Dear EarthTalk: Is Google doing anything to stop the spread of climate misinformation online?
— P. Hanson, Washington, DC
The advent of the Internet and smartphone innovations brought information to our fingertips. As the number of users has grown rapidly, advertisers have identified lucrative opportunities to meet people where they are. Google is a household name with 87% market share and hosting billions of users. Surveys of Google users show that they believe it produces reliable search results.
73 percent of users believe that most or all of the information they find in search is accurate and reliable; however, 68% of users could not tell the difference between an ad and an organic search result. This helps potentially malicious advertisers spreading climate misinformation.
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Google has addressed widespread climate misinformation ahead of the 26th annual meeting of the United Nations (UN) Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2021; the internet giant has pledged to stop showing ads promoting climate misinformation. The commitment came alongside other advertisers pressuring Google not to display their products alongside climate misinformation.
Google’s commitment has come under fire as there are questions about the legality of their pledge. “It appears that Google is spreading misinformation about efforts to combat disinformation,” said Michael Koo, co-chair of Friends of the Earth’s climate change disinformation coalition. In two years, Google received about 24 million dollars in advertising from oil giants. According to the Center to Combat Digital Hate (CCDH), $10.9 million of that $24 million was spent on greenwashing ads that were viewed 58.6 million times. These ads target keyword searches, including information about greenhouse gases, renewable energy, and “green” companies. In addition, since the pledge, Google has received $421,000 for ads from climate denial groups with tags such as “climate campaigners fuel global warming risks” and “fossil fuels make the planet safer.”
The CCDH outlined the steps Google needs to take to make its claims about its stance on climate disinformation a reality. The first step would be to stop climate denial ads and ads promoting greenwashing. In addition, CCDH suggests that Google provide a transparent library of its ads so that the public can examine how ads are placed and how they may be distorting search results. Finally, the CCDH proposes the creation of a legal framework to ensure transparency, accountability and responsibility of all online platforms, not just Google.
These recommendations are a good starting point, but there is no guarantee that Google will follow them. In addition, users should be armed with the skills to identify climate disinformation. Common tactics used by proponents of climate disinformation include: false experience, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, conspiracy theories, and cherry-picked information. The best way to combat these tactics is to be a cautious consumer of online information. Be prepared to check the source of the information you find and get into the habit of developing a mixed news diet.