribution algorithms they co-develop with regulators.
With our runway for action on climate shortening, and with the millions that will be spent on misinformation campaigns to distort the public’s perception of the threat, we cannot afford to cede this needed regulatory oversight a moment longer.
Although the U.S. could play an important role as a trailblazer in this regard, the previous months have additionally underscored the necessity of reforms and investment from countries globally — each of which may face their own distinct threat from polluted information. Whereas misinformation had previously been localized to certain events within specific geographies or regions, the pandemic has seen campaigns go viral globally, with disinformation bouncing between countries in different languages and in unpredictable ways. Platforms, reportedly, are struggling even more with rooting out false claims in languages besides English.
Governments worldwide will therefore need to work with tech companies to develop action plans for tackling disinformation that are specifically tailored to the needs of their nation. To do so, these governments should press — if not require — tech companies to allow them access to the previously unavailable proprietary data that they’ve ceaselessly collected on how disinformation is shared, on how ads track and target specific audiences. This data will arm governments with a necessary weapon in their own unique fights against disinformation — and thus, against climate change.
Time is, of course, running out. According to expert consensus, we have nine years to cut emissions by half. That is nine years to slash global carbon emissions in half. Nine years to retrofit infrastructures and buildings and balance the equation of modernizing an entire global energy sector.
To carry out the most expansive mobilization of our societies and economies in the history of humankind we must revive, nurture and preserve societies’ trust in science and their governmental bodies to tackle the climate crisis. And to do that, we must pay heed to all that we are learning about the evolving threat of disinformation.
Frank-Jürgen Richter, Ph.D., former Asia director at the World Economic Forum and founder and chairman of Horasis, a global think tank.