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Be alert to “unknown experts”: evidence from the semantic features of climate change misinformation on Chinese social media

By Jianxun Chu, Yuqi Zhu, and Jiaojiao Ji.

We often come across news stating “authoritative sources said/revealed/stated...”. These named or unnamed sources are the laissez-passer for the credibility of the news. This is particularly true when it comes to complicated science-related issues, such as climate change, vaccination, and GMOs. People without prior knowledge or experience on these subjects are inclined to trust what appears credible. But is this always justified?

We delved into Chinese social media to identify characteristics of climate change misinformation. Our study, yielding some counterintuitive results, suggest that the references to authority in a related field (authority reference) might, paradoxically, be the indicators of misinformation.

The debate over climate change has been palpable, considerable, and unstoppable for decades. Even though an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change poses a significant threat to humankind, some still view the issue as a hoax.

The misinformation and conspiracy theories about climate change are so prolific and widespread that they erode the public understanding of science, undermine the process of science, limit social engagements, stall policymaking, and also deepen societal polarization. Considering the complexity and controversiality, climate change offers a fitting lens to explore the nuanced features of misinformation.

Social media is a pivotal resource for climate change discussions. In China, Weibo stands parallel to platforms like Twitter (X) as a leading platform, offering abundant digital traces useful for misinformation studies. To delve into this, we analyzed a sample of 8,619 posts from a broader dataset of 2 million posts concerning climate change on Weibo between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2020.

In examining misinformation, we placed particular emphasis on semantic features, which tend to be more implicit than other textual characteristics like text length, punctuation count, or emoji use. These semantic elements are pivotal as they often serve as cues for misinformation.  

The discussion about climate change is greatly influenced by how it is framed, and such a frame will influence how people think, evaluate, and perceive climate change. Moreover, the source of the information, particularly references to authority, plays a crucial role in how the general public assesses credibility. In scientific contexts, references from authoritative sources are typically viewed as more credible.

Hence, we explored a set of semantic features including frames, authority references, and their source and their association with information veracity. This is illustrated in the example below. 

Example of source cue and message cue for a Weibo post.

Posts discussing environmental and health impact are more susceptible to misinformation

Despite the national tool proving the widespread recognition of climate change in China, we found that 6.95% of sampled posts were misinformation. Notably, environmental and health impact and beliefs and perceptions were the most predominant topics, indicating that the public holds many misconceptions about climate change, particularly regarding the frame of environmental and health impact. 

The number (a) and percentage (b) of frames by veracity status of climate change posts.

True information contains more specific authority references while misinformation contains no reference more.

We found a notable distinction in the use of authority references between true information and misinformation. Specifically, true information often includes more specific references to verifiable authorities.

In contrast, over half of the misinformation posts do not reference any sources. Moreover, the ratio of the non-specific authority references in misinformation was double that in true information. This pattern suggests that misinformation often attempts to "slip through" without directly citing any authoritative sources, relying instead on vague or non-specific references to create an illusion of credibility.

The number (a) and percentage (b) of authority references by the veracity status of climate change posts

Experts reference ranked first in misinformation?

The results revealed a counterintuitive aspect regarding the types of authority sources referenced in misinformation, particularly in science-related discussions where scientists are often regarded as the go-to experts.

Typically, scientists are featured in news stories as fact-checkers and authoritative voices on complex scientific issues. However, the most surprising finding was that, while media sources frequently served as authority references across various categories of information veracity, expert references – surprisingly – outnumbered media references and were most prevalent in misinformation. Besides, true information had a higher percentage of government sources, which implies that the government is a credible source in the climate discussion in China.

The number (a) and percentage (b) of authority reference types by the veracity status of climate change posts.

In summary, potential climate change misinformation tends to be related to scientific themes and personal beliefs, and it might refer to vague expert sources to increase its credibility. Enhancing science and information literacy is the key to evaluating the quality and credibility of such messages.

Another tip for the general public: if you encounter such information on social media, be alert and think twice. Checking the original source can be a wise move.

Read the article: Characterizing the semantic features of climate change misinformation on Chinese social media

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Jianxun Chu, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Communication, the Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). He was also a visiting scholar at the J. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, UC Davis, Finland Futures Research Center at Turku University, Göttingen University, and the City University of Hong Kong. He enjoys a high reputation in computational communication, crisis communication, and science communication.

Yuqi Zhu is currently a Ph.D. student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Her fields of interest include science communication, science, technology, and society (STS), and misinformation on social media.

Jiaojiao Ji, Ph.D., (University of Science and Technology of China, 2017) is currently a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Communication at the University of Science and Technology of China. Her interests lie in computational communication, science communication, and misinformation on social media. She was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Davis (2016–2017) and a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California (2018–2019). Corresponding Email: