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Can Virtual Humans Combat Climate Change Misinformation?

Virtual (or artificial) humans, such as virtual human influencers, have become increasingly valuable to brands and marketers worldwide. But what about their effectiveness in tackling big societal issues? Could computer-generated characters effectively influence human behavior for the greater good?

A recent study dives deep into virtual humans’ capacity to become messengers of truth in the battle against climate change misinformation.

The research, conducted by University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Advertising Assistant Professor Won-Ki Moon, University of Texas at Austin Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations doctoral student Yong Whi (Greg) Song and Associate Professor Lucy Atkinson, explored how digital characters and their interactions with real people could help tackle climate change misinformation via public communications campaigns.

The researchers conducted two online experiments, one involving 167 university students and the other 320 U.S. adults. Both groups were exposed to video-type campaigns featuring either a virtual or actual human scientist who provided testimonials of their efforts to combat false and misleading details about climate change.

In both experiments, the actual human protagonist evoked stronger identification than the virtual counterpart. However, digital personas did evoke empathy and were perceived as beings capable of emotions, suggesting that they can effectively participate in storytelling and endorsement within campaigns. The experiments also revealed that emotional narratives were more effective than authority-driven ones in enhancing identification with the characters, regardless of the protagonist’s type.

These findings are crucial when the global climate crisis demands innovative communication strategies. Virtual humans offer unique advantages—they are scandal-proof, endlessly adaptable to fit any demographic, and easier on resources and budgets than their human counterparts. Their utility, however, transcends adaptability and cost-effectiveness.

The research team discovered that virtual humans can reshape public perception and inspire action. Their presence in a campaign can elevate an organization’s image and encourage socially responsible behaviors. They can be valuable assets in narrative-driven campaigns, potentially influencing even those with preexisting biases against climate change by providing credible, engaging stories that can penetrate the selective filters of climate deniers.

The study has limitations. The virtual and real protagonists were not mirror images in appearance and motion and the stories they conveyed differed slightly to evoke distinct psychological reactions. These factors may have influenced the results. Plus, the study wasn’t designed to delve into the cognitive dissonance viewers might experience when faced with virtual humans that exhibit all-too-human attributes.

Despite these challenges, the study’s conclusion is compelling: virtual human influencers in video narratives can persuade audiences to engage in critical climate conversations, challenging falsehoods and fostering scientific curiosity.

The implications for social marketing are significant. By leveraging the nuanced interplay of identification and narrative persuasion, virtual humans could play an important role in campaigns that resonate deeply with audiences. Their capacity to assume protagonist roles in pro-social narratives holds promise for driving genuine change, paralleling human influencers in effectiveness, if not form.

The original paper, Virtual Voices For Real Change: The Efficacy Of Virtual Humans In Pro-Environmental Social Marketing For Mitigating Misinformation About Climate Change was published in Computers in Human Behavior: Artificial Humans 2 (2024) on January 20, 2024.

 Authors: Won-Ki Moon, Y. Greg Song and Lucy Atkinson

 This summary was written by Gisele McAuliffe.








Posted: April 18, 2024
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