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Weaponized Empathy

The impulse to look out for other people can be hijacked to spread confusion and misinformation.

By JoBeth McDaniel

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At a recent party, a stranger standing next to me spoke up suddenly when a snazzy ad for an electric vehicle appeared on the television. “EVs harm the environment way more than gas cars,” she announced to the room.

“Well, no,” I responded. “I have an EV, and it’s not even close. Gas cars are much worse for the environment.”

Then she moved closer to me, as if confiding a dark secret, and said, “By driving an EV, you are killing small children in Africa.” I’d done enough research to know her statement was false, yet it still felt like a punch to the gut. I second-guessed myself. Had I missed something? Was I causing harm without realizing it? All I could muster was a murmured, “No, no, that’s not true,” before backing away from the conversation.

I realize now my experience was distressingly common. As electric vehicles become more common, so does misinformation about them—especially outdated or false details designed to tug on our heartstrings. I call those myths “weaponized empathy,” because they prey on our desire to do good in the world. This phenomenon goes beyond electric vehicles. The same type of weaponized misinformation drives public perception on reusable shopping bags, plant-based meat alternatives, electric stoves, and a host of other green initiatives.

I don’t know the motives of the woman I met. Maybe she was genuinely concerned about children, maybe she was politically opposed to the environmentalism associated with EVs. Either way, the result was the same: Weaponized empathy is a potent way to turn people’s better impulses against them.

After that party encounter, I got curious about where the woman got her “facts” about electric vehicles and did a little digging. It didn’t take long to find a trove of online stories featuring slanted or outdated information. Many of them exactly matched the party woman’s narrative, focusing on terrible conditions in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mineral-rich nation devastated by a recent civil war. The stories also exposed a key tool of weaponized empathy, using a smattering of true details to build a misleading or outright false narrative.

The full story about cobalt mining reveals a lot about how weaponized empathy works. In smaller mines in the Congo, children as young as six years old dig for cobalt, a metal used in batteries for electric vehicles, cell phones, and other electronics. Their suffering is real, and appalling. What’s missing in the anti-EV narrative is the essential context.

Cobalt mines existed long before the EV boom, since the metal has many industrial applications, including alloys for gas turbines, drying agents for paint, and catalysts for refining petroleum. More recently, newer technologies have greatly reduced the amount of cobalt and lithium used in batteries. Today, more than half of Tesla’s new batteries are completely cobalt-free.

By nearly every measure, a gasoline-powered vehicle creates far worse environmental, health, and social problems than an equivalent electric vehicle. Oil and gas corporations clear-cut forests and foul water supplies, often with the blessings of governments more interested in payoff than in the wellbeing of citizens (including children). No coincidence, those corporations also spread negative propaganda about EVs, the electrical grid, and battery recycling.

Research confirms that audiences are more likely to believe emotional news, even if it is false.

Once I began looking, I saw misleading claims that EVs mostly run on coal-generated electricity (nope), or that the world might soon run out of lithium (nope). Although forced labor is a problem in industries worldwide, there is scant media attention when fossil fuel corporations are involved. Studies show electric vehicles are far less likely to catch fire or explode than gas-engine vehicles—but when a Tesla crashed and burned on a street near me, three television helicopters whirred overhead, accompanied by “Breaking News!” reports.

Jevin West, co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, notes that misinformation is particularly effective when it contains an emotional appeal. “Stories that tug at empathetic strings get lots of clicks,” he says. The group QAnon has used this technique to draw people in by promoting shocking but false claims about human trafficking. “They hijack that as a way of pushing other distorted ideas,” West says, “taking time and energy away from the organizations that really are stopping human trafficking.”

Weaponized empathy operates at the intersection of two sources of emotion: the state a person brings to the material, and the content of a news item itself. The ultimate response, according to Cameron Martel, a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management, can distract people from thinking about the accuracy of a story, making them more susceptible to misinformation. Martel’s research confirms that audiences are more likely to believe emotional news, even if it is false. “People want to share things that are new and exciting,” he says. “If it’s false, it may seem more new and more exciting.”

