When a British newspaper published an exposé in February alleging proof that US government scientists had used flawed data to show recent global warming and rushed to publish their research to sway the Paris climate talks, conservative media was lit.
“The latest example of misinformation from the left comes directly from the federal government,” SarahPalin.com said about the article, published in Britain's Mail on Sunday. It was a “bombshell,” according to the climate skeptic blog Watts Up With That, and “explosive,” according to The Federalist Papers Project. “BUSTED: NOAA Lied About Climate Change Data to Manipulate World Leaders,” blared the website Louder with Crowder.
The story centered on a two-year-old Science study showing that the rise in global temperatures had not recently stalled, as previous data had suggested. The Science paper had repeatedly been attacked by climate skeptics, including House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). After the Mail on Sunday’s piece, Smith demanded, for at least the sixth time, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration turn over its correspondence about the Science data.
Now, some seven months later, the Mail on Sunday has begrudgingly admitted its story was wrong. But will this update change anyone’s minds?
That seems unlikely, based on a BuzzFeed News review of how widely the article was shared across social media compared to early attempts to debunk it.
The story, published on February 4 and updated on September 16, has received more than 211,500 shares, likes, comments, or other interactions on social media, according to our analysis of online traffic data collected as of September 27 by the website Buzzsumo. (This includes people who engaged with the article after it was updated.) About 2,000 comments appeared on the Mail on Sunday’s website, which were not included in the analysis.
Another 159 stories repeated the original’s claims and linked back to it, and received about 540,800 shares or interactions. This includes coverage from conservative news giants such as Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Caller, and National Review, as well as by climate skeptic blogs.
In contrast, 66 online articles and posts questioned or debunked the story’s claim in the intervening months. These were shared or engaged with about 199,100 times, or about one-quarter as much as the bogus stories.
According to Buzzsumo, which collects a URL’s Facebook engagements (shares, likes, and comments), as well as Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn shares, 914 articles and posts linked to the Mail on Sunday story. BuzzFeed News only analyzed the 260 articles that received at least 100 social interactions. These included several non-English publications, which we assessed using Google Translate.
Our classifications were subjective and, in some cases, tricky. Some articles, for example, repeated the original article's misleading claims, but also included arguments from critics. We put these in the "other" category. Stories that did not have a link in the main story, but did in the comments section or another part of the site, were also classified as "other."
The newspaper’s revision happened thanks to Bob Ward, policy and communications director for a climate research center at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who filed a complaint on Feb. 7 with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), an independent regulating body for member newspapers and magazines in the UK. (BuzzFeed News is not a member of the group.)
The original story claimed that a former federal scientist, John Bates, had provided the newspaper with “irrefutable evidence” that NOAA researchers had used misleading data to exaggerate global warming, and failed to archive it so it couldn’t be verified. This flawed study, according to the Mail on Sunday, then “duped” world leaders into spending billions on climate action. At the same time this story went out, Bates published a blog post outlining his allegations.
Ward outlined 30 problems with this narrative. For one, the story presented no hard evidence of faulty data. It also inaccurately said that NOAA had not archived its data: In reality, all of it was published on the website of the journal Science. Plus, the work had actually been replicated: An analysis conducted by the Berkeley Earth team and published in early 2017 independently confirmed the 2015 study’s conclusions.
The original newspaper story also presented a bizarre graphic that suggested clear temperature differences between data from NOAA and from the Met Office, the UK’s weather service. Not only was the data improperly plotted, which was pointed out on Twitter by NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt, but it wasn’t actually the data discussed in the 2015 study.
Ward had previously complained to the IPSO about Mail on Sunday climate stories, he told BuzzFeed News, but it never amounted to anything. “They rarely uphold complaints,” Ward said. “So the fact they are upholding this complaint means something must have been seriously wrong.”
Before the IPSO investigates a complaint, it asks the accuser and the accused to try to resolve the issue on their own. If that fails, as it did in this case, an IPSO committee makes a decision. The probe began in April, but the final decision wasn’t made for several months due to appeals by the Mail on Sunday.
The investigation focused not on whether the article contained mistakes, but rather on whether it had misrepresented Bates.
“[T]he primary question for the Committee was whether Dr. Bates’ concerns had been presented in a significantly inaccurate or misleading way,” according to the decision.
The newspaper’s claims of irrefutable evidence that the 2015 study was based on misleading, unverified data, contributing to world leaders being duped, “went much further than the concerns which Dr. Bates had detailed in his blog or in the interview,” the IPSO found.
The newspaper did not correct any of the misrepresentations identified by the IPSO committee, but did add a note at the top of the original story detailing the probe’s results, or adjudication. (Before the decision was released, the paper had quietly deleted the misleading graphic.)
“We are disappointed with this finding but we accept it and are publishing the adjudication with prominence in the newspaper and online,” John Wellington, managing editor of the Mail on Sunday, told BuzzFeed News by email.
“The subject of the rate of climate change is fiercely debated with reputable scientists taking positions on both sides,” he added. “The Mail on Sunday has published articles that challenge some widely held opinions.”
A week after the newspaper updated its story, the top articles that had shared it as fact — those with more than 10,000 social shares — had still not updated their own stories. The 10 outlets that published these stories also hadn’t reported on the IPSO’s findings.
BuzzFeed News reached out to all of them to ask why. Since then, Louder with Crowder and RT updated their stories about the journalism probe and its findings.
“It’s come to our attention the DailyMail [sic], from which our original post was sourced, was required to print a lengthy correction due to a complaint which was upheld by the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation,’” Louder with Crowder wrote in a September 25 update.
The note added what appears to be an unkind reference to BuzzFeed News:
“Also, a reminder: Louder with Crowder writes news commentary. We are more ‘opinion journalism’ less ‘Companies who claim the mantle of real news when reporting on p!ssing Russian prostitutes, but actually push listicles full of cat gifs.’”
Daily Caller asked for more information, and one of the two Breitbart writers who initially covered the exposé told BuzzFeed News he would look into it. Fox News, National Review, The Federalist Papers Project, Conservative Tribune, and The Daily Wire did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the decision was a big win for Ward, he and other climate scientists are skeptical that it will have much impact, especially coming so long after the original publication. “I hope IPSO will consider in its future investigations how online versions of stories can spread rapidly and mislead audiences,” Ward said.
“These are the kind of non-stories that get picked on by the organized denialists (Morano, Heartland, etc.) and twisted beyond recognition as they try to find (any) reasons to ignore the science,” NASA’s Schmidt told BuzzFeed News by email.
“The climate hawks push back with specific critiques or context or whatever and occasionally get someone outside of the climate-o-sphere to comment,” he added. “That's a big 'win' for that news cycle, but the fact of the matter is that almost no one pays attention to these details.”
According to a Nature study about the spread of information online, “low-quality” information has the same chances of going viral as factual material does. And other work has shown that information that people consume initially can be remarkably persistent and stay in their minds even after being debunked.
“Because of our cognitive biases, once your opinions are formed it’s hard to change that,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor at the Indiana University Network Science Institute who has been studying the spread of false news articles and co-authored the Nature study. “It’s more likely we’ll look at things that confirm our biases.” ●
Zahra Hirji is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco
Contact Zahra Hirji at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lam Thuy Vo is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Lam Thuy Vo at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.