Blogs are revolutionising the way millions of people around the world keep in touch with environmental issues, but at what cost? Richard Ladle, in this week's Green Room, says the growing popularity of web-based journals is making it harder to sort fact from fiction.
Wood for the trees: Are facts being lost in the blogosphere?
Luiz is worried. He has just read in O Globo, Brazil's premier newspaper, that the Amazon may be completely gone by the year 2050.
Ana, a Brazilian living in the UK reads about the deforestation statistics in Luiz's web diary, otherwise known as a "blog", and is so concerned that she emails it to all her friends.
Joy, Ana's friend from Hong Kong, translates part of Ana's email into Mandarin Chinese and pastes it into her blog, which is read by Cheryl, a primary school teacher in Singapore who decides to discuss deforestation in her class.
And so things go in the borderless, unregulated, democratised world of the internet. Now, we no longer have to rely on the television or the newspapers to find out about the latest scientific advance or environmental catastrophe.
Scientific information and "expert" opinions are literally just a mouse-click away. However, unlike the traditional news media, the internet has no gatekeepers, no reviewers, and no authority to help you distinguish good science from the bad, environmental fact from environmental fiction.
Rise of the blog
The latest craze to sweep across cyberspace is the use of blogs, frequently updated websites that contain a mixture of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, and links to other websites, online journals or diaries.
Unlike traditional web pages that are essentially static in nature, it is interactions between weblogs which makes them so interesting and influential.
When linked together into intertwining communities, or "blogospheres", they provide a communication platform of incredible power and complexity where information and opinions are exchanged, transformed and reworked with astounding rapidity across international boundaries and time zones.
There are already nearly 12 million weblogs in existence and it is estimated that this number is doubling every five months. However, despite the growing popularity of blogs they are still viewed with considerable suspicion by both scientists and the general public.
A recent international survey of public trust in the media, conducted for the BBC and Reuters, found that internet blogs were the least trusted source of news information, with one in two people unable to say if they trusted them.
The public are right to be cautious. Misrepresentation of environmental science on the internet is widespread and weblogs are by no means a special case. From deforestation rates in the Amazon to climate change statistics, nothing is necessarily how it appears.
Furthermore, unlike most traditional forms of media that have gatekeepers, people whose job it is validate facts, check copy, exert some sort of quality control; the defining characteristic of the blogosphere is its lack of regulation.
Inspire or conspire?
Misreporting and misrepresentation are important because they can lead to a loss of trust at a time when public support for pro-environmental policies is most crucial.
Poor reporting of environmental science may also have a disproportionate effect on children who are increasingly turning the internet as their preferred source of information and who are least able to judge the validity of claims or the legitimacy of one blog over another.
So how should we be responding to the challenges and opportunities presented by the blogosphere?
One way to deal with misrepresentation in blogs is to increase the weight of informed opinions in the blogosphere. An influx of scientifically informed opinion and accurate information would also help combat and correct misrepresentations in the traditional news media and draw public attention to important new research findings.
Weblogs could also be used to inspire the next generation of environmentalists. For instance, blogging is the perfect way for field biologists and conservationists to communicate the soap opera quality of working and living in the field.
Furthermore, new wireless communication systems and solar technology now make real-time blogging from the remotest of locations a strong possibility.
The diversity of views that can be found on the internet is one of its greatest strengths. However, associated with such freedom of information is a lack of quality control which can make it hard to sift through the weight of uninformed, misguided or misleading websites and weblogs.
One of the challenges of living in a media world without gatekeepers is that we need to take far more personal responsibility for assessing the quality of scientific information that we receive.
Fortunately, there are several ways in which the credibility of a website or blog can be quickly assessed:
- Check the data - strong scientific arguments are based on information from recognised sources that is available for public scrutiny, while weak or spurious arguments are often backed up with data from secondary sources or often no data at all
Take note of the language - arguments couched in hyperbolic language may be masking a lack of understanding or sound information
Whatever precautions are taken there is always scope for being mislead or misdirected and for work to appear out of context - even when the exact figures are readily available for public scrutiny.
This transition from individuals consuming their environmental news from traditional sources such as newspapers and television to selecting their news from the "electronic buffet" of the internet could have profound implications for the environmental movement and, for that matter, news providers such as the BBC.
The challenge has been laid down: how to effectively communicate in this new virtual world of shifting environmental values and consumption patterns?
There are no easy answers but if we don't respond quickly we run the risk of creating a generation of eco-illiterate consumers and voters at a crucial time for the Earth's diminishing resources.
In the blogosphere the individual is king and everyone, rightly or wrongly, can become part of the news. Dangers and opportunities abound and never before has there been a greater responsibility on individuals to be more discriminating news consumers.
But, at the end of the day, if you don't like what you are reading then you can always start your own blog and tell the world about it!
Dr Richard Ladle is director of MSc Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at Oxford University, and a senior partner of Sustainable Solutions Worldwide
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website