Deliberation with climate conspiracy believers

Anatol Itten

Conspiracy theories on climate change and the energy transition have found a stronghold on the Internet. Many online discussions are dominated by a few users with extreme beliefs, such as attributing secret agendas to powerful elites, governments not telling the truth, or sinister intentions of activists and lobbyists. As such beliefs largely dominate online discussions, they do also disadvantages other, more average, and less vocal users. Studies have found that people who were exposed to conspiracy theories about climate change reported less intention to reduce their carbon footprint, because the effect of these theories sparked not only feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty towards climate change, but also feelings of disappointment in climate scientists. Conspiracy theories play thus also an increasing role in slowing down the energy transition and have even led to violent and destructive behaviour. This explorative study provides an overview of the occurrence of extreme beliefs regarding climate change and energy transition in the Dutch society, but it also sheds light into what can be done when one is encountering people who hold such beliefs. Particularly in the current digital age, this study examines deliberation approaches and interventions with regard to conspiracy beliefs. Our explorative study was conducted with a Dynata sample of 1200 Dutch citizens, that are representative of age, gender and education to the Dutch society. The data was collected via laptop, tablet and mobile from 24.06.2021 - 09.07.2021 in Dutch language. A follow-up video conversation with a group of four participants (which answered one or more conspiracy questions positively) to interpret the results was held on July 30. In accordance with Leiserowitz (2006); Bago et al. (2020) and Uscinski and Olivella (2017) the survey intended to elicit extreme beliefs in the Dutch society (i.e. propositions that people believe to be true or not about the climate change and the energy transition).

Using these established scales confirms that a significant part of the Dutch society is open to believe in climate change and energy transition conspiracy theories. This survey shows that conspiracy rhetoric might be shifting from an unpopular social standpoint that ‘climate change is not human made’, to socially more accepted ones. For example, 46% of the Dutch population agrees that “the official version of the energy transition given by the authorities very often hides the truth”. And one in three participants beliefs that “climate change is being exaggerated by foreign countries that are doing little to prevent climate change [...]” is more likely to be true than that “foreign countries are concerned about the possible effects of climate change and are adopting costly policies to prevent these effects”. Moreover, there is a cluster of committed believers in our panel that treat conspiracy theories as the literal truth. We recorded around 15% of participants as such believers, and membership of this cluster correlated with positively with social media use, negatively with education and is also influence by political party membership. This can be a challenge ahead for future, intensive climate and energy policies, since conspiracy theories can lead to confusion what to believe, distrust in scientifically sound reports, as well as own motivations to do more to reduce carbon emissions.

The results of the second part of this study shed light into deliberation approaches with people who believe in climate and energy conspiracy theories. The overall findings point to the fact that the average participants mostly values three things: that the people in online discussions try to convince each other, that there are clear distinguishable standpoints and that they use sufficient explanations. Another finding with regard to participants who are open for conspiracy thinking shows that they identify themselves more with what is said in discussions, and thus are more sensitive to attacks as these attacks might challenge their identity. Another interesting finding is that those who are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories also value the more extreme statements in online conversations. Problematically, there is an indication in our study that passive viewers of conspiracy content in climate and energy conversation get ‘infected’ to favour more extreme statements, in comparison when they were shown more nuanced discussions. What we can see in the absence of conspiracy content, participant favour more nuanced arguments, even arguments that appear to be outside of their core believe system. While the dynamics of such ‘infections’ should analysed more closely in future research, it is obvious that reducing the visibility of conspiracy content in online discussion can favour more balanced arguments, as well as that more viewers will actually use content to form their opinion, and might be more willing to participate in such conversations. Low intrusive but effective interventions, such as to reduce the visibility and virality of climate and energy conspiracy theories and adding moderators into polarized online discussion might thus help to make conversations more meaningful for passive participants. There is widespread support in our panel discussion interventions. On average, 72% prefer to have some sort of intervention, only 28% prefer no intervention at all. The preference for no-intervention increases only marginally for the group that is prone to conspiracy theories, to around 32%.

Download: Conspiracy study ET Lab

Guide - How to deliberate

Proposed discussion interventions

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