Debates on the internet are a lot of things - but rarely are they civil, productive or backed up by a lot of scientifically substantiated information. A new crowdsourcing information platform, Omniago, hopes to provide climate activists with the tools they need to battle internet misinformation within our social media generation.
Although the internet has the potential to provide an unprecedented level of global knowledge, it is also often the source of vast amounts of misinformation. Climate change, despite widespread scientific consensus around its causes and impact, is one of the topics which is often prone to the spread of dubious, disproven or false information.
In our modern social media age, such misinformation can easily spread and become ingrained within certain online communities. Fighting back against these inaccurate posts is often not easy - even when equipped with reams of scientific journals and articles.
It was this dilemma which encouraged 26-year-old tech project manager, Matt Brooks, to apply his expertise to tackling misinformation in the current online debate around climate change. Together with his co-founder, Miguel Marin Vermelho, he set up Omniago, which he plans to turn into a crowdsourced one-stop-shop for web users looking for quick, accessible and easily shareable information regarding all kinds of different climate issues.
Brooks felt that current models for sharing information online, such as via Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, were not conducive towards constructive debate or education. Instead, viral posts - many of them with incorrect or non-existent attribution - were consistently spread around the internet, some taking on a life of their own as they were passed around between users and communities. Once such posts had spread far enough, they became a de facto part of the online lexicon surrounding climate debate - whether true or not. The Omniago team felt this constant repetition of the same, often poorly sourced or contextualised information, was contributing to the breakdown of reasoned debate and discussion online. As Brooks explained to RESET:
“Seeing the same information and arguments posted in many different places at different times is tiring. Why isn’t that information gathered in one place, why do we have to keep repeating ourselves 100 or 1000 times? You can see the same content on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram etc. Not only is it duplicated everywhere, but the good, truly relevant information can easily disappear in hours or days.”
Additionally, much of the accurate information which could be used to argue against inaccurate social media posts exists within lengthy and academically written articles and journals. As important as these longform formats are for research, they are simply ineffective on modern social media platforms that prioritise bite-sized, immediate information.
Crowdsourcing Reliable Climate Knowledge
Launched in March 2020, Omniago was originally devised as a debate platform, but following discussions with environmental groups, it has since pivoted towards providing internet communities with an open, democratic source of accurate information. It works like this: Anyone can sign up to Omniago and start providing their insights into a range of topics. Many of these topics, which are curated by Omniago, concern issues within climate science that has engendered debate and spawned misinformation, such as the Green New Deal, plastic pollution or carbon capture technology. Even without creating an account, you can still view all of the top posts, making it easy to share the link and educate others.
When a user posts on a topic, they provide a short one-line summary of their point, before adding additional information. Importantly, all posts must provide a source backing up their claims. These posts can then be up- or down-voted by other users in a similar fashion to Reddit. Those posts which gain enough support from the community then appear on the particular topic page for all site visitors to read and share.
Additionally, other users can revise posts to add supplementary information or make corrections. If these revised versions gain enough upvotes, they become the published version. It is hoped this community curation will allow the most reliable content to remain live at the top and filter out posts which contain dubious information or inaccurate sources. The crowdsourced nature of Omniago also allows users to expose myths that exist within certain communities - whether online or offline - which have yet to make it to the viral mainstream. The platform’s information can then be used to quickly rebut such myths if they do appear elsewhere. Brooks stated:
“We want to get above the noise and create the best climate knowledge base for learning and teaching. We want to be the platform that you turn to when you want to learn about a new topic, or teach someone in very direct and simple terms. Omniago has strict rules, if you’re joining the platform to argue or spread fake information, this simply isn’t the place for you.”
The platform is still in the early stages though, meaning that it isn't yet quite displaying the objectivity and scientifically-substantiated claims that it aims to showcase. Some of the "insights" on the topic of nuclear energy, for example, are still incredibly one-sided and backed up by scant scientific evidence.
As Omniago grows, however, the founders also plan to invite experts on various topics to help in the curation process, approving those posts which contain accurate information, and flagging those which do not. It hoped this combination of expert review and community curation will safeguard Omniago against being hijacked by organised groups who wish to push their own agenda.
Omniago is still very much in its grassroots stage and is operated by a small international team based out of the US, the UK and Brazil. However, it has already been in discussions with environmental agencies and activist groups - such as the Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion - to see how the platform can best serve their community and provide the tools they need. In the short term, the team hopes to expand with more topics and a larger community. It is currently also competing within the Pioneer Startup contest, in which startups covering a wide range of fields are judged by other startup founders as well as a panel of industry experts.