Favorite rhetorical tools used to spread anti-EV misinformation
Most of you, dear readers, are well aware that there’s a tremendous amount of anti-EV misinformation out there, and I’m confident that you can spot it a mile away. So, the point of this article, and the two earlier installments of the trilogy (Debunking common anti-EV myths, parts one and two) is not to convince you of the environmental efficacy of electric vehicles, but rather to provide you with a handy trove of facts and figures that you can deploy when your less-enlightened friends and acquaintances ask you for advice.
Above: Tesla Model 3 at a public charger (Flickr: Marco Verch)
We EV owners are often asked—both in person and online—about EV ownership and the EV industry. Some of these questions are easy to answer: Yes, charging is easy, yes you’ll save money, yes, they’re more fun to drive, and no, charging in the rain is not a problem (oops...Zap!). Other questions and concerns require more detailed answers, with authoritative sources to back them up.
Here’s a scenario many of us have encountered: A friend or acquaintance is concerned about climate change, and has been thinking of buying an EV. However, in the course of her online “research,” she’s run across a number of disturbing Facebook posts—it seems EVs have a “dirty little secret” (or several), they’re “not as clean” as “everyone” would have us believe, and “the media” have ignored these issues.
Telling your friend “that’s not true,” or “that’s oil industry propaganda” accomplishes nothing—answering an unsupported assertion with another unsupported assertion is the equivalent of the “am not,” “are so” exchanges encountered on the kindergarten playground (and in crossword puzzles). You’ll need to provide your friend with facts and figures that disprove the claims of the haters.
The previous two installments of this trilogy provided links to articles and studies that address some specific topics that are favorites of the anti-EV crowd, such as the Long Tailpipe, battery recycling, raw material issues and the diesel-powered charging station hoax. In this final episode, we’ll zoom out and look at some of the rhetorical techniques that oil cheerleaders (and peddlers of online disinformation in general) employ.
Disinformation experts tell us that the trolls aren’t necessarily trying to convince us that their version of reality is true. Often, the goal is simply to confuse and sow distrust so people aren’t sure what to believe—in other words, to create Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). That’s why so many of the pernicious posts begin with something like this: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great believer in EVs—but I’m a little concerned about...”
Here on the EVannex blog, we’ve been writing about the flood of FUD for years. Until recently, Tesla tended to be the main target, and the automaker still attracts a large share of the online opprobrium. However, as the legacy automakers have begun to get serious about electrification, and as EV sales have soared, we’ve been seeing a wider variety of narratives that naysay anything that doesn’t run on dinosaur juice.
The ultimate source of most of the FUD is of course the oil industry and its allies, and they’re following a popular playbook that’s been used to great effect by other interest groups, including the tobacco industry. “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public,” wrote a tobacco-industry executive in a much-quoted memo.
As a recent article from the Natural Resources Defense Council points out, some of the individuals who retweet or share this crafty content aren’t necessarily trying to mislead anyone—they may honestly be wondering whether EVs really are “as green as they claim.” As the mix of truth, half-truth and untruth gets batted around the internet, the distinction between disinformation and misinformation soon becomes blurred—and that’s exactly what fossil fuel interests want.
One analysis found that 16 of the world’s biggest polluters were responsible for placing more than 1,700 anti-EV and anti-clean energy ads on Facebook alone in 2021. Social media platforms do take some half-hearted steps to tag some of the most egregious falsehoods, but quashing questionable content isn’t likely to be a priority at any for-profit company—according to Eco-Bot, those 1,700 ads delivered around 150 million impressions, and earned nearly $5 million for Facebook.
So, to politely refute some of the most common anti-EV bugaboos, refer to part one and part two of this truth-seeking trilogy. Of, if you don’t care about being polite, feel free to employ some of my Snarky answers to stupid EV questions. To armor you against new canards that come up (there’ll always be more), or to help you deal with online misinformation in general, let’s consider some of the most obvious signs that a particular post or article is misleading or false:
Lack of citations
Ever wonder what those little blue numbers on Wikipedia and other information sites are? They’re citations—links to primary sources that back up what the writer is saying. Any assertion (beyond basic mathematics) that doesn’t have a citation attached can’t really be considered a fact—it’s the equivalent of something a drunk told you in a bar.
Books (both paper and electronic) use footnotes to provide links to sources—my book about Tesla has over 600 of them. Yes, they’re tedious, and the trend is to find ways to reduce the number of footnotes while still including the necessary information. Tim Higgins’s Tesla book has comparatively few notes—each note may refer to several paragraphs, rather than to a single sentence—however, the notes are there, and if you want to, you can find the source of anything the author is asserting as a fact.
Of course, a citation doesn’t prove that an assertion is true, but it does let the reader know who made it, and hopefully, what their credentials are.
The bottom line: If it doesn’t have a link to a source, it isn’t non-fiction.
As we all know, social media posts often make specific assertions without providing evidence of any kind—we’ve seen many a post that baldly claims that “EV batteries can’t be recycled,” with nary a link to a source in sight (in fact, they can be, and they are). Sadly, this also occurs in articles in reputable media. A recent article in The New Yorker (which was broadly pro-EV) stated, with no attribution, that EV batteries are “rated to last no more than eight to ten years.” “Rated?” How, and by whom? Batteries do degrade over time, but several studies, including one from the University of Eindhoven, along with much anecdotal evidence from operators of EV fleets, have indicated that a typical EV battery should last a lot longer than that.
Posters know that online readers tend to skim headlines, and seldom click to read the actual articles, much less the footnotes. Sometimes, in order to make an article look legit, a wily writer will include a link to a scientific study—but if you actually read the study, you may find that it doesn’t support the writer’s claim in any way. Of course, there are also plenty of specious studies out there—many of them financed and published by oil industry-friendly groups.
Academic studies tend to be long and densely-written, and most of us don’t have the time or expertise to assess what they really mean. That’s why I prefer to link to an article that summarizes a relevant study (and includes a link to the study itself).
Forget the footnotes—many people don’t even read the articles. It’s common to see headlines that don’t reflect the message of the underlying article at all. To give one example, a 2018 interview with Elon Musk was spun in opposite directions by different media—the headline in an EV-friendly mag quoted Elon saying, “the worst is over,” while the headline on an EV-bashing site quoted him saying, “the worst is yet to come.” (In fact, what he said was, “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint...but from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”)
Lack of context
The greatest lies always contain a grain of truth, and one demonstrable fact, taken out of context, can be a more powerful disinformation tool than a hundred flagrant falsehoods. A common example of this technique: the constant stream of posts about EV fires. Yes, EVs do catch fire, yes, that’s a bad thing, and no, it isn’t wrong to report on such incidents. However, gas vehicles catch fire too, and by all accounts, they do so at a higher rate, so the implication that EVs are less safe is misleading, to say the least.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, “an estimated 212,500 vehicle fires caused 560 civilian deaths 1,500 civilian injuries; and $1.9 billion in direct property damage in the US during 2018.” Statistically speaking, EVs have a far lower risk of fire than ICE vehicles. A recent study by AutoinsuranceEZ reported only 25 fires in electric vehicles per 100,000 sales, compared to 1,530 for gas vehicles and (strangely) 3,475 for hybrids.
This is a favorite technique of pontificators and pundits of all stripes, and it’s a standard feature of specious “studies.” For example, those “dirty little secret” narratives are often supported by calculations that include the environmental impacts of battery manufacturing, but not those of oil drilling and refining.
In another example from the aforementioned New Yorker article (sorry to pick on you folks, I really do love your magazine), the author quoted a single scientist who said that it takes 25,000 miles of driving for an EV’s lower tailpipe emissions to cancel out the environmental footprint of battery manufacturing. The source is a distinguished battery expert, and his findings carry weight, but he is far from the only one who has researched this highly complex issue, and others (including the Argonne National Laboratory, the Eindhoven University of Technology and Tesla [in 2020 and 2021]) have reached more optimistic conclusions.
What can you do?
Getting back to your friend who’s legitimately curious about the anti-EV stuff she sees on Twitter, you might gently suggest some ways to separate the valuable from the vapid.
Verify the source
Twitter, Instagram and Facebook use blue check marks to indicate that a particular page or profile actually represents the person or organization that it claims to. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the information posted is correct, but it does indicate that the person posting it is who they claim to be. Impostor accounts are not uncommon—for years, scammers have posed as Elon Musk on Twitter in order to separate online fools from their money.
Various red flags—cryptic user names, accounts that haven’t existed very long, excessive numbers of hash tags, etc—can indicate that a poster isn’t who they claim to be—or maybe not even a human.
Consider the source’s credibility
Sometimes a source’s own online description casts doubt on their credibility. For example, it’s quite common for employees of oil companies to post anti-EV information. And of course, employees of EV-related companies post pro-EV information, and so do EV industry journalists. Is any of this information credible? This gets complicated, doesn’t it?
Go back to the primary source
Where is a poster getting their information? Most don’t say, but sometimes you can find out by doing a Google search. For example, a spectacular video of a burning bus recently made the rounds of the internet, described as an EV fire. Those of us who took the time to track down the original article (in an Italian newspaper) learned that it was a natural gas-powered bus.
Check the fact-checking sites
Whenever I see a post that looks a little suspect, my first stop is Snopes, a site that specializes in debunking hoaxes, urban legends, doctored photos and other online shenanigans. A quick search on Snopes gives the lie to the “EV charging stations are powered by diesel generators” fantasy that regularly circulates. Or rather, to one of these fossil fuel fantasies—there are at least three other variations on this theme out there, definitively debunked by Reuters, the Austin American-Statesman and Agence France-Presse, respectively.
Written by: Charles Morris
This article is one of a three-part series about politely debunking anti-EV myths:
3 - Favorite rhetorical tools used to spread anti-EV misinformation
And for those who don’t care about being polite: