How to spot misinformation in the sustainability space

As I wrote in my last post, our society does not make living a more sustainable life easy or affordable. Alas, many of us spend an unreasonable amount of time online reading, learning, and searching answers to questions like: “how to buy renewable electricity without being scammed?” “What is the best plant-based milk nutritionally and environmentally?” “Is borax actually toxic?”

Annnnd just like anywhere else online, there is a lot of misinformation in the sustainability space, especially on social media. (Of course, social media is just a microcosm of the larger world we live in, a world shrouded in fearmongering, mass hysteria, and disinformation for personal, financial, or political gains.)

Yet the truth is, despite misinformation being one of the biggest problems facing our digital society today, we encounter way too much inaccurate information online to process, research, and deal with it all. If I were to correct, report, and engage with every piece of misinformation I see, I’d have no time left to do anything else productive (not to mention losing my sanity probably within 24 hours).

So here is my first and perhaps unpopular advice, pick your battles. Misinformation is a systematic problem enabled by technology, the monetization of data and personal information, the innate complexity in the issues of interests (sustainability is highly nuanced!), and a broad lack of information literacy. Meaning, it is not a problem that can be solved by us individual people just being smarter. So, don’t lose sleep over every piece of information you see online, and spend hours researching. Instead, learn the red flags for misinformation and try to reduce your exposure in the first place.

In my mind, there are at least 4 kinds/levels of misinformation or disinformation. I’ll walk you through each one with an example below. Disclaimer: this is not any kind of systematic or scientific taxonomy, just my own categorization for fun and how I like to think about this issue.

Level 1 offense: RING THE FIRE ALARM, F* NO, REPORT/UNFOLLOW STAT

There is a whole lot of “this substance/chemical/medicine is toxic to you and the environment” BS on social media, and here is one absolutely horrendous example.

Image credit: screenshot from Twitter.

This tweet is not only incorrect (yeast infection treatment is anti-fungal, not antibiotic), but also incredibly dangerous (essential oil is super concentrated and could lead to burns if not dosed and administered correctly). If you see this kind of stuff online, pull out every tool you’ve got in your tool box: condemn it, challenge it, report it for misinformation, urge others to not follow this advice, etc…you get my point. THIS IS BAAAAAD.

Level 2 offense: WRONG WRONG WRONG

Image credit: screenshot from Instagram. (Thanks Liv with Less Waste for sharing this great example!)

The source that should have been cited here is the 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation study. Based on current plastic stock and fish population, this study estimated that – if current trends (usage, production, recycling rate etc) continue, by 2050, the ocean would contain more plastic than fish by weight. That includes all kinds of plastic: fishing gear (one of the the largest categories), plastic bags, toothbrush, and surely some swabs and straws too. Even though the spirit of this post is right (there is a ton of plastic in the ocean), this is still bad information.

Level 3 offense: MISLEADING, BIASED, NOT GIVING THE WHOLE PICTURE

We are trudging into harder-to-spot/define territory. Here are some recent headlines linking the almond industry to collapsing bee population, as well as a Facebook post that alerted me to the story and a reader comment.

Image credit: screeshot from Google News.
Image credit: screeshot from a Facebook group.
Image credit: screeshot of a Facebook comment to the above link.

I see a lot of issues here: 1) re. headlines: blaming “bee-killing” on consumers’ almond milk habits is click-baity, reductionist, and misleading, serving no purpose other than attention-grabbing. 2) re. the person reposting the story: summarizing it as “pesticides are killing bees” is also reductionist and misleading – as anyone who’s read the Guardian article will tell you that in addition to pesticide exposure, it also discusses parasitic disease, habitat loss, industrial agriculture, and European honeybee species outcompeting native pollinator species. 3) re. the person responding: oh boy. There is no GMO almond, so I have no idea what this responder is even saying.

Level 4 offense: A CATCH ALL FOR EVERYTHING ELSE INACCURATE

Image credit: screenshot from Fabric of the World.

As the NYTimes explained here, the claim that “fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world” is one of those statements repeated so often that no one thought to question, yet there is no evidence that this is factually correct. On the flip side, does it matter if it’s the 3rd, 4th, of 7th? The fashion industry is polluting and exploitative. And by different metric, the ranking probably differs anyway. In some people’s mind, if this shocking statistic gets the industry to change, there is no harm in spreading it. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which side you are on.)

Image credit: screenshot from Twitter.

Here is another example. Plastic is damaging to the environment, no question, but paper production also uses a lot of natural resources. When looking at the total environmental profile, single use plastic bag does in fact have a smaller footprint than a single use paper bag (more on that here). So, is this misinformation? To me, yes – it is simply incorrect to say “paper is less damaging to the environment than plastic”, but to people who really worry about say…plastic pollution in the ocean, they might think otherwise.

(On that note: old me would say “well, that’s really stupid. Total emission > the waste you can see. Climate change hello?? New me still believes that we absolutely should help educate people on these nuances, but also understands that people care about different issues for different reasons. To tackle crises like climate change, I believe we should help create the space for people to do what they are capable of and passionate about, acting more like allies to each other as opposed to being critical to each other because we choose different causes to champion. Ok thanks for listening to this side rant you did not ask for.)

Now that I’ve explained my thinking on the different levels of offenses, you might be wondering: but how the hell am I supposed to know? Here are some tips on how to spot misinformation and how to minimize your exposure in the first place.

Image credit: Austin Distel via Unsplash

1. Be skeptical, and ask lots of questions. What type of sources did the reporter/author/influencer use to reach their conclusion? (News stories? Peer-reviewed papers? How recent are the papers? Government reports? Anecdotes?) Was the conclusion based on a single source? (Even peer-reviewed science can be flawed!) Were these sources cited and linked? Did the phrasing do the original source justice? Did the conclusion seem a little too absolute? (Issues as complicated as climate change, agriculture, ecosystem health are not black and white! Read my post here on “tree-planting done wrong” as a cautionary tale.) Does the person have any financial interests at stake? (Companies selling “green” makeup have a clear financial interest to get you to believe that their competitors’ products are “less green” – doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false – but it should raise red flags for you to dig deeper!)

2. Get your information from reputable sources. Here are my favorite places to get environmental news. On social media, follow experts in their field. By experts, I don’t just mean academic experts. For instance, if you are interested in learning about sustainable farming practices, follow researchers, but also crop scientists, farmers, forestry managers, and indigenous stewards of the land! These are the folks who work on the very issue of your interests day in and day out, and each offers important and different expertise!

3. Credential is important, but it is not everything. Is it generally a good idea to get medical advice from MDs? Of course it is! But you also know that not all physicians are created equal right? Case in point: Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola, Dr. Andrew Wakefield (the discredited British ex-physician turned anti-vaxxer), etc etc. My point is, learning from people who have accredited academic certification can give you some assurance that they have basic training in the particular field they have a degree in, but credentials alone don’t equal trustworthiness. 

Image credit: Wallace Chuck via Pexels

4. Acknowledge that every type of information source has its bias and blind spots. It’d be great if we lived in a world where every news article (including the blurb and headline) is perfectly balanced and gets every fact accurate, right? Yes. But there is a reason why click-baity headlines work; people love the extreme, the crazy, and the provocative! Reporters and their editors have to balance what will get people to click, and convey the right information without every ounce of detail and nuance bogging down the story. This type of challenges exist for every type of information source, so for a fuller picture on the issues you care about, diversify!

5. Be open-minded and continue learning. Our understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Much of what we know now is so new; it’s almost guaranteed to change. For example, scientists used to think lead was only toxic at certain levels; today the CDC states there is no safe blood level of lead in children. As responsible information consumers, we must recognize that knowledge is not set in stone, and be willing to both learn and unlearn.

Do you notice misinformation in the sustainability space? What are some examples, and what do you do to reduce your exposure to misinformation?

(Header image credit: AbsolutVision via Unsplash)