Experts highlight importance of ‘prebunking’ to combat climate disinformation

  • For journalists covering climate change and other complex issues, battling disinformation is a major challenge.
  • Disinformation experts use a method called “prebunking” to reveal deceptive techniques and guard against manipulation; it’s a proactive approach, rooted in inoculation theory in psychology, which encourages critical thinking in the face of false information.
  • However, the method faces cultural obstacles in some countries such as Bhutan; communication professionals say journalists and local communities should receive training so they are informed about climate science and other relevant subjects in order to fight disinformation.

With the rapid expansion of digital and AI tools, climate disinformation has become a major challenge for journalists and media organizations across the world. However, climate disinformation researchers say that “prebunking” is one of the best ways to fight it.

Prebunking is a vital method used by agencies to tackle false claims before the public encounters them, helping them spot and resist manipulation. Based on inoculation theory in psychology, prebunking builds mental defenses by revealing deceptive techniques in advance. Beth Goldberg, from Google’s Jigsaw division, told National Public Radio that she sees prebunking as a shield against manipulation through early awareness. This proactive approach is increasingly used in campaigns to encourage critical thinking and combat false information with accuracy.

According to The Guardian reporter Dharna Noor, the stories intended to misinform often follow clear patterns, making it easier to predict the lies they might tell. She spoke at a recent press briefing on how to prebunk climate disinformation hosted by the global journalism collaboration, Covering Climate Now, and the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition.

Citing an example of the war in Gaza, Noor said, the American Petroleum Institute launched a big ad campaign, claiming concerns about oil flow from the Middle East during the war. “By understanding these patterns, journalists can address industry tactics before they reach the public.”

Prebunking stories often comes before there’s even a news event, she added. Journalists can prebunk stories, a preemptive strike against misinformation, instead of waiting for people to hear false claims.

A cartoon about the business of climate change.
A cartoon by German caricaturist Gerhard Mester about the business of climate change. Image by Lommes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Cultural challenges to prebunking

The tactic might not work everywhere, though. Bhutan offers a compelling example. Speaking in response to questions about prebunking, Phub Dorji, a founder of a media training firm called Nyingor Data, said that Bhutanese people are generally great at accepting science, even when it is contrary to their religious beliefs, “but prebunking might not really work well in the country.”

“Bhutanese love underdogs and information that only we have access to. Any scientific evidence places second to ‘specially leaked’ information no one else knows,” Phub said.

Studies show that among young Bhutanese, the major sources of information tend to be social media influencers, who lack critical literacy to process and understand news.

Throughout the country, there is widespread disinformation about climate change and its impacts, caused by the lack of information on how climate change manifests.

For instance, some people point to specific weather events, like changes in rainfall, as evidence for climate change. But climate change is much more complicated than just one year’s weather. “It involves many factors, both natural and human-made, and requires understanding,” explains YK Poudel, a climate and environment reporter with the national newspaper of Bhutan, Kuensel.

Based on a study conducted by the Bhutan Media Foundation in 2021, it was reported that 64% of Bhutanese individuals encountered disinformation. About 35% of the respondents admitted to being victims of disinformation, while more than 10% acknowledged spreading disinformation, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

A bar chart showing a visual representation of the change in temperature in the past 100+ years in Asia-Bhutan.
A bar chart showing a visual representation of the change in temperature in the past 100+ years in Asia-Bhutan. Each stripe represents the temperature averaged over a year. The average temperature in 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red colors. Data source: Berkeley Earth. Image by Ed Hawkins, University of Reading via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).
A protester holding a sign about the climate change denial of ExxonMobil
A protester holding a sign about the climate change denial of ExxonMobil at the protest Our Generation, Our Choice in the U.S. in 2015. Image by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Disinformation isn’t a new thing; people have been talking about it a lot lately, especially in Asia. But efforts to combat disinformation, such as prebunking, can pose challenges in many countries.

Ketan Joshi, a climate communications consultant based in Norway, shared his firsthand experience in prebunking stories while working in Australia’s renewable energy industry. Amid political tensions and misinformation campaigns, particularly concerning health impacts linked to wind turbines, Ketan discovered the concept of prebunking and inoculation. Attempting to present scientific facts to communities facing misinformation, he encountered challenges when anti-wind groups had already spread disinformation about his efforts.

Back in Bhutan, journalists there said prebunking is a new concept in the country, although media houses and related agencies have carried out awareness campaigns during particular events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As the disease was new and emerging with different variants, people were anxious and consumed all kinds of news available to them. There were instances in which people drank sanitizers to combat the viral infection. Moreover, due to the changing nature of COVID-19 variants, relevant agencies did not have the right information to fact-check the available news.

The Bhutan Media Foundation and Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB), with the help of information shared by reputable sources like the World Health Organization, debunked fake news on their social media pages, with some media houses following suit. This has helped reach some sections of the population in curbing misinformation.

In line with that, Ketan suggested empowering local communities and experts rather than solely engaging in information battles.

For instance, in 2022, local government leaders who work closely with communities in Bhutan were trained on basic skills such as how to verify news, give constructive feedback and use social media safely. The training helped local government officials in rural areas to critically assess media content. While smartphones and social media have empowered rural communities, they’ve also exposed them to misinformation.

The view of Tashichodzong, and Thimphu Town, Bhutan’s capital, in the western part of Bhutan.
A view of Tashichodzong, and Thimphu Town, Bhutan’s capital, in the western part of Bhutan. It is the seat from where the Bhutanese government functions. Image by Choki Wangmo.

Bhutanese journalists need training

The task of combating disinformation comes at a time when Bhutanese media outlets are confronting a host of issues. Former executive director of JAB, Rinzin Wangchuk, wrote in 2021 that media outlets face challenges in developing the capacity to cover important issues due to high turnover rates in the industry. Many newsrooms employ young journalists with limited experience, which can result in a lack of insight and understanding of complex topics, such as climate change.

Despite improvements in press freedom rankings, self-censorship, limited access to information and professionalism remain significant challenges for the Bhutanese media.

Phub said there is a need to rebuild faith in journalists among Bhutanese. And improving professionalism in local journalism has been identified as a crucial gap, he reported.

Poudel agreed, saying that to be able to prebunk stories, journalists need training on how to do it.

Currently, Bhutanese journalists depend heavily on digital tools to tackle disinformation. To address climate disinformation, Poudel tries to translate technical concepts about climate science — climate change, impacts, adaptation and mitigation measures — into layperson’s terms supported by facts and figures for international, regional and national reports.

Namgay Wangchuk, a reporter with the national broadcasting service, said that he tackles such issues by fact-checking information before publishing, providing accurate context in the reporting and highlighting credible sources.

He also said there is a need to invest in media literacy programs, to empower journalists to report accurately. “Bringing together experts and journalists more often; make resources like research findings available for references,” Namgay said.

This was a key point raised in the online press briefing. If journalists have the required capacity to report on climate science, they can identify and highlight the tactics and strategies used by big oil to spread misinformation and proactively educate the public and build awareness about the larger agenda at play, said Phil Newell, a director of science defense at Climate Nexus, a U.S.-based communications group.

“It shifts the narrative from simply debunking individual claims to exposing the systemic efforts to distort information and manipulate public perception,” he added.

Such an approach may resonate with editors, as it emphasizes the importance of investigative journalism and critical analysis in uncovering the truth behind the disinformation campaigns orchestrated by powerful interests.

Banner image: A climate change protest in the U.S. in 2017. Image by Edward Kimmel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The science of combating climate science misinformation