Christel van Eck is Assistant Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) and researches climate change communication and polarisation. She is particularly interested in the role of online media in climate change polarisation. ‘The blogosphere is characterised by strong polarisation around the issue of climate change,’ says Van Eck. One group of bloggers shares scientific evidence for human caused climate change, while another group opposes this evidence with the message that human caused climate change is not real or not a problem.’ Since policymakers and journalists feed on climate blogs to inform themselves, it is important for Van Eck to understand this blogosphere. ‘But investigating climate change polarisation in the blogosphere also learns us a lot about climate change polarisation in general and about online polarisation around other social issues.’
Why is this polarisation a problem?
‘In the online world, you have almost no contact with people whose views differ from your own. You are in your own bubble’ says Van Eck. ‘When you are shielded from views that challenge your opinions, and are only confirmed in your opinions by like-minded people, you become more and more rigid in your opinions and also more extreme.’ Van Eck also observes that when people do encounter alternative views, this mostly leads to heated exchanges.
According to Van Eck, extreme polarisation can lead to dangerous conflicts. ‘Look, for example, at the storming of the Capitol after the US elections or the attacks here in the Netherlands on the Municipal Health Service (GGD) and scientists during the coronavirus pandemic. Polarisation dynamics on online media played a significant role in this.’ As the interests at stake and the problems around climate change are only getting bigger, Van Eck expects we will increasingly witness extreme conflicts fuelled by polarisation on social media.
What does the world of online blogging look like?
Van Eck outlines a world where one side consists of climate sceptics and the other side mainly of renowned climate scientists and climate activists. ‘You see a strong polarisation in the discourses of both sides. Climate sceptics describe climate change as something that is not real and that we should not do anything about, whereas climate activists take the science of climate change for granted and advocate for climate action. You can see the polarization in the discourses in the blog posts, but also in the sources people hyperlink to, in how they talk to each other in the comment sections, and in how readers select content that confirms their current views on climate change.’
She notices that climate sceptical bloggers constantly repeat that scientific models are wrong and that the mainstream science is flawed. Her interviews revealed that climate science bloggers find this very tiring, because they have to fight the same narrative over and over again.
Climate sceptics use a lot of rhetoric to show their research is scientificChristel van Eck
At the same time, however, climate sceptics are not just anti-science, Van Eck says. ‘My research shows that they mainly oppose the mainstream sciences and use rhetoric to show that their research is also scientific. For example, they use statements like “this professor said”, “this is peer-reviewed” or “based on scientific evidence”. This rhetoric can make them appear to be very credible and you can easily be pulled into their bubble.’
Who are the readers and what effect do the blogs have on them?
Van Eck’s research shows that the readers of both types of blogs mainly visit blogs that confirms their current beliefs about the climate. Therefore, online blogs may have a reinforcing effect on readers through the so-called echo chamber effect. Since social media platforms and users themselves mostly expose users to content that is already in line with their current views on climate change, social media mostly reinforce people’s existing views. People who already have climate sceptical views will most likely read even more climate sceptic blogs, and people who perceive climate change as a risk will most likely see sources that provide evidence for human caused climate change. ‘So when you start a climate blog, it is very likely that you will only be preaching to the choir.’
The extent to which readers perceived climate change as a risk was mostly influenced by emotions (are you moved by climate change?). It was much less influenced by knowledge about climate change.
How can you counteract this polarisation?
So how do you start a dialogue with people who have a very different opinion? ‘It is important to try to understand the other person and to try to connect to their lifeworld, reality and values,’ says Van Eck. ‘Find common ground, such as concerns about society, or the safety of your family. Start a dialogue on the basis of these shared values and ask questions to grasp what someone is actually saying.’
According to Van Eck, it is also important to actively combat misinformation (fake news). ‘Educate people to recognise fake news. Scientific methods have been developed to inoculate people against misinformation. But, we as a society also need to think about how we want to deal with online platforms that have a polarizing effect. We cannot leave this entirely up to commercial organisations like Facebook and Twitter.’
From blog to Twitter
During her research into the climate change blogosphere, Van Eck has noticed that many bloggers shifted from blogs to Twitter as a platform for the climate debate. Therefore, she is now interested in investigating this part of the online world. ‘People use much more emotional language on Twitter than in blogs, and emotions play a big role in how people view climate change. On Twitter you see similar climate polarisation dynamics where people are staying in their own bubble.’ In addition, Van Eck will organise focus groups with young climate scientists to discuss their role in public debates about climate change.