Can AI Stop Climate Misinformation? – Scientific American

June 8, 2024
3 min read
Climate Misinformation Is Rampant. AI May Be Able to Stop It
Researchers want to create an AI system that can quickly detect and debunk false or misleading claims about climate change
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To teach the AI model, the researchers went straight to the source — some of the biggest traffickers of climate misinformation.
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CLIMATEWIRE | Artificial intelligence is often associated with digital deception, but a team of Australian and British researchers are trying to flip the script by using AI to counter climate misinformation.
Their riposte started with the development of an AI model that can track large volumes of false or misleading climate claims on social media. To teach the AI model how to do that, the researchers went straight to the source — some of the biggest traffickers of climate misinformation.
“The data that we originally trained it with came from climate denial blogs and conservative think tanks,” said John Cook, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who co-developed the AI model.
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Cook and his colleagues cataloged their efforts in a 2021 paper published by the journal Nature, and since then the team has been trying to improve the AI model with an eye on an even bigger prize: a new tool that can quickly deflate climate misinformation.
“[We’re] ultimately trying to solve what misinformation researchers call ‘the Holy Grail of fact-checking,’ which is detecting and debunking misinformation in real time,” Cook said.
The need is significant, say misinformation experts.
For decades, fossil fuel interests and conservative groups have worked to sow public confusion around climate science by using false, misleading or cherry-picked research.
More recently, AI has been deployed to flood the internet with deceptive claims on all kinds of issues. According to one third-party tracker, fake news websites that use AI to create articles grew more than 10 times from May to December 2023.
Climate misinformation specifically has proliferated in part because social media giants such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) have weakened safeguards against misinformation.
A number of social media sites have fact-checking systems driven by users — such as Community Notes on X — but a recent review of prominent climate denial accounts on the platform shows it is rarely used to counter disinformation.
With fake or false information spreading faster than true news stories on social media, human fact-checkers can’t keep up.
The AI model being developed by Cook and his colleagues, known as CARDS, could be used to counter false climate claims in real time and at scale.
To reduce the rate of false positives and expand its applications, the team updated CARDS using a database of millions of climate change-related X posts.
A forthcoming research paper on the team’s new Augmented CARDS — which detects climate misinformation roughly 90 percent of the time — is expected to be peer-reviewed and published later this year.
Still, that’s not good enough, Cook said. He said CARDS would benefit from further tinkering before real-time automated use on digital platforms.
“You don’t want a self-driving car that’s 90 percent accurate,” he said.
While CARDS has yet to debut online, it already has been used to track developments of false or misleading climate claims.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that researches online misinformation, worked with Cook and the other CARDS developers to analyze 4,000 hours of YouTube videos from channels known to spread climate misinformation.
The center’s CEO, Imran Ahmed, was alarmed by what they found: Many of the users have adopted a seemingly nuanced stance that does not reject the science outright but distorts and downplays its findings. That can be harder to counter than outright denial.
“They’ve moved on from rejecting climate change to accepting climate change but saying that there is no hope, the solutions don’t work, and, besides, the scientists don’t really understand it,” Ahmed told E&E News.
To Ahmed, this shift warrants more cynicism about climate change denial than other misinformation movements.
“With the anti-vaxxers, you don’t see that,” Ahmed said. “These people didn’t care about the science of climate change. They just cared about stopping action on climate change.”
Ahmed said he hopes that CARDS and the research it has enabled will compel change in the social media industry.
“I’d love to see them adopt CARDS as a way of identifying climate denial narratives and de-amplifying,” Ahmed said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.
Francisco “A.J.” Camacho is a reporter for E&E News.
Scott Waldman is a reporter for E&E News.
E&E NEWS provides essential energy and environment news for professionals.
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