Tempering the Lies

Are Google’s recent steps to ban climate misinformation too little, too late? 

Author: Altay Shaw 
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Rahel Kiss

In early October, Google announced an ambitious plan to challenge climate change misinformation. As part of this plan, ads and accounts promoting fake news about deforestation and habitat loss would be striked. Representatives and activists alike responded warmly to the announcement, but the ban itself will not prevent the uploading of false information onto YouTube or other associated Google products.

The potential abuse of the new rules, which prohibit ads that go against the scientific consensus, gives weight to the fact that there is still a long way to go before we are able to fully tackle fake news in general. Since videos can still be uploaded without going through a verification process, what is the technology giant doing to ensure that our digital and physical environment is protected? 

Public Perception of Climate Change 

Previous years have seen a rebound in the number of individuals who accept and understand the urgent need to act. Even with this—albeit small—increase, the number of people cognizant of the need for climate action hasn’t reached 2008 levels, when they were at their highest. This statistic provides a worrying insight into the increasing momentum of misinformation, especially as we are now approaching a point of no return in trying to keep the global temperature increase at 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

In the UK, studies conducted in 2008 and 2011 showed that those who were affected by “once in a lifetime events” were more likely to be concerned with climate change. Flooding is a key example of this. Individuals were more likely to engage in energy-saving behaviours if they had lost personal possessions or had loved ones affected by extreme rainfall patterns. With studies showing changes in local weather patterns, we might soon see a shift in public perception as more people become affected by extreme weather events.  

Damage caused by misinformation 

Whilst patterns of behaviour can be altered in some groups within the UK, it should be noted that separate long-term studies found evidence that in the USA, people use personal experiences to either strengthen their own scientific basis, or further feed their misled notions. As a society, to have some coherency in our worldviews, our immediate impulse is to protect the status quo at any cost, meaning any change or upset to our already-held beliefs is perceived as dangerous. This also translates to misbeliefs about climate change: individuals are more likely to be fixed in their beliefs about the climate according to their political alignment.

As such, individuals are more likely to have a mistrust in science, which doesn’t necessarily stem from a doubt of the scientific method itself. Instead, this mistrust is a result of individuals identifying themselves with a minority opinion and needing to strengthen their overall views. So, when these individuals are exposed to fake news on climate, even for brief periods of time, they are more likely to engage and share the information than if they were in the majority.

Why do activists not trust Google’s efforts? 

Google has been faced with an uphill battle from the start. Despite launching a $300 million push to support journalism and tackle fake news, the company has come under heat for its practices in regards to advertising revenue. 

Campaign for Accountability, a non-profit watchdog that exposes misconduct by large corporations, provides evidence that Google had still been placing advertisements on fake news sites, despite having vowed to suspend the practice after the spread of misinformation seen in the run-up to the 2016 election. Despite promises and removal of news labels from sites promoting fake news, it has taken Google until now to introduce bans on climate misinformation. 

Given the number of times that Google has come under public scrutiny for refusing to make changes and providing false promises in several interviews and press releases, it is not surprising that Google has started to inch towards making positive changes. In 2019, Google came under fire for supporting climate change deniers by providing millions in funding to conservative groups. Despite Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, promising that previous decisions to support such groups were a mistake, even under his leadership, such promises were ignored. 

A reason that Google turns a blind eye to the undermining of scientific methods may rest in its desire to ensure that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is kept in place. This obscure law is what allowed Google, and other technology giants such as Facebook, to become what they are today. As Google was legally deemed to be “neutral,” it was not placed under strict regulations. In recent years, leading Republicans have been called for the law to be repealed due to Google’s alleged bias towards left-leaning publications, but no firm steps have been made to revoke the law. 

How can the impact of fake news be limited? 

While Google’s current course of action does provide some promise for the future, it does not help to tackle the damage it has already caused. Therefore, the burden falls on people to acquire the proper skills needed to identify fake news columns and pieces. In 2016, Finland introduced new measures in cross-subject support to ensure students were capable of identifying false information. This included teaching students to challenge, read, and question material presented to them, rather than accepting it on face value.

In addition, some researchers have suggested the idea of having multiple layers of defence against fake news. In 2020 Sander van der Linden et al.proposed the idea of providing “inoculation” against false news through coding fail-safes and identifying key terms that are against the scientific consensus. This would help to weed out any harmful material that could adversely affect the public’s’ perception of a number of matters, including vaccine misinformation. 

Going Forward

Whilst Google is now taking the right steps to ensure the scientific consensus on climate change is being shared and upheld, in the grand scheme of things, these actions may be too little, too late. Google has the ability to make substantial changes to the content it promotes, and it must do so if it wishes to turn the tide against climate misinformation. 

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