Emotional appeals are even more persuasive when the reader has knowledge gaps. Because mainstream electric vehicles are fairly new, those gaps can be enormous among the general public. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told the U.S. will “run out of electricity” if people keep buying EVs. Studies have repeatedly shown that isn’t true. Electric vehicles are mostly charged during non-peak hours, when there is an abundance of electricity on the grid. Some of the newer EVs can even perform bi-directional charging to bolster the power grid by storing energy in low-demand times for use during high-demand hours.

What we’re seeing could be called “tarwashing”: an effort to tar the products that are greener and more sustainable.

On sunny days in my home state of California, renewable power already fuels the majority of our daytime electricity needs. The big challenge we face is insufficient electricity storage. EVs could fill some of that gap and help renewable sources deliver power 24/7. But these facts tend to fall flat when people remember the anxiety caused by recent power outages, and worry about anything that sounds like it might cause them to happen again.

Meanwhile, there is an entire PR industry working to confuse the public about where the real problems lie. Media analysts often use the term “greenwashing” to describe a public relations campaign used by a large corporation to pretend that its practices are good for the environment. What we’re seeing now could be called “tarwashing”: an effort to tar the products that are greener and more sustainable. Are fossil fuel companies funding deliberate disinformation about EVs?

Gil Tal, Director of the Electric Vehicle Center at the University of California, Davis, points to studies from dubious think tanks. “I’m 100% sure it is not random,” he says. He also warns about misinformation claiming that there’s a much better technology right around the corner. Hydrogen is a good example. It sounds like a miracle fuel (energy from water!) but today’s hydrogen requires a lot of electricity to produce, and typically releases significant quantities of hidden carbon emissions.

All of these empathetic myths can give people a blanket excuse to be against EVs, whether due to politics or simply fear of the unknown. “If I don’t want to buy electric, I will justify it to myself with all of this, even if I deeply know I haven’t done much checking into this,” Tal says.

I told West about my experience with the woman at the party and asked if he had any suggestions about better ways to react. He replied that when he encounters misinformation, he often responds with a question: Where did you find that information? “That gets them to self-reflect; it starts the conversation without much animosity and engages them in an authentic way,” he says.

Starting with a question also acknowledges that no one is immune to misinformation, even those who study it. “We are better-informed consumers when we are aware that our empathetic strings are being pulled all the time. If you read an emotional headline, check into your emotions,” West adds. When you read a headline that makes you outraged, he advises, take a deep breath and look more closely at the sources before hitting the “share” button. Martel at MIT also recommends checking the date of any story before sharing. The problem of outdated, misleading information can also be turned into a question: When did that happen?

Martel argues that it is important to speak out in appropriate public settings, because of a phenomenon known as “Third-Party Social Correction.” On social media, you may not be able to change the mind of the person sharing the misinformation, but your response may reach many other, more open-minded people who see your correction. Speaking up at a party could have the same effect. Lateral reading – doing more research outside of that initial report – can help direct you to the crucial missing context. “Do a Google search of where the article is getting its main claims,” says Martel.

The battle against misinformation can feel relentless, but Tal ends our conversation on a hopeful note. He anticipates that EV myths will become less effective as the vehicles become more common and people see friends and neighbors driving them. Tal is also heartened that all 50 states and most communities across the US are aggressively seeking government money to build charging stations. “Small electric utilities have been very proactive in installing chargers,” he says, bringing familiarity with EVs even to the most remote parts of the country.

Everywhere he goes, Tal hears the changes taking place. “People will tell me all the crazy conspiracy theories, but then they’ll say, ‘Oh yes, we need to get ready for electric cars. Not for me, but my son, my grand kid, my wife will buy one.’” Those responses suggest another, more positive empathy response at work: A genuine desire to see our children, our neighbors, and even total strangers living in a greener, healthier world.

April 28, 2023