Misinformation is rampant online. And, as it turns out, it pays big bucks. On YouTube, monetised climate change videos containing inaccurate claims got over 21 million views in 2020. Now tech giants are cracking down.
Money makes the internet go round
Specifically, advertising money. Over $600 billion is spent on advertising every year, with the proportion spent online increasing year on year. The longer we stay on social media platforms, the more adverts we see. Social media companies are therefore motivated to keep us on their channels as long as possible. Therefore, our attention has become extremely valuable to them. The tech industry has developed sophisticated technology and algorithms to ensure they have it.
It’s worth noting that the fossil fuel industry is no exception. According to an analysis by the think tank InfluenceMapLast year, the oil and gas industry spent at least $9.6 million on ads on Facebook in 2020.
Founder of the Conscious Advertising Network, Harriet Kingaby explains that websites have to serve us adverts. It’s “how the platforms make money, how the news sites do. From the writers of blogs to YouTube stars, they all make money through advertising. Advertising funds the internet.”
If a social media user is engaging with climate denialist content online, the algorithm picks up on that and shows them even more of it. All the while, they are also seeing advertisements that generate more money for the social media bosses. They are getting richer, while we are reading more inaccurate information than ever. And specifically, when it comes to climate change, misinformation is causing a delay in much-needed action by governments and businesses.
Kingaby notes that platforms want to keep us online. The goal isn’t to “serve us fact-checked information. So, how do they do that? They serve us information that keeps us scrolling, watching or clicking. Most of what we do, what we react to, what we’re interested in… we’re served stuff that makes us react.”
The (mis)information age
The media, at large, has played a huge role in climate denialism. In the age of the internet, information spreads fast. And misinformation spreads even faster. Recently, we found out that most COVID-19 misinformation originated from just 12 sources. Dubbed the ‘disinformation dozen’, the list of 12 online personalities have a combined following of almost 60 million people across social media platforms, primarily Facebook.
Number one on the list is Jason Mercola, who has 3.5 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Mercola has a reported net worth of $100 million. He amassed this fortune through some dubious health claims, and the sale of the alleged solutions. According to the New York Times, “as his popularity grew, Dr. Mercola began a cycle. It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims, such as that spring mattresses amplify harmful radiation, and then selling products online — from vitamin supplements to organic yoghurt — that he promotes as alternative treatments.”
As the pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives across the world, it is clear that misinformation online is anything but benign. As a result, vaccine hesitancy and anti-vax sentiment continue to be a huge concern in many countries.
The internet can be an incredibly effective tool for good in the battle against climate destabilisation. Petitions can quickly amass thousands of signatures. We can share information. We can share our stories and we can ‘greentroll‘ big polluters. But, it is also being used by the opposition to spread climate misinformation. And they are using dirty tactics to do it.
Social media websites need to find a way to stop the spread of inaccurate information, and the subsequent harm it causes, on their platforms.
I’m ‘doing my own research’
What exacerbates the problem of misinformation is how most people don’t understand how scientific research works. Thus, they are unable to distinguish good research from bad research. Scientific method and research ethics are subjects in and of themselves. And news media doesn’t care about objectivity and neutrality. It wants clickbait and attention-grabbing headlines. Because of this, lots of people read headlines, but don’t bother to read the article. This is so prevalent that Twitter has even introduced a pop-up message to ask users if they really want to retweet an article which they haven’t clicked on to read in full.
The spectacularly-named website, Cranky Uncle, breaks down the five techniques of science denial in a blog and video series which you can watch here. Called the FLICC taxonomy, it outlines the most commonly observed tactics. Fake experts, Logical fallacies, Impossible expectations, Cherry-picking, and Conspiracy theories.
IMAGE: via www.crabkyuncle.com | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A flow chart depicting examples of the five types of science denial. Each type is a different colour; red for ‘Fake Experts, orange for ‘Logical Fallacies’, green for ‘Impossible Expectations’, blue for ‘Cherry Picking’ and purple for ‘Conspiracy Theories’.
