KALAMAZOO, Mich.—While sticks and stones are certainly more blatant, there's no question words also can do a great deal of harm. And when it comes to mis- and disinformation, the impacts can be widespread: Words fueled animosity and violence during the 2020 presidential election, bred division and spread dangerous medical mistruths during the COVID-19 pandemic and now are threatening the future of the planet.
"If you look at what is most interesting to anyone on any topic, it is the fringes, the controversy, the conflict—that's what people gravitate toward. So those are the voices that get amplified on social media," says Dr. David Benac, professor of history at Western Michigan University. "Right now, the pandemic is exposing this to some degree; climate change is exposing this. There are so many really serious global crises that are exacerbated by an anti-intellectual trend that is propped up by social media."
While "fake news" is a relatively new phrase, disinformation is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it's been fueling global action on climate change for decades.
"It was about the 1850s that people figured out the more fossil fuel we burn, the more carbon dioxide (CO2) we create. And the more CO2 we create and the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the warmer the temperature will be," says Benac. "We've known that for well over 150 years at this point, and the science pretty much got locked down in terms of the concepts in the early 20th century. So you can be generous and say that for about 90 years, we have pretty well understood the basic mechanics of climate change."
Western's interdisciplinary Climate Change Working Group includes faculty from across the University focused on enhancing climate education and community awareness.
Climate science really took off during the Cold War up until the mid 1980s, when federal and private researchers began to explore what happens in the atmosphere when atomic weapons explode. The space race also played a large part in the interest in atmospheric science.
"You can't really send a spaceship up unless you understand the atmosphere it's going through," Benac says. "We learned a lot about the atmosphere and climate as a byproduct of that research, so that really pushed us forward."
The research, he says, provided incontrovertible evidence that climate change was happening and that humans were the cause. Aside from government projects, from the late 1950s to early 1980s, the majority of early research related to climate was actually done by fossil fuel companies looking to understand the impact of their products on the atmosphere.
Many climate scientists and activists claim those companies deliberately launched campaigns of disinformation once they learned the truth. The House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the fossil fuel industry's alleged role in the climate crisis. A second hearing requesting testimony from top oil executives is slated for Feb. 8.
There is mounting academic research addressing the issue of disinformation. A peer-reviewed study by Harvard researchers published in 2017 analyzed ExxonMobil's climate change communications from 1977 to 2014. It found a discrepancy between when the company's scientists and executives discussed privately about climate change compared to what it presented to the general public. Benac says it boils down to a strategy designed to make people question accepted science.
"If you look at the misinformation we see, they're not saying that scientists who are saying climate change is happening are wrong; they're saying there are too many variables, too many things we don't know," he says. "They're causing you to make logical assumptions based on context. And it's something that's been happening for decades."
The first comprehensive assessment of global climate change caused by carbon dioxide emerged from a scientific meeting of the minds in Massachusetts in 1979. The climate scientists at the gathering predicted greenhouse gas emissions would cause global temperatures to increase and presented their research to Congress.
The research became a centerpiece for the National Commission on Air Quality's meeting the following year—a workshop requested by Congress to discuss the potential impacts of climate change and discuss policies to address them. But Benac says some disagreement over policy language left the report watered down in terms of the measures needed to reverse the trend.
"Because they were only mostly sure, they didn't make (strict) recommendations. And what could have happened at that time was reduction of fossil fuels that would have coincided with the energy crisis, when there was a great deal of public support for alternative energy sources. And we could have transitioned with very little sacrifice at that point. But we're now at a point where we're going to have to sacrifice, there's no way around it. We're going to have to cut back."
Still, the basis of the climate scientists' predictions continues to ring true in research several decades later: Carbon dioxide produced by humans is contributing to global warming. Yet it is still a controversial topic.
"The reason the overwhelming majority of scientists agreeing on this topic doesn't change public opinion is because scientists have driven the conversation from the beginning," says Benac. "Even today, we don't talk about what is the right political or moral type of action to take. We're debating whether or not the science is accurate."
Those seeds of doubt, he says, are sown by two concepts governing science's objectivity: consensus and forcing function of knowledge. Consensus can be easily overshadowed by loud detractors, especially with a platform such as social media. Forcing function of knowledge deals more with trust and responsibility.
"It's a concept that if you give people enough of the right information, they will make the correct decision. But we know that doesn't always happen," Benac says. That theory has been disproven most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic, where scientific research has shown that vaccinations are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death. "I'm really, really worried and not terribly optimistic about our ability to deal with (climate change), particularly in the wake of COVID-19. Because COVID-19 is a much more straightforward crisis than climate change, I don't know how we're going to deal with climate change."
Slowing climate change will take considerable action from legislators to rein in fossil fuel usage and implement policies favoring an alternative energy future. But the current American political system, which is built on election cycles, makes decisive political action risky.
"Unless we have a political leader who's willing to upset a lot of his or her constituents and do what is the right thing, even if it is not the politically right thing, I don't see anything changing," Benac says. "The solutions are political, but the issues are not partisan. It's not Democrat or Republican to say that we want humanity to continue to exist or at least society to continue to exist in a way that we have become accustomed to."
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.