In October, ahead of the U.N. COP 26 climate summit, Google pledged to stop displaying ads on websites and YouTube videos that promoted climate misinformation. But in November and December the company ran ads on at least 50 posts undermining climate science, according to new research.
The problem isn’t limited to Google. Facebook in November said it was expanding efforts to boost accurate content about climate misinformation. But the research to be released Thursday from the left-leaning group Avaaz shows that between Jan. 1, 2020 and Nov. 11, the company allowed 92 ads containing climate misinformation to run. In some instances, the ads remained after Facebook’s fact-checking partners debunked the posts.
The Avaaz study found that conservative groups, including PragerU and Turning Point USA, spent a combined $56,900 to promote climate misinformation through Facebook’s ad platform. The 92 ads were seen nearly 7 million times, the study found. Turning Point USA’s video “Climate Change Panic is Not Based On Facts” ran as an ad from June 21 to June 26, even after Facebook’s fact checking partner Climate Feedback rated it as inaccurate. PragerU ran a 16-part ad campaign that contained a video that Facebook fact check partners rated as “partly false.”
Facebook has rejected the ads associated with the PragerU video, and it is reviewing the other ads identified in the report. “All climate-related ads are included in our public Ad Library for everyone to see, which provides greater visibility for those ads than television or newspapers,” said Devon Kearns, spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook.
Several posts in the study on Google ads painted concerns over the existence of climate change as “alarmism.”
“Obama spent a good chunk of his speech stoking both climate alarmism and hostility toward Donald Trump,” said one November article from Townhall Media. In the speech, President Barack Obama referred to climate change as an “existential” problem — a view shared by many scientists and world leaders.
There were multiple posts from the website Electroverse, including one that falsely claimed “there are no credible scientists warning of a ‘climate emergency’ — not a single one.” After The Post brought these findings to Google’s attention, the company will stop running ads on the entire Electroverse website.
“It should not be considered a ‘violation’ to disagree with a scientific theory,” Cap Allon, the owner of the website, said in an email to The Post.
Google policies focus on content that specifically contradicts the “scientific consensus” on climate change’s existence, such as claims that there’s no evidence that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming. The company looks carefully at context, and draws a line between content that states a false claim as fact and content that reflects the public debate about climate change, according to company spokesman Michael Aciman.
“We recently launched a new industry-leading policy that explicitly prohibits ads from appearing next to false claims about the existence and causes of climate change,” Aciman said in a statement. “When we find content that crosses the line from policy debate to promoting climate change denial, we stop serving ads on that page or site. We’ve reviewed the pages shared with us and have taken appropriate enforcement actions.”
But as the science and public thinking around climate change has grown more urgent, misinformation has begun to evolve into grayer areas, making it harder to identify and detect. That makes enforcement more challenging for major tech companies, especially years of stagnancy in combating climate change denialism on their platforms.
“It’s difficult to deny climate change because people can see it’s happening,” said Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. In the face of this consensus, he said, denialism has gotten more sophisticated. “We’re seeing other tactics that have the same end purpose: to prevent us from moving away from fossil fuels. … One of those tactics is division.”
Mann said though the most egregious forms of misinformation can probably be detected through automation, more human review is needed from tech platforms to deal with more “subtle” forms of misinformation. He argued climate misinformation is a greater threat than covid-19 misinformation, which companies have invested in combating, because it has the potential to cost more lives than the pandemic.
“These social media companies are basically aiding and abetting this effort from bad actors to prevent us from acting from greatest challenge we face as a civilization,” said Mann, the author of “The New Climate War.”
Some of the articles identified in the research appeared to blatantly contradict the broad scientific consensus that the climate is warming, a process accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels. One Nov. 24 article, running a Google ad, in the conservative publication Breitbart refers to global warming as a “hoax,” and questions why “leftists” who believe in its existence are buying property on California’s coasts. In a previous report, CCDH found Breitbart’s content has outsize influence over climate change denial on Facebook.
Breitbart spokeswoman Elizabeth Moore specified that the story was an opinion piece adding that CCDH has “absolute intolerance for discussion, disagreement, or evidence.”
The wide reach of Google’s platforms, especially its ad network, makes it difficult to enforce these policies across the Internet. One commentary published on the conservative news site the Western Journal claimed “Whether the climate is changing — and whether it is caused by man — are questions not answered definitively.”
George Upper, the publication’s editor in chief, said in an email that the publication removes Google ads from pieces that “could be interpreted as violating Google’s policy regarding climate change-related content.” But the ad was placed by an automated publishing tool.
“The issue is the ubiquitousness of Google,” he wrote. “There’s no realistic way that any publisher, short of publishing only ads through direct sales, could eliminate all Google ads from a site — or that Google could realistically guarantee that its ads would never appear on a given site or with given types of content.”
Amid increasing political concern and media scrutiny of the impacts of global warming, in recent months many tech companies have adopted more aggressive policies to stamp out falsehoods. Facebook created a Climate Science Center to connect people with authoritative resources, and it announced it would expand it to more than 100 countries. It also is adding informational labels to posts about climate change, which direct people to the center.
But, the findings suggest that misinformation is still slipping through the cracks.
“It appears Google is spreading disinformation about its efforts to fight disinformation,” quipped Michael Khoo, co-chair of the climate change disinformation coalition at Friends of the Earth, in a statement.
Both Avaaz and Center for Countering Digital Hate have been influential among Democratic lawmakers addressing misinformation on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whose office reviewed the CCDH findings, said he would use his authority as chair of the House Oversight subcommittee on the environment to “bring in the leaders of the tech companies to address misinformation on social media.”
“ … Tech companies are still allowing climate deniers to use their platforms to spread misinformation,” Khanna said. “Until that changes, we won’t be able to muster up the public support necessary to solve the climate crisis.”