Climate disinformation and misinformation
Disinformation is false information put out into the world with the intention to deceive or mislead. Misinformation is false information but without the deliberate goal of deception. Most people share misinformation because they believe it to be true. So they’re mostly unaware that they have unwittingly become part of the spread of misinformation.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the internet abounds with false claims and denialism. “If the climate is warming, why is it snowing right now?” “Climate change is part of natural cycles, it has nothing to do with human activity!” “Climate change is a hoax, designed to control people and restrict their freedom.” And so on, and so forth.
The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees on the fundamentals. Climate change has been caused by humans, mostly the burning of fossil fuels. Things are going to get much, much worse if we don’t take drastic action right now. Yet, we continue to see more and more false information in the media. So, who is responsible for creating all this doubt?
Who is creating climate disinformation?
Those who have something to gain by continuing the status quo are most often responsible for climate misinformation. That something is usually a lot of money. Companies, the Alt-right, media outlets and even states are creating and disseminating falsehoods. (But it’s not just institutions with an anti-climate agenda, there are also plenty of opportunists who simply want that ad revenue paycheque.)
‘Big Oil’ has played a pivotal role in the creation and spread of climate disinformation. Drilled podcast tells this story brilliantly. Award-winning journalist Amy Westervelt presents the pod in a true-crime style. Drilled exposes the lengths that the fossil fuel industry has gone to protect its own interests.
In the first series, the hosts tracked the creation and spread of climate denial funded by fossil fuel companies. Their exploration even included interviews with former Exxon scientists, who verified their involvement in climate disinformation. In Series three, they investigated the chronicle of fossil fuel propaganda – the tactics the industry used to successfully sway public opinion. In Series four, the hosts explored the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic to drive deregulation and subsidies for their products.
The fossil fuel industry’s tactics are straight out of the ‘Big Tobacco playbook‘ and feature some seriously shady strategies. Including: conducting counterfeit science, harassing scientists or others who speak out about it, manufacture uncertainty about science, buying credibility through alliances with academia, manipulating and lobbying government officials.
Earlier this year, undercover reporters for Greenpeace interviewed Exxon lobbyists who admitted that the corporation had “aggressively fought early climate science through “shadow groups” to protect its investments.” Over Zoom, one of the lobbyists said “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing illegal about that. We were looking out for our investments, we were looking out for shareholders.”
The creators of climate disinformation use many tactics to disseminate their ideas far and wide in order to sow seeds of doubt and delay public awareness of the climate crisis. A popular approach is the ‘culture war technique’. A culture war is a cultural conflict between two social groups. And it’s the kind of propaganda that intentionally creates division. It uses tactics like scarcity (where one group believes the other to have an unfair advantage) blame and othering. One example of this you might see online is pitting concerned parents against climate activists, with headlines like “Stop Climate Alarmism in our Classrooms”. With eco-anxiety on the rise among young people, it’s easy for them to use our emotions to manipulate us.
And let’s not forget online trolling. The bane of any prominent social media account is the trolls flooding into the comment section to derail the conversation. Trolls use inflammatory, divisive and distracting behaviour. Often, this is a coordinated ‘attack’. According to Todd Carroll Cyber Operations at CybelAngel, “it’s a more sophisticated means of disinformation to weaken your advisories.” And in a lot of cases, it’s paid work. In 2013, critics alleged that BP hired online trolls to attack and harass people who were disapproving of how the company handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stop Funding Hate is a campaigning organisation on a mission to stop the monetisation of hateful and harmful content. They explain on their website that they “began when a group of people came together online to express concern at the way certain newspapers were using hate and division to drive sales.” Stop Funding Hate campaigns against misinformation and harmful narratives, like the anti-migrant sentiment we have seen rising over the past few years. Recently, the organisation successfully lobbied numerous big brands to end their advertising on a new far-right news channel that was perpetuating many of these false and damaging narratives.
Inspired by the support for Stop Funding Hate, another organisation was set up to tackle climate misinformation, aptly named Stop Funding Heat. They recently produced a 40-page report detailing the extent of climate misinformation on Facebook. They stated that “Facebook’s existing misinformation policies are poorly implemented – the Third-Party Fact-Checking Program has failed to combat Covid-19 misinformation, anti-vaccination misinformation, electoral misinformation and more.” Shockingly, despite the prevalence of climate misinformation on Facebook, their ‘Third-Party Fact-Checking Program’ only checks about six climate misinformation pieces a month.
Publicly, Facebook has made many claims about its concerns about the climate crisis and its plans for net-zero. All the while, its platform is responsible for the rapid spread of misinformation and climate denialism. Greenwashing much?
Are things starting to change?
Last week, Google and YouTube announced that they are demonetising climate deniers on their platforms. Google consulted with experts from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the new policy. With COP26 right around the corner, clamping down on climate misinformation on these huge platforms has come just in time.
The new policy takes a two-pronged approach. It applies to advertisers who attempt to promote climate misinformation and YouTube Partner Program creators who seek to monetise their climate misinformation videos. Google will allow ads and monetisation on climate-related topics, like debates on verifiable research. The platform will focus on some of the most prolific climate misinformation narratives, like the claim that it is a hoax or the denial that greenhouse gases are responsible.
Google was clear that they are banning content that “contradicts well-established research from the scientific community.” It said that it would look carefully at the contexts of these claims, “differentiating between content that states a false claim as fact, versus content that reports on or discusses that claim,” the company said in the statement. The changes will come into effect in November.
What about freedom of speech?
Following the announcement, there were some concerns about freedom of speech and censorship. This concern is legitimate. Dictatorships throughout history have used censorship to suppress those who do not share their beliefs. When those in power have free reign to control what media we see, they control the narrative. But is that really an issue here? Well, no.
Firstly, these new measures are not an attack on freedom of speech. People are still free to say what they like, whether they are speaking the truth or not. This is about monetisation. This is not censorship, it is defunding. Why should someone be able to profit from behaviours that harm other people? If we are not okay with the CEO of Exxon developing and distributing climate misinformation to protect their companies profits, then why wouldn’t we also want to prevent a YouTuber from monetising videos that share the same lies and falsehoods?
“Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Some have forgotten that freedom of speech existed before social media…that freedom did not mean that each person was entitled to have their every opinion distributed freely to an international audience…” – AAA Misinformation & Disinformation white paper
Secondly, actions have consequences. We are all free, to a degree, to do whatever we like. In the same way that we have laws against rape, assault and murder, we need measures in place to deter people from spreading lies that lead to harm. Climate deniers are delaying climate action. For every moment we wait, there is a human cost. Fires that destroy homes and habitats. Hurricanes that displace entire cities, leaving communities homeless. Failed crops that lead to famine and death. Increasing scarcity of resource, that lead to conflict and war.
This move by YouTube and Google is a direct result of campaigning from organisations like the Conscious Advertising Network. And frankly, it’s the bare minimum. Tech giants and social media platforms have long been aware that bad actors use their websites to spread dangerous misinformation. A lot of damage has been done, and we are hurtling towards climate breakdown. So this is a welcome change of policy. But it has certainly come very late in the game.
There is more than tech giants can do. This is proof that campaigning works, and we should continue to apply pressure and push for more change. As Julia Masters, campaign manager of the Climate Disinformation Coalition, says: “Climate disinformation has declined in traditional media but is still pervasive on Facebook. If climate talks get torpedoed by disinformation, these social media companies should be held responsible. We urge Facebook to take the simple steps needed to reduce its amplification of professional climate deniers before it’s too late.”
This isn’t the first time campaigners have pushed social media platforms to make changes because of harmful content. Actress and activist Jameela Jamil campaigned against “bullshit” detox and diet products being sold by influencers. As a result of the campaign, Instagram now blocks users under 18 from seeing posts promoting cosmetic surgery and diet products. Instagram users have also been given the option to report accounts that violate the new guidelines. Campaigner, Gina Martin, forced Instagram to change its policy on nudity. Martin campaigned after content creators exposed the censoring and silencing of plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams and among other black creators.
In the same way it’s vital to hold elected governments to account for climate action and support responsible media, we must also ensure advertising is helping the climate movement and not hindering it.
FEATURED IMAGE: Ollie Millington via Getty Images | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A group of activists sit on top of the doorway of a building (likely the headquarters YouTube). They are holding a yellow banner that reads “YouTube. Stop Platforming Climate Denial”.
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