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Study finds brief exposure to 'fake news' can affect beliefs on climate change

Caitlin Drummond

Caitlin Drummond.

August 31, 2020

Exposure to fake news about climate change may impact people's belief in human-caused climate change and weaken their perceptions of the scientific consensus on climate change. New research from Arizona State University Assistant Professor Caitlin Drummond evaluates how a short exposure to fake news headlines affects people’s scientific beliefs and attitudes.

Decision science, psychology and economics make up​ Drummond’s interdisciplinary background. Drummond is a new assistant professor at ASU's​ ​School of Human Evolution and Social Change​, teaching courses within the school’s environmental social science program.

Drummond’s work focuses on people’s behavior and decisions when it comes to scientific matters. She comes to ASU from the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan where she recently published a paper about exposure to fake news on climate change​.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: What is the overall goal of this research?

Answer: Our research sought to better understand how exposure to fake news that casts doubt on the existence of climate change might influence people's subsequent beliefs. People’s beliefs, such as whether or not they believe in climate change or whether or not they trust scientists, are important to the decisions they make around climate change.

Q: What is fake news?

A: Fake news is false information that doesn't occur through the same journalistic processes as regular news but mimics regular news. It can be difficult to identify fake news because online, it's relatively easy to mimic the formatting and the style associated with real news.

Q: What did you find in this study?

A: People who are exposed to fake news about climate change report slightly lower levels of belief in climate change and slightly weaker perceptions of the scientific consensus on changes in our climate. But overall, those effects are small. What seems to be the bigger driver of people's belief in climate change is their political ideology, which has been widely studied before.

Q: How did your team conduct this research?

A: We recruited a nationally representative sample of people to take an online survey, and each participant was randomly assigned to a different experimental condition. Some people were assigned to read fake news headlines about pop culture topics, and that was our control group. The other people were randomly assigned to see fake news on climate change.

The second part of the experiment included questions about a participant’s beliefs, values and attitudes on different sociocultural issues. Among those were questions about whether or not someone believed in climate change.

Q: Are there implications for future research?

A: This study suggests to me that there is a lot more work to be done to better understand how exposure to misinformation actually affects people's decision-making.​ ​In terms of fake news specifically about climate change, there's been a lot of concern that exposure to fake news, and holding scientifically inaccurate beliefs regarding climate change, might lead people to not support climate policy or make decisions that are not in the best interests of the climate.

Q: Is climate change more of a “target” for fake news than other political topics?

A: There has been a concerted effort to promote misinformation on climate change by a variety of different parties. But I think it’s important to separate overall trust in science as a whole from trust in subgroups of scientists, like climate scientists, who have been the target of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. There are specific controversial areas of science, but there are also many other areas of science where we see a healthier relationship between the public and scientists.

Q: Any tips or advice for helping people understand when news is fake?

A: In this study, we also found that warning people about the fake news, before or after exposure, did not seem effective at reducing its effects. However, in some related research, led by a graduate student that I advised, Lauren Lutzke, we identified​ ​four main questions to think about when assessing news items: the name of the news organization, the writing style, the overall believability and possible political motivations. We found that asking these four questions helped people identify fake news.

READ MORE: Learn more tips in​ Disinformation and democracy​.

Q: How did you originally get interested in this field?

A: As an undergraduate studying economics, many economic models about how people behave contained assumptions about behavior that didn't seem consistent with what I understood about human beings. For example, some economic models assume people will always try to maximize their own utility and not care about the utility of others. That led me down the path of behavioral economics, which utilizes psychology and cognitive science for more accurate estimations of human behavior. This combination of psychology and economics led me to pursue a PhD in decision research, focusing on how people make decisions for which scientific information is relevant.

My goal now is to help people engage with information to better understand science and its limitations and to make better decisions for themselves and their communities.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish at ASU?

A: I am excited to be here at SHESCSchool of Human Evolution and Social Change because I am joining a problem-focused interdisciplinary team. This will help me understand and help improve environmental and sustainability decision-making in a way that engages with the complexity of the problem from different angles. I hope to be able to address these problems more effectively and help make lasting change. I'm looking forward to engaging with my colleagues from different disciplines and working together to think about big problems that are facing decision-makers.

Limited effects of exposure to fake news about climate change” is available through the open-access journal Environmental Research Communications. Michael Siegrist at ETH Zurich, and Joe Arvai at the University of Southern California are co-authors of the article.

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