There are several points which seem relevant to the question of the politics of ‘disbelief’ in climate change, and the popularity of refusal to act when it seems needed, even if surveys continually report the result that people say they want action.
General factors affecting information in “information society”
The dominance of neoliberalism with its long established belief in economic growth at all costs, the sanctity of corporate profit, hostility to environmentalism (especially when this affects the profit of established companies), active disempowering of political participation by ordinary people, and its tendencies to plutocracy, is vital to the promotion of climate change denial or do-nothingness. Wealth gives groups of people the power to promote information that suits them. However, I’m not going to consider that here, it remains a background. This post will be about the dynamics of information society and what I call ‘information groups’.
Most of the problems with climate inaction stem from the obvious fact that, in an ‘information society,’ even one with lots of good knowledge, nobody can accurately ‘know’ everything. People cannot accurately know even a fraction of what is relevant to them. Even if they specialise in a field they almost certainly do not know everything in that field either.
Most of us are stunningly ignorant about all kinds of things. The more ignorant a person is, the harder it is for them to recognise their own ignorance – they have little accurate knowledge with which to judge what is plausible or what are the likely consequences of their actions.
1) Information and communication are only secondarily about accuracy. Information and communication primarily function to create group bonds and group memberships (what Malinowski called phatic communication), and to persuade others to do as the speaker prefers.
Given this, information and communication can be thought of almost entirely in terms of strategy and tactics, or the effect that the message has on others. Rather than keep talking of strategy and tactics, I will, from now on, use the term ‘politics’. If accuracy contributes to this politics then it can be important, but it tends to be secondary. We all know that in everyday life people lie to keep others on side, to avoid hurting them, or to keep bonds functional and relatively harmonious. This is normal in conversation. It is a daily experience at work, in encounters with management in particular.
Truth is not always necessary, and is often avoided to help social functioning, avoid conflict, and get on with those in power.
Although complete inaccuracy could eventually lead to breakdown, it may in the short term contribute to political success in terms of producing harmony and co-operation within the group, and asserting dominance over other groups.
2) Need for information filtering. In ‘information society; with massive amounts of information available, people need to filter information otherwise they cannot orient themselves in the world or act in the world. There are too many contrary positions for ease of functioning, and given that people know information is often false, expressions of ignorance, or deliberate lies for political purposes, they cannot accept (particularly uncomfortable or disruptive information) immediately.
This lack of accuracy and certainty in information, is so fundamental to modern life that it is more useful and accurate to talk of ‘disinformation society‘ than of ‘information society’. The society does not function entirely through accurate knowledge, but through using or dealing with an ‘information mess’. Information mess can be increased deliberately, as when Steven Bannon, who was an adviser to President Trump, recommended “flood[ing] the zone with shit.” This prevents consensus about accuracy or probability from forming, and it creates a disorientation, which might help people to be manipulated by dominant people within the group.
3) Information groups as filters. Because of the disorientation arising from too much contradictory information, people end up relying on other people (groups) for filtering information and belief. This involves the creation of strong group identification, and a level of trust and distrust of that group and other groups. These groups I call ‘information groups,’ they help people decide what is real. In disinformation society, many of the primary information groups seem to be politically oriented. Perhaps this is because politics is about action and orientation in the world, and this is what has become confused.
This kind of group identification involves personal identity as well, as it sets forth who one is to like, admire and emulate, and who one dislikes, avoids and tries to be different to. In that way, a person’s sense of who they are in disinformation society can come from those they identify with and the principles, or information, they identify with. The stronger the boundaries around the groups a person identifies with, the more strongly the group acts as a filter, and can reject unwelcome data in general.
Because of these processes of self-identification, the people in the group have a claim to be moral, while those outside the group (especially if classified as oppositional) rarely appear to have such a claim. Leftwingers are communist, satanist, effeminate whimps who cry a lot. Rightwingers are stupid, ill-educated, redneck, racists.
The prime point of these processes is that if an information source seems to be an exemplar of the group and its values, then its information will seem more trustworthy than if not. If the information appears to come from a source which is not exemplary, or is exemplary of the ‘opposition group’ then the information will seem untrustworthy, or ‘politically motivated’. If a source can make contrary information seem to come from an ‘opposition group’, while their own information matches the information groups’ values and beliefs, then they will often have achieved persuasion, without any mention of ‘facts’ or any real evidence.
Group alliance and identification becomes the primary (and unconscious) way of determining what is to be believed and what is to orient action.
There is also some research that suggests that having one’s opinions confirmed by others is pleasurable, and having others disagree is unpleasurable, so there is further incentive to seek out sources and others who agree with you and thus join information groups, even if without being aware of it.
4) Knowledge and Status. One way of claiming high status and functionality in information society, is to claim, and persuade others in your information group, that you are knowledgeable, well informed and certain, and that others are not. This probably decreases the chance of the person being well informed, because they ‘know’ the truth of their own certainty, and ignore counter arguments and data. However, the certainty (especially if the person is enunciating positions of group identity) can be attractive to other people in the group, and helps those people gain certainty in their own knowledge and orientation, and in the incorrectness, or immorality, of those who disagree. It also grants the original person more power, authority and influence; so it becomes a self-reinforcing loop.
To repeat: Solidarity, or lack of solidarity with the information group, acts as a filter for the information a person receives and accepts. Consequently, it is important for successful propagandists to manufacture a strong degree of solidarity and identity amongst those who support them, and to break the solidarity and identity of those who oppose them. The more confused the information mess, the more the zone is flooded with shit, the more that any hostility of ‘information outgroups’, to the group and its identities, will appear to make the solidarity of within the group reassuring. This also has the result that most conveyors of misinformation will be repeating what others have told them and not be deliberate propagandists.
Experience of repetition of information from multiple sources (even if they are from the same information group), makes that information more compelling, it gives it social backing and certainty – as well as implying people who disagree must be mistaken.
The other side of keeping the information groups’ truth going, involves, increasing the distrust of sources the person might disagree with (because of their group identification), and a degree of building trust for those sources they agree with.
In capitalist information society, distrust can be a general framework, not only because there is so much counter-information, and so much alienation from the ‘establishment’, but because distrust allows a person who finds their favoured sources have deceived them, to say that they never trusted them anyway, and to keep on following them and keep their group identification. It declares their wisdom and freedom – they are not being manipulated, they can tell themselves and others, they know how to evaluate news.
Practical consequences of the above.
Within this framework
1) Winning Rhetoric.
The modern right appear to want to win at all costs, they do not appear that interested in accuracy, truth or principle, which does not contribute to victory. Indeed they may well regard ‘the masses’ as needing to be led, and have no problem manipulating people and lying to them. The current left (such that it is), on the whole, tend to regard the people as equals and as needing to be informed, rather than manipulated. In disinformation society the left is vulnerable, and will generally lose.
2) The Process of Persuasion has several prongs:
a) Binarism. You need to make an opposed binary, ‘us and them’, and to convince people that they cannot trust the institutions and information of the other side.
b) Condemnation In pro-fossil fuel thought, this involves attacks on scientists as socialist conspirators, or as only being in it for the money. In climate action thought this involves condemning people on the other side as corporate tools, trolls, or ignorant ‘rednecks’. The abuse helps keep parties apart when they attempt to discuss the issue (“the other side is so abusive, they can’t think”). If this strategy works, people on our side no longer even have to listen to the other side.
c) Trust? This leads to the situation in which we are virtuous, and (on the whole) can be trusted, while those immoral people who support the other side cannot be trusted with anything.
d) Messy contradictory messages. For example, when Lomborg implies we don’t have to do anything, but research is necessary, nuclear is necessary, CCS is necessary and so on. This allows people to take a flexible position, with regard to winning an argument. “We need do nothing and we must do research into green technology, but not their green technology.”
It actually appears, in this case, that the idea seems to be that we don’t research or explore nuclear or the CCS, even while promoting them as solutions. That way you can confuse the issue, and attract both those who think something should be done but that renewables or social transformation is not the answer, and those who want to do nothing.
These strategies are so common, that people may not even think about them, but just deploy them.
3) Muddy the waters by:
a) Playing on the idea that ‘consensus’ means that scientists got together and agreed on something for their own purposes, rather than were persuaded by the evidence. Its a conspiracy!!
b) Providing other scientists or even non-scientists who can put forward the position there is no climate change, or its not humanly caused. This confuses the issue.
This is effective because in information society, most people are ignorant and confused, and cannot check the research themselves. They probably will not check whether the sources ‘refuting’ climate change are climate scientists or not, but if it turns out the source does not have experience in that field, then it does not matter as climate scientists are immoral and conspire.
c) Insist the media cover ‘both sides’ of the controversy equally. If they won’t then they are biased. Everyone on the right ‘knows’ the media is left wing, because it occasionally criticises the right, so this is easy to believe. This is despite the obvious fact that the media is owned and sponsored by the corporate sector, and hence is likely to support that sector and its established authority. Those people who insist that the media cover all sides of the climate ‘debate’, never insist that the media cover all sides of the economic debate, and that debate is actually a real debate. So this insistence seems purely political.
d) If you can persuade people on your side that only a few media organisations are truthful because they support “our side,” and those organisations run specific campaigns, then people will tend to believe those campaigns, because those media organisations are part of the information group.
e) Flooding the zone with shit, means that much real information will be ignored or become normal, as when the repetitive narratives of President Trump and his allies’ corruption, deceit and convictions become normal, and they pass away beneath new showers of shit, and are not repeated ad nauseam as were the allegations of Clinton corruption, which then appear true, even if they never resulted in anything.
4) Emphasise the costs and uncertainties of action.
Do not mention the costs and uncertainties of inaction. In a social situation where neoliberalism is based on the idea that cost to profit is bad, this will help emphasise the immorality of action.
5) Heroic individualism
The US has a guiding belief in heroic individualism, which grows out of, and feeds into contemporary neoliberalism. Not only does this individualism fit with the survival politics of neoliberalism and disguises the fact that we don’t come to know things by ourselves, it also sets up the idea that the person taking what is portrayed as a ‘minority’ position is heroically doing the research by themselves. They will not realise that most of their heroic research is being channeled by their own side (or propagandists for the establishment, or people appearing to be on their side) into work which supports their sides objectives – which may not be their own objectives of finding ‘truth’.
I have met many climate change deniers who seem to consider they have done research, when that research only involves reading what deniers say. If the group opposition is established strongly enough they don’t have to read that which they might disagree with, as it is clearly faked. They have little to no contact with real research, don’t know how to recognise it if they did, and frequently misuse it when they find it (apparently not even having read it, in many cases). Those people who tell them they are wrong, are clearly being persuaded by the group mind, the dominant faction, the uniformity of the media etc. Again they do not have to listen.
6) Claims of persecution
Another important tactic is to imply the information group is being persecuted for its knowledge by a dominant group. This reinforces the idea that counter-information is purely a matter of the other groups’ politics, and thus dismissable. However those in our information group are heroic individuals struggling to get the truth out against powerful opposition. This is so, even if the side one is on is actually the powerful one largely successful in stopping information from circulating. Thus rightwing governments often insist employees not discuss climate change, take down information from government websites, scrap research and so on, while claiming to be in a persecuted and censored position.
7) Role of Wealth
Information is spread by the use of wealth, which helps generate repetition. If information is considered only in strategic terms (as opposed to accuracy terms) then, if you are wealthy enough, information can be easily disseminated, through the use of people who are not officially connected with you, and who sound like they are members of particular groupings. We can instance the mud that has stuck on ‘Hilary Clinton-criminal’ despite continuing long term ‘witch hunts’ which have never resulted in enough evidence for her, or her associates, to be charged with anything. The repeated allegations are enough, and become reason to stay with the opposition to her.
8) Information hangs around
In information society, refuted information remains, and can always be found by those who don’t know of the refutation and be used again. In any case the refutation can usually be dismissed as biased.
Climate change is particularly challenging for human groups, because climate change information generates what we might call an existential crisis in individuals and in society.
If climate change is true, then it changes everything. Almost all the actions we now think of as normal and which contribute to our security and orientation in the world, are harmful. The patterns of order and life-meaning that society has developed disrupt the orders and meanings of that society, and our way of life. There is no easy solution to such problems. We cannot safely simply continue to act in the ways that we have previously supported. Traditional socialism, traditional capitalism, and traditional developmentalism all seem to be dead ends. Historically, and at present, they produce more pollution than functional ecologies can process. Through that action these modes of life destroy their ability to establish and maintain themselves. We cannot return to Lenin with ecological success any more than we can return to Nehru, Menzies or Atlee. This means that our previous understandings and life patterns are useless. This is disorienting in itself.
Likewise, if a person decides to deny the importance or reality of climate change, they still face an existential threat, because they know that others wish to completely change their ways of life, and it is not clear what is to be done to stop them, except to deny the problem, or say it is out of human hands, and continue on as best they can.
In this kind of situation, optimism is both easy and deadly. It is relatively easy, in a situation in which there is no agreed upon solution, to convince people that the established modes of life, and/or theories of life, are both necessary and relatively harmless. People want to continue, and are encouraged to shelter in their established group identities and to enforce them, as the breaking of those identities is an apparently obvious form of disintegration. The strengthening of identity groups serves to reinforce the power of those established in those groups (particularly true in religion, eg. Islam and fundamentalist Christianity), which can lead to encouragement of those identities by dominant factions.
The crisis apparently strengthens the function of information groups, and the need for information groups and leads to political inaction and paralysis.
The only way out is to understand these dynamics and the mess they produce, and start using them properly or undermining them.