DALL.E 2 image co-created by Carolyn Fortuna/ CleanTechnica

Problems With EVs Are Exaggerated Into Soundbites — And That’s A Problem

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The problem with electric vehicles isn’t their power, or costs, or range — it’s that they make for such good soundbites. Here’s how it works.

A pattern exists in which an electric vehicle (EV) has a small problem that’s likely fixed with a software update. In the meantime, the issue is blown out of proportion by news outlets — many of which are social media platforms. What the same “news” stories fail to acknowledge are the extensive difficulties that internal combustion engine-powered vehicles experience.

Exaggerated EV soundbites catch readers’ and listeners’ attention. Clicks on stories sell. We know it here at CleanTechnica — we’re in the click business, honestly. Here, though, we try to turn whenever possible to trusted experts to gauge accuracy in the topics about which we write. So, for the issue of EV soundbites, we looked to media authority Yonty Friesem, associate professor of communication at Columbia College Chicago, to help us understand the underpinnings of the problem.

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Soundbites & Existential Fear

So how do soundbites work, and why are they so successful in persuading audiences to be skeptical of EVs? Friesem begins by acknowledging that “the increased use of soundbites is part of the attention economy we live in. The business model of social media is to attract the attention of consumers and have them stay on their platforms for as long as possible.”

That leads us to a conundrum. For the longest time, climate pollution failed to make many news headlines — it was too abstract because of its disproportionate causes and effects. Developed countries that are the most responsible for climate change, such as the US and China, are not the ones most likely to feel its near-term effects. Once extreme weather disasters became a dominant pattern across the globe, though, and the reality became an in-your-face puzzle to solve.

Social media filled in some of those gaps of understanding.

Social media platforms orient the way we communicate, build and maintain relationships, set social standards, and negotiate and assert our society’s values. In the process, they have become safe spaces for the spread of hate, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, according to a white paper issued by the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

This transfer of fear isn’t new. Existential fear has always been a concern across human history. Social media platforms are used to extensively mediate elements of existential fear in the format of fear speech posts. A 2023 research study in Computer Sciences concludes that social media have nontoxic and argumentative natures that make them appealing to “even benign users who in turn contribute to their wide prevalence by resharing, liking, and replying to them.” Fear speech is subtle and highly effective as influencers try to persuade a target community.

EVs are constantly that target of social media fear-mongering.

Here’s a sample media misstep. Earlier this year, some drivers discovered that, yes, EV batteries take longer to charge in single digit temperatures. Battery-electric vehicle (BEV) drivers who use their heat in 20 degree weather can expect their vehicle range to drop by an average of 41%.

But automotive cold weather problems are not exclusive to EVs. All vehicle batteries, even those in ICE-powered cars, suffer in cold weather if owners don’t take the proper steps. Fluids like oil and diesel, hardware door handles and locks, and electronic components can also slow or freeze up. A study in Norway, where a quarter of all vehicles on the road are electric, found that gas and diesel cars experience cold-related starting difficulties nearly twice as often as EVs.

Friesem explains to our CleanTechnica audience how climate entrepreneurs and their soundbites fed into the situation. “Providing short soundbites that will have consumers scrolling down the stream of posts is the current way to keep consumers engaged — they provide immediate gratification. The more outrageous posts that provoke deeper emotions, the more engagement the social media platforms get.”

In fact, a recent study of more than 12,000 climate-related YouTube videos posted since 2018 found that climate denial videos discrediting climate solutions, like EVs, have more than tripled. The study describes how the narrative shift from “Old Denial” to “New Denial” seeks to undermine the solutions to mitigate the climate crisis and delay political action. This study is a call-to-action to the climate change advocates, the funders, and the politicians doing the hard work to green economic models and incentives — to ensure their work effectively counters what opponents are doing now, not 6 years ago.

Why are deniers changing their focus? In recent years, a number of experts on climate disinformation have observed a shift in the narratives pursued by climate deniers away from claims about the existence of human-caused climate change and towards a new playbook of climate claims. Some experts have linked this to the growing evidence for climate change we see around us, reflected even in day-to-day weather, making it harder to deny warming.

The New Denial now constitutes 70% of climate denialist claims on YouTube, focused more on denying climate impacts, solutions, and advocates and less on denying global warming or its human causes. The YouTube study reinforces how it is vital that those advocating for action to avert climate disaster take note of this substantial shift from denial of anthropogenic climate change to undermining trust in both solutions and science itself. Understanding this shift can help climate advocates and others to focus resources and counternarratives accordingly. A failure to shift strategies, the authors say, would be enormously damaging.

The study deliberately points out how, given they are a primary means by which lies and disinformation are seeded into public discourse, social media companies can and should help, too, to change the narrative around climate pollution soundbites.

But all is not lost for the future of EVs and soundbites. Freisem reminds us that the US is starting to look into regulation with legislation on TikTok, a relative rarity in social media messaging. However, many initiatives continue to look at the way “that individuals could monitor their own gratification and media use. This puts the responsibility to the individual and does not provide a societal solution like regulation.”

A 2024 report that we issued here at CleanTechnica determined that consumers with greater knowledge about EV technologies are more likely to embrace EVs. When we empower others about EVs, we help to diffuse negative EV soundbites.

The sense of pervasive denial due to the abstraction of the climate crisis is the subject of my next article. Another CleanTechnica trusted expert, Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, offers an explanation. Stay tuned.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1316 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna