BBC 2024-02-08 06:01:40


World tops 1.5C warming threshold for full year

For the first time, global warming has exceeded 1.5C across an entire year, according to the EU’s climate service.

World leaders promised in 2015 to try to limit the long-term temperature rise to 1.5C, which is seen as crucial to help avoid the most damaging impacts.

This first year-long breach doesn’t break that landmark “Paris agreement”, but it does bring the world closer to doing so in the long-term.

Urgent action to cut carbon emissions can still slow warming, scientists say.

“To go over [1.5C of warming] on an annual average is significant,” says Prof Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society.

“It’s another step in the wrong direction. But we know what we’ve got to do.”

Limiting long-term warming to 1.5C above “pre-industrial” levels – before humans started burning large amounts of fossil fuels – has become a key symbol of international efforts to tackle climate change.

A landmark UN report in 2018 said that the risks from climate change – such as intense heatwaves, rising sea-levels and loss of wildlife – were much higher at 2C of warming than at 1.5C.

But temperatures have kept rising at a concerning pace, data from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service from the past year shows, illustrated in the graph below. The period from February 2023 to January 2024 reached 1.52C of warming.

This year-long breach is no major surprise. January was the eighth record warm month in a row.

In fact, one science group, Berkeley Earth, says that the calendar year 2023 was more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Other science bodies, such as Nasa, put the past 12 months slightly below 1.5C of warming.

These small differences are mainly due to the way global temperatures are estimated for the late 1800s, when measurements were more sparse.

But all the major datasets agree on the recent warming trajectory and that the world is in by far its warmest period since modern records began – and likely for much longer.

  • Why is the Paris climate agreement still important?
  • A really simple guide to climate change

And the world’s sea surface is also at its highest ever recorded average temperature – yet another sign of the widespread nature of climate records. As the chart below shows, it’s particularly notable given that ocean temperatures don’t normally peak for another month or so.

Why has 1.5C been broken over the past year?

The long-term warming trend is unquestionably being driven by human activities – mainly from burning fossil fuels, which releases planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide. This is also responsible for the vast majority of the warmth over the past year.

In recent months, a natural climate-warming phenomenon known as El Niño has also given air temperatures an extra boost, although it would typically only do so by about 0.2C.

  • What are El Niño and La Niña?

Global average air temperatures began exceeding 1.5C of warming on an almost daily basis in the second half of 2023, when El Niño began kicking in, and this has continued into 2024. This is shown where the red line is above the dashed line in the graph below.

An end to El Niño conditions is expected in a few months, which could allow global temperatures to temporarily stabilise, and then fall slightly, probably back below the 1.5C threshold.

But human activities mean temperatures will ultimately continue rising in the decades ahead, unless urgent action is taken.

“Rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the only way to stop global temperatures increasing,” concludes Samantha Burgess, Deputy Director of Copernicus.

  • Is the world warming faster than expected?

Can we still limit global warming?

At the current rate of emissions, the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5C as a long-term average – rather than a single year – could be crossed within the next decade.

This would be a hugely symbolic milestone, but researchers say it wouldn’t mark a climate cliff edge.

“It’s not a threshold beyond which climate change will spin out of control,” says Prof Myles Allen of the University of Oxford and Gresham College, and a lead author of the UN’s landmark 2018 report.

The impacts of climate change would continue to accelerate, however – something that the extreme heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods over the past 12 months have given us a taste of.

“Every tenth of a degree of warming causes more harm than the last one,” Prof Allen adds.

An extra half a degree – the difference between 1.5C and 2C of global warming – also greatly increases the risks of passing “tipping points”.

These are thresholds within the climate system which, if crossed, could lead to rapid and potentially irreversible changes.

For example, if the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets passed a tipping point, their potentially runaway collapse would cause “catastrophic” rises to global sea-levels over the centuries that followed, Prof Bentley says.

But researchers are keen to emphasise that humans can still make a difference to the world’s warming trajectory.

The world has made some progress, with green technologies like renewables and electric vehicles booming in many parts of the world.

This has meant some of the very worst case scenarios of 4C warming or more this century – thought possible a decade ago – are now considered much less likely, based on current policies and pledges.

And perhaps most encouragingly of all, it’s still thought that the world will more or less stop warming once net zero carbon emissions are reached. Effectively halving emissions this decade is seen as particularly crucial.

“That means we can ultimately control how much warming the world experiences, based on our choices as a society, and as a planet,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at US group Berkeley Earth.

“Doom is not inevitable.”

Graphics by Erwan Rivault.

Top court to consider if Trump can run for president

The US Supreme Court will wade into uncharted legal waters on Thursday as it considers if Donald Trump should be barred from running for president.

The justices will weigh if Colorado can strike Mr Trump off its ballot after finding he engaged in insurrection over the US Capitol riot.

Their decision will also determine if similar bids to keep Mr Trump off the ballot in other states are valid.

He is the definitive frontrunner to be the Republican party’s candidate.

Unless the justices rule against Mr Trump, he looks likely to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in November.

It is the most consequential such case to reach the court since it halted the Florida vote recount in 2000, handing the White House to Republican George W Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

  • Why Trump ballot eligibility is before Supreme Court
  • The 14th Amendment plan to disqualify Trump, explained

The challenge has been expedited by the US Supreme Court, and there is pressure for a decision before 5 March, when voters in 15 states – including Colorado – cast their ballots in Republican primaries.

Mr Trump’s name so far remains on the Colorado ballot, pending the court’s ruling. Maine also has excluded Mr Trump from its ballot, a decision on hold, too, while the justices consider the matter.

The legal challenge hinges on a Civil War-era constitutional amendment that bans anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding federal office.

This prohibition has never been used to disqualify a candidate for president.

In December’s ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court wrote that it was aware of the magnitude of its decision.

“We are likewise mindful of our solemn duty to apply the law, without fear or favor, and without being swayed by public reaction to the decisions that the law mandates we reach,” the justices wrote.

In turn, Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that the Colorado ruling had “unconstitutionally disenfranchised millions of voters in Colorado” and could be used to further disenfranchise millions more across the country.

His argument has been supported by the chief legal officers of 27 states, who filed a brief saying the Colorado ruling would sow “widespread chaos”.

“Most obviously, it casts confusion into an election cycle that is just weeks away,” the attorneys general wrote. “Beyond that, it upsets the respective roles of the Congress, the States, and the courts.”

Courts in Minnesota and Michigan have dismissed parallel efforts to remove Mr Trump from their ballots, while other cases, including in Oregon, are pending.

  • January 6: The day that still divides America, three years on

The US Supreme Court’s decision in this case is expected to turn on how a majority of the justices interpret the provision of the 14th Amendment, which includes the insurrection clause.

Lawyers for the former president have provided several reasons to the court for why he should not be removed from the ballot.

In one, they argue that the 14th Amendment does not apply to presidential candidates.

In another, they contend that Mr Trump’s conduct at the time of the US Capitol riot on 6 January 2021 did not amount to insurrection.

The case lands with a thud before a Supreme Court that is already facing near all-time lows in terms of public approval.

No matter the ruling by the nine justices – three of whom were nominated by Mr Trump – it is likely to prove hugely divisive.

The top court has a history of finding ways to extricate itself from politically charged legal issues by sticking to the narrowest of legal grounds, which could turn out to be the case here.

Mr Trump, who is in the midst of his third presidential campaign, is not expected to attend Thursday’s hearing.

He is facing a number of legal challenges. Last month, he was ordered to pay $83.3m ($65m) for defaming columnist E Jean Carroll, who he was found to have sexually assaulted in a separate case.

The Supreme Court itself – which holds a 6-3 conservative majority – may soon be asked to weigh in on another case involving Mr Trump.

Earlier this week, a federal appeals court in Washington DC rejected his claims of presidential immunity, ruling he could be prosecuted on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election.

Mr Trump has until Monday to ask the Supreme Court to pause this ruling.

More on the US election

  • Explained: A simple guide to the US 2024 election
  • Analysis: Where Biden v Trump will be won and lost
  • Policies: What a Trump second term would look like
  • On the ground: Are black voters losing faith in Biden?

Netanyahu rejects Hamas’s proposed ceasefire terms

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Hamas’s proposed ceasefire terms – saying “total victory” in Gaza is possible within months.

He was speaking after Hamas laid out a series of demands in response to an Israel-backed ceasefire proposal.

Mr Netanyahu said negotiations with the group were “not going anywhere” and described their terms as “bizarre”.

Talks are continuing to try to reach some sort of deal.

“There is no other solution but a complete and final victory,” Mr Netanyahu told a news conference on Wednesday.

“If Hamas will survive in Gaza, it’s only a question of time until the next massacre.”

Israel was expected to take issue with Hamas’s counter-offer, but this response is a categorical rebuke, and Israeli officials clearly see an effort by Hamas to end the war on its terms as utterly unacceptable.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told the Reuters news agency that Mr Netanyahu’s remarks “are a form of political bravado”, and show he intends to pursue the conflict in the region.

An Egyptian official source told the BBC that a new round of negotiations, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, is still expected to go ahead on Thursday in Cairo.

Egypt has called on all parties to show the necessary flexibility to reach a calm agreement, the source said.

And Mr Netanyahu’s rejection of a “delusional” plan are in stark contrast to remarks from Qatar, which described Hamas’s response as “positive”.

Hamas put forward its counter-offer to a ceasefire proposal on Tuesday.

A draft of the Hamas document seen by Reuters news agency listed these terms:

  • Phase one: A 45-day pause in fighting during which all Israeli women hostages, males under 19, the elderly and sick would be exchanged for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Israeli forces would withdraw from populated areas of Gaza, and the reconstruction of hospitals and refugee camps would begin.
  • Phase two: Remaining male Israeli hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners and Israeli forces leave Gaza completely.
  • Phase three: Both sides would exchange remains and bodies.

The proposed deal would also see deliveries of food and other aid to Gaza increase. By the end of the 135-day pause in fighting, Hamas said negotiations to end the war would have concluded.

Around 1,300 people were killed during the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on 7 October last year.

More than 27,700 Palestinians have been killed and at least 65,000 injured by the war launched by Israel in response, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israeli forces to push into Rafah

Mr Netanyahu also confirmed on Wednesday that Israeli forces have been ordered to prepare to operate in the southern Gaza city of Rafah – where tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled in order to escape the fighting.

Expanding the conflict into Rafah would “exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare” in the city, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned.

“We are afraid of the invasion of Rafah,” one displaced person at the Rafah Crossing, near the border with Egypt, told BBC Arabic.

“We sleep in fear and sit with fear. There is no food, and the weather is cold.”

The Israeli leader’s comments are a blow to a sustained push by the US to reach a deal that its top diplomat, Antony Blinken, described as “the best path forward” – even though he cautioned there was “still a lot of work to be done”.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Mr Blinken said there were “some clear non-starters” in Hamas’ counter-proposal. But, he added: “We do think it creates space for an agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly till we get there.”

Sharone Lifshitz, whose parents were among those kidnapped in southern Israel on 7 October and taken to Gaza, told the BBC’s Newshour programme that Mr Netanyahu’s rejection of the Hamas ceasefire terms was “almost certainly a death sentence to more hostages”.

Ms Lifshitz’s 85-year-old mother, Yocheved, was subsequently released but her father, Oded, remains in captivity.

“My own father is 83, he’s frail, he cannot last longer,” she said.

“I don’t know if the prime minister thinks about him, or if he already accounts for him as somebody who would return in a coffin.”

Mr Netanyahu’s stance also highlights the continuing, fundamental mismatch between the US and Israel’s plans for Gaza’s future.

He is insisting on an entity where Israel maintains overall security control, and Gaza is run by local bodies with no connection to Hamas or any other group.

Washington’s vision of the future includes a horizon with a Palestinian state.

The urgent question now is whether something can be salvaged to keep these talks going to achieve another exchange of hostages and prisoners, and a desperately needed humanitarian pause, to allow more aid into the Gaza Strip.

Scotland’s epic fire festivals to banish winter

Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festivals – which see Viking longships set ablaze – are just one manifestation of the strong Nordic influence on the remote archipelago.
I

It was 08:00 but the sunrise was only just beginning to blush the corners of the long January night in Lerwick, the capital of Scotland’s Shetland archipelago. A couple of fireworks boomed overhead as a group of men passed around a hipflask of whisky – the best defence against the bone-chilling wind that rattles through the Shetland Islands like a poltergeist all winter.

There was a commotion behind the doors of a huge hangar-like shed, which swung open to reveal a vast wooden longship, 30ft from stern to prow, carved in the form of a fearsome dragon and painted a glacial blue. This was the galley, the ceremonial burning of which would happen later that night as the focal point of the festival of Up Hellya Aa – a pyromaniac celebration of the return of the light after winter and an honouring of Shetland’s proud Norse heritage.

From around the corner came the pounding of feet, the clatter of steel and the swelling sound of drums, punctuated with loud battle cries: a marauding gang of Vikings, known as the “Jarl Squad”, who are the main players in the festivities. They would be spending the day parading the galley through town in resplendent Viking clothing – turquoise cloaks, winged helmets, axes and shields – while stopping off at various points to sing Norse songs; pose for photos; and eat, drink and make merry. The leader of the squad, elected 15 years in advance, is known as the “Guizer Jarl” and dresses up as a historical Viking; this year’s incumbent, the magnificently bearded Richard Moar, chose Haraldr Óláfsson, who died in a shipwreck off Shetland’s south coast in 1248.

Up Helly Aa takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January every year (Credit: Daniel Stables)

In 2024, Viking culture also took its initial, tentative steps into the 21st Century: for the first time, women and girls were participating as members of the Jarl Squad.

“This is our New Year, really – we don’t go in for Hogmanay so much,” said Lyall Gair, who served as Guizer Jarl in 2017 and was helping to marshal this year’s procession. “Burning the galley each year and building a new one is a symbol of starting afresh. But it also gets you through the winter – it’s something to do!” 

The galley, like the Jarl Squad’s costumes, is built entirely by locals, amateurs who give up their evenings voluntarily between October and late January. “This is supposed to mark the end of our winter, but it never quite does,” Gair said. “So, we just burn, and burn and burn.”

Up Helly Aa is just one manifestation of the Shetland Islands’ strong Nordic influence, which sits 200 miles west of Norway and was part of the Kingdom of Norway until 1472. Cultural cross-pollination with Scandinavia has continued in the centuries since.

We’re right in the midpoint between Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, America and Scotland. But sometimes we feel more Scandinavian than Scottish

“Shetland is like the Grand Central Station of the waterways,” Shirley Mills, the head of the Shetland Fiddlers’ Society, told me. “We’re right in the midpoint between Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, America and Scotland. But sometimes we feel more Scandinavian than Scottish.”

As part of the festivities, volunteers build a Viking galley that is paraded through the streets and ceremonially burned (Credit: Andrew J Shearer/Getty Images)

Shetland’s folk music, like that of Norway, is based around the fiddle rather than the bagpipes ubiquitous in mainland Scotland. Folk songs tell of trows, mischievous creatures analogous to Scandinavian trolls who are said to have taught the islanders many of their fiddle tunes. 

The town centre of Lerwick (pop: 7,000) is criss-crossed with streets named for King Harald, St Olaf and King Haakon. Among the grey sandstone buildings are colourfully painted ones, built from wood or corrugated metal, looking like Icelandic fishing huts.

Outside town, road signs give place names in both English and Old Norse. I was staying in the village of Veensgarth (Vikingsgarðr; Vikings’ Farm). The neighbouring hamlet was called Tingwall (Þingvǫllr; Parliament Field), sharing its translated name with the Icelandic site Þingvellir, the site of the world’s oldest parliament. Similarly, it was in Tingwall, on a small promontory at the end of a loch, where Shetland’s first parliament was held between the 13th and 16th Centuries.

Nordic echoes also dance on the tongues of speakers of Shetland, the Indigenous language of the islands (it’s also known as Shaetlan and Shetlandic). Shetland is often referred to as a dialect of Scots rather than a language in its own right – but that is a political distinction, linguist Viveka Velupillai told me as we sat in her living room at Uradale Farm, near the village of Scalloway. “Analysis shows that Shaetlan is more different from Scots and English than Swedish is from Norwegian, yet they are considered separate languages. As linguists say, a language is a dialect with an army and navy,” she said. “We estimate that between 30-50% of Shetlanders speak Shaetlan, but we don’t have exact figures because it’s not included as an option on the census.”

Clues to the Shetlands’ Norse heritage can be seen in Lerwick’s street names and colourful buildings (Credit: Aiaikawa/Getty Images)

Shetland’s main ancestors are Scots and Norn, an extinct language derived from Old Norse whose last speaker died in 1850. Words of Nordic origin are still heard in Shetland: filsket, meaning “mischievous high-spiritedness”; du meaning “you”; and dat meaning “that”, for example. 

With the rise of English over the last 200 years, however, Shetland has been stigmatised – it has vanished from use in schools, and Shetlanders have been conditioned to think of their language as a coarse vernacular, inappropriate for formal or official use. “To this day, Shetlanders refer to speaking English as ‘speaking proper’,” Velupillai said. 

Her project, I Hear Dee, seeks to change these attitudes and to raise the profile of Shetland, both among speakers and outsiders. 

Before I left Uradale, Velupillai showed me a collection of Fair Isle knitwear, which she makes herself from the farm’s organic yarn, collected from native Shetland sheep – one of the smallest British breeds, and among the most ancient. Fair Isle knitwear is one of Shetland’s most famous exports, and, again, it carries a strong Scandinavian influence with its colour schemes and geometric patterns recalling Icelandic and Norwegian styles.

Native Shetland sheep are one of the smallest British breeds (Credit: James Warwick/Getty Images)

Keen to learn more, I headed back to Lerwick and visited the workshop of Joanna Hunter, whose company, Ninian, sells traditional Shetland knitwear. “The patterns might look similar but look closely and you’ll see a huge variety,” she said, showing me jumpers, hats and scarves. “Shetland knitwear is associated with Fair Isle [the southernmost of the Shetland Islands], but every island has its own style – different colours, vertical panels rather than horizontal stripes and so on. There are endless combinations.” Shetland Wool Week attracts textiles enthusiasts and professionals from across the world each autumn and is the only event in the calendar that rivals Up Helly Aa for size and significance. 

“Knitting is central to Shetland identity,” Hunter said. “It supplemented the crofting [traditional farming] life – women knitted while the men were at sea.” She showed me a leather knitting belt, a traditional tool that allowed people to knit and walk at the same time. “There were never any idle hands on Shetland,” she said.

As night came on, Lerwick was plunged into further darkness as all its streetlights were switched off, throwing into bright relief a shining moon and the glimmering lights of oil tankers bobbing on the North Sea. A flare gun cracked a red trail through the black sky and the Jarl Squad began their evening procession, this time accompanied by hundreds of people, all holding blazing wooden torches that blew clouds of sparks and the smell of paraffin across town. The galley lay waiting in a park in the town centre; the procession converged on the boat, throwing their torches onto it one by one.

The burning of the Viking ship symbolises the return of the light after winter (Credit: Daniel Stables)

As the boat went up in flames, 11 “halls” across Lerwick – the town hall, primary schools, community centres – began gearing up for a party that would last until the middle of the next morning. 

Mountains of sandwiches, free-flowing alcohol and fiddle and accordion bands are the fuel for a night of folk dancing and performances by roving “squads”, who travel between the venues putting on comedy skits and dance routines.

The following day is a public holiday here, which is just as well; like their Viking ancestors, today’s Shetlanders know that the best way to start a new year is with a monumental hangover. 

— 

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday. 

One simple change to improve your 2024 media diet

Where do you get your news? Here’s how to deepen your understanding of current affairs – according to research.
B

Barely a month into 2024, it’s difficult to know what shape the year will take. But one thing seems certain: politically, it’s high-stakes. Elections will be held in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, India, Taiwan, South Korea, and South Africa, for the European Parliament, and, many predict, in the UK too. That’s not to mention the international conflicts in Israel-Gaza, Ukraine, and elsewhere, the climate crisis, explosion of AI, and economic challenges – among the other large-scale problems that require an informed and engaged public to help solve. 

This means that it has, perhaps, never been more important to be a thoughtful, discerning citizen: no matter your country, you need a clear grasp of the world’s issues – and of the policies put forward to solve them. People will never agree on the solutions, but surveys suggest most believe that a “good member of society” follows current affairs.

People who turned to social media for news were less likely to know what was going on in the world – and more likely to have heard false, or unproven, claims and conspiracy theories

Yet by some measures, people’s grasp of contemporary issues is fading. In the US, for example, recent polls have found that a shrinking share of adults say they follow the news closely – from 51% in 2016 to 38% in 2022. Among younger people, aged 18 to 29, it’s just 19%.

It isn’t just that citizens are tuning into traditional news media less. It’s also that many are getting the news from elsewhere. Pew’s polling has found, for example, that one in five US adults get their political news mainly from social media. And among those aged 18 to 29, it is nearly half.

Over the past eight years, the percentage of Americans who say they follow the news closely has declined (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

Facebook is the most common platform for news consumption in both the US and Europe, with one in three US adults getting news there regularly, compared to one in four on YouTube and one in six on Instagram and TikTok.

To be clear, social media can have benefits: it can be a source of support and community, for example, and help disseminate useful information, like public health guidelines. But in terms of informing people, there is a downside. Many assume that social media has made their fellow citizens more informed about current events. But research generally has found the opposite: the more time someone spends on social media, the less they know about politics and current affairs. 

You’re reading this on the BBC, so you could be forgiven for thinking we are simply blowing our own trumpet as a mainstream news provider. But I promise, there is evidence backing up these statements.

The same 2020 Pew poll found that those US respondents who used social media the most, for example, were the least likely to correctly answer questions about topics in the news, like the Covid-19 pandemic and Donald Trump’s impeachment. Only 17% of those who primarily got their news from social media had “high political knowledge”, versus 45% who got their news from a news website or app.

Not only were the social media users less likely to know what was going on in the world – but they were more likely to have heard false, or unproven, claims and conspiracy theories. And they expressed less concern about these claims than other cohorts.

These findings have been backed up by other research. One study, for example, found that the more that participants used Facebook to consume and to share the news, the less political knowledge they had. Another found that every extra half hour of social media use reduced knowledge by about one correct answer out of an assessment of 16 questions.

Of course, it could be a chicken-and-egg situation. Perhaps people who are less interested in politics may be more likely to be on TikTok than (say) reading the BBC News app. And people have long decried the political disaffection of youth. (In one 1938 article I came across, an ex-provost bewailed “a flagging interest among young people in present-day politics” – caused, he said, by the distractions of “cinema” and “motor cars”).

Algorithms often seem to reward more extreme ideological positions, and those with more extreme positions are most active on these platforms

It’s also important to remember that social media can offer numerous benefits when it comes to informing the public. For example, when major media outlets don’t have the capacity, or access, to report what’s happening on the ground, content shared by users who are there can fill huge gaps in knowledge. Take the Arab Spring: while the exact role of social media is still being debated, many academics agree that, particularly in countries where governments controlled media outlets, social media played a major role in sharing with the world what was happening. The same argument has been made about the Israel-Gaza war today. With international journalists’ access into Gaza severely restricted, it is users on the ground (including Gazan journalists) who are sharing raw, unfiltered glimpses of life in the war zone through platforms like Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly Twitter).

Much of the content on social media is not vetted, fact-checked or verified (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld)

But social media has plenty of well-documented pitfalls, too. One is the potential tendency of social media platforms to create “filter bubbles”: echo chambers helped along not only by like-minded communities of friends, but by ever-more-sophisticated algorithms that know your most intimately-held political opinions and push you similar content. Some research has found that this doesn’t have as powerful as an effect as you might think – and even that social media users are exposed to a higher variety of media sources than traditional media users. But other experts disagree, and research has found that for highly divisive topics, in particular – like vaccines and abortion – users on platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) are more likely to see content that already aligns with their beliefs.

Algorithms often seem to reward more extreme ideological positions, and those with more extreme positions are most active on these platforms. On X, for example, users with extreme positions tweet more than more moderate users, while the majority of tweets are shared by a minority of extreme users.

Some of the social media firms have, under pressure, introduced labels or services that aim to stem misinformation. However, a lot of content is not vetted, fact-checked or verified, so these platforms have become common battlegrounds for forces of propaganda, disinformation and misinformation. Fake claims frequently go viral. Some even make their way into more mainstream media sources, like the recent false claim that a Palestinian baby killed by Israeli bombing was actually a doll, misinformation that was repeated (and later retracted) in a story by the Jerusalem Post.

You may also like:

  • How food influencers affect what we eat
  • BBC Radio 4: How to Read the News
  • How the news changes the way we think and behave

So, if you’re looking to be a smarter, better-informed citizen in 2024, should you avoid social media completely? Not necessarily. Like everything, it depends on how you use it. Given the research, I’d argue the best approach would be common-sense: limit your time on social media. Try to use it, primarily, for its original (if, today, somewhat archaic-seeming) purpose – keeping in touch with friends and forging new connections

As far as information-gathering on social media goes, make sure you are following reputable news outlets and journalists. Exercise caution with accounts and posts pushed your way by the algorithm. And, when you come across a news claim, always verify it before engaging. 

In coming instalments, I’ll describe other expert tips on how best to verify information – and much more. This is the first in a column about how to navigate the information (and misinformation) of today’s world, drawing on psychology, social science and other evidence-based research.

In the meantime, here’s to a smarter, wiser, and more discerning 2024.

*Amanda Ruggeri is an award-winning science and features journalist. She posts about expertise, media literacy and more on Instagram at @mandyruggeri.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Join one million Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.