Communications Lessons From A Comedian: Stop Giving Fake Experts a Platform

Climate scientists agree - nearly unanimously at 97 percent- that global temperatures are rising and that human activity is playing a role in fueling climate change.

As recently as August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, found that human activity is changing our climate in rapid and sometimes irreversible ways.

Yet despite the overwhelming consensus on climate science, over the years a select few climate deniers have attempted to weaponize fake experts as a tactic to lower public faith in science, breed uncertainty and sow disinformation.

Fake experts are individuals who are positioned as experts to comment on a field they don’t actually have expertise in. They may have expertise in a related field, or no expertise at all. But they are positioned by an opposing side to present false information disguised as an equally valid opposing view - often on indisputable topics. Climate change deniers, for example, may position a spokesperson with little to no scientific or climate background -- let alone expertise -- as an expert to baselessly dispute the scientific evidence that climate change is caused by humans, and to falsely claim that some scientists don’t believe that climate change is real.

Members of the media, no matter how well intentioned, have, in the past, frequently been used as pawns in this climate denial scheme. When reporters give a platform to fake experts, they risk inadvertently spreading mis- and disinformation by creating a false equivalence between two vastly disparate arguments that are not equally factual.

Consider, for example, an evening news host who turns a climate change conversation into a debate format: A seasoned scientific climate expert with decades of experience argues that humans are contributing to climate change on one side, and a political commentator without a scientific or climate background denying the existence of climate change on the other. Both guests are given equal platforms to make their case, and neither guest is fact-checked. A viewer watching this conversation unfold might take away that the guests’ arguments are equally valid, even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans contribute to climate change.

Climate denialism fueled by mis- and disinformation has not only undermined public faith in science but has also notably impacted our ability to address the impacts of climate change. While mainstream media has improved its coverage of the climate markedly over the last several years, we have still lost irrevocable time in the fight against climate change.

This 2014 segment from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” demonstrates - with a little humor - the impact of fake experts and false equivalency:

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To learn more about fake experts as a disinformation tactic, please visit our module on Recognizing Techniques and Rhetorical Strategies Within the Communications Ecosystem.

To learn more about false equivalency and the role of media in the inadvertent spread of disinformation, please visit our module on The Role of the News Media.