It’s hard to believe that anyone can watch the bushfires devastating Australia, filling distant cities with smoke, driving thousands of people from their homes, and killing an estimated billion animals, and still think that climate change is a hoax. It’s not just the bushfires and contributing drought: it’s the floods in Indonesia, the droughts and fires in California, and the documented shrinkage — melting! — of the polar ice caps. The day after I wrote that introduction, south-eastern Australia was hit by golf-ball sized hailstones with enough force to bash holes in car windows.
Much Australian anger has been directed at the country’s denialist government, led by prime minister Scott Morrison (now starring as #scummo on Twitter), especially since Morrison was slow to return from his summer vacation in Hawaii when the crisis began. Equally notable, however, has been the number of commentators levelling blame at Rupert Murdoch, whose company dominates the Australian media landscape, and therefore wields great influence over politicians.
Most of the current focus on misinformation — fake news, false news, propaganda — is on social media and deliberately divisive misinformation campaigns carried out by bad, often foreign, actors. Yet the mainstream media are arguably more dangerous: they have a bigger megaphone, and they imbue the stories they publish with a much greater weight of legitimacy.
Here in the UK, I know at least two people — smart, well-educated, science-oriented — who continue to believe that anthropogenic climate change is just not a real thing. “They’re getting to be like a cult now”, one of them observed of climate change activists the week after Extinction Rebellion stopped an Underground train.
The key story both cite is the thousands of emails an attacker copied from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit and released onto the internet in 2009. Then a columnist for The Times, James Delingpole seized on the emails and portrayed them as evidence of scientific fraud. This contention has been slow to die, even though myriad scientific bodies supported the climate scientists at the time, and eight different committees — including the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US National Science Foundation — concluded in a series of subsequent investigations that there was no fraud. Today, Delingpole is editor of Breitbart London, where he recently implied that Greta Thunberg is really a mouthpiece for her father and called the idea of a link between Australia’s fires and climate change “pure fake news propaganda”. Would my friends have been just as quick to believe the emails proved fraud if they’d read it on Twitter?
I have said for years that much online abuse is the democratisation of behaviour the British tabloids have engaged in for decades. Mainstream media act as both source and accelerant. Take the science journalist who reported Tim Hunt’s comments at a lunch for South Korean journalists: she posted a tweet, which got picked up by the BBC and others, then those stories were retweeted, and the resulting Twitter storm led the Daily Mail to attack-investigate the reporter, and then the attack monkeys went after her like ants finding a jar of honey.
Many people are comfortable with the idea that social media companies should exercise better control over their platforms: remove fake accounts, hinder the spread of deliberate misinformation, curb personal abuse. No one is comfortable with censoring a newspaper, not even the Daily Mail.
My friends have spent years critiquing the rationalisations psychics and other paranormal claimants give when they fail scientific tests, and debunking bizarre claims. Yet they have no problem producing very similar arguments to explain why few scientists break ranks on climate change. For them, the East Anglia emails discredit climate science as surely as Andrew Wakefield’s debunkers discredited him. “You are going to be wrong about this,” I told one of them four years ago, to no effect.
At New Humanist, Eleanor Gordon-Smith, author of Stop Being Reasonable, discusses how people change their minds about deeply held beliefs. (See newhumanist.org.uk/contributors/5555/eleanor-gordon-smith.) Gordon-Smith argues that rationality is more complex than “coolly presenting facts”; it may include emotion and individual trust. In researching numerous personal stories, she found that it’s impossible to predict what will make someone change their mind unless you understand the detailed “genealogy” of how they came to believe in the first place. In one case she cites, a long-time cult member finally quit when he discovered that his wife did not and never had believed any of its tenets — because in the end he trusted his wife’s judgement more than that of the cult’s elders. Is that rational? It sounds perfectly rational to me — but it’s not unemotional, which is what “rational” is typically thought to mean.
So it may well be that Murdoch’s influence is not sufficient to implant something like climate change denial … but it can sure reinforce it once it’s there.