Saturday, 2 March 2024
Saturday, 2 March 2024

Misinformation: A Looming Threat to Our Sustainable Future

By Harriet Kingaby

In our quest to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we face a perilous adversary that has grown exponentially in recent years: misinformation. This insidious force, wields the power to distort facts, manipulate public opinion and undermine the very foundations of our lives.

Despite its looming menace, work to counteract misinformation remains woefully underfunded. It is time we recognised that combating misinformation is not a mere PR issue, but a fundamental necessity for our society at large. It impacts everything from public health to social justice, the environment crisis to politics and everything in between, on a global scale.

As we grapple with the devastating consequences of climate change and endeavour to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, it is imperative to confront misinformation. It’s a tool that has been weaponised, political figures such as Jair Bolsonaro for example, have use misinformation to further their agendas. Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, has infamously downplayed the urgency of addressing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, one of the Earth’s crucial ecosystems. His administration’s relentless dissemination of false information and denial of climate science has exacerbated the ongoing environmental crisis. 

The perils of misinformation extend beyond environmental issues and spill into the realm of public health, politics, and socio-economic stability. As I’ve highlighted before the pervasive nature of misinformation undermines public trust and exacerbates social divisions. Misinformation is a persistent problem that poses a direct threat to our pursuit of the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs. It hampers our ability to build public support for the necessary measures and strategies that will propel us toward a sustainable future.

In the policy brief ‘Information Integrity: Building Trust to Achieve Our Common Agenda’ the United Nations stresses the importance of safeguarding information integrity as a critical component of achieving the SDGs. The UN echoes the notion that the spread of false information is detrimental to the world’s progress towards sustainability, as it erodes trust in institutions and disrupts efforts to mobilise societies. Misinformation is a barrier that we cannot afford to overlook if we wish to fulfil our global commitments.

One of the most significant hurdles we face in combating misinformation is the lack of adequate funding. While there has been investment in communication and PR strategies, they are often ill-equipped to counter the onslaught of disinformation. They can only do so much when confronted with a tide of false narratives and conspiracy theories that appeal to people’s emotions and biases. Misinformation doesn’t operate within the bounds of reason; it thrives on sensationalism and sensationalism alone. Strategies to date have been about reacting to misinformation, but to effectively combat this issue we need to get ahead.

This is where advertising plays a pivotal role. In the battle against misinformation, we need advertising to reach the ‘Persuadables’, those individuals who can be swayed by evidence-based messaging and the truth. They account for roughly 69% of the UK population who are neither climate deniers nor climate activists. These people are not firmly aligned with ‘for’ or ‘anti’ positions on issues; they are persuadable either way on critical issues. Our current information ecosystem creates filter bubbles, which means, crucially that this audience are not hearing enough positive climate content, as they’re being targeted by creators of disinformation. NGOs must engage with Persuadable audiences to ensure their message prevails over the misinformation propagated by their adversaries.

Yet, far too many funders perceive advertising as an expensive endeavour, one that may not yield immediate, quantifiable results. This short-sightedness in funding priorities neglects the tremendous impact advertising can have in shaping public opinion, especially when it comes to issues like climate change and sustainable development.

Charities are using advertising for fundraising, not seeing the huge potential it offers to change narratives and shore up support for them in the longer term. Brand building works by delivering repeat messages over time. For example, in ‘How Brands Grow’ by Byron Sharp, the importance of reaching and retaining a broad audience is key. When advertising is coupled with compelling messaging, it becomes a potent tool for altering narratives. By resonating with consumers, brands can redefine perceptions and cultivate lasting connections, fostering the organic growth essential for long-term success. Imagine the positive impact we could have if we were to apply this to causes such as climate change.

Our research shows that leading with personal benefit, using framing that cuts through to the mainstream, incorporating cultural cues and humour via advertising campaigns all generate significant results.

It’s crucial that we secure more funding for anti-misinformation projects that aim to deliver solutions to the growing threat of false information. As we stand on the precipice of a critical moment, with two billion people globally going to the polls next year, the need for accurate and reliable information is paramount. In an age where misinformation spreads like wildfire across social media platforms and permeates traditional media, the importance of cutting through the noise cannot be overstated.

Our efforts to combat misinformation should encompass a multi-pronged approach, these include:  

  • Promote positive, truthful stories at scale: Recognising that conspiracies stem from confusion, distrust, and a feeling of anxiety and lack of control; we can counter-message with advertising campaigns aimed at ‘Persuadables’ that tell positive, truthful stories about climate at a regional, national or international scale.
  • Embrace mass modern media: leveraging advertising to ensure mass reach of campaign messages, that inoculate those most at risk of misinformation. Helping grantees scale campaigns quickly and avoid being distracted by misinformation traps.
  • Combining fact-based and emotional messaging: NGOs, for example, often rely on scientifically backed information and facts in their communication efforts. Providing verifiable data is an effective countermeasure against disinformation, but it’s not enough to make it stick. At ACT, we use techniques such as Fact, Myth, Fallacy, to effectively reverse belief in misinformation. This approach can help shift public opinion and foster greater support for initiatives related to climate action and the SDGs.

We cannot afford to let falsehoods obstruct the path to a sustainable future. The United Nations has underscored the importance of information integrity, and we must heed this call. This is not a battle that can be fought with mere words and statistics; it requires a commitment of resources commensurate with the scale of the threat.

We stand at a critical juncture in our quest for a sustainable future. It’s time to recognise the indispensable role of advertising in reaching those who can be persuaded by evidence-based messaging. With two billion people poised to make critical decisions next year at the polls, the need for accurate information has never been greater. The time to act is now, for the stakes are too high to let misinformation jeopardise our shared aspirations for a sustainable, equitable future.

Harriet Kingaby is Head of ACT Climate Labs. For more information visit: www.actclimatelabs.org

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