Google embraces misinformation

The tech giant's support for climate denial groups represents a shift in company strategy.

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Google under fire

Last week, I went on NPR’s Science Friday to discuss—among other things—a big story in The Guardian about Google.

The story revealed that Google “made ‘substantial’ contributions to some of the most notorious climate deniers in Washington, despite [the company’s] insistence that it supports political action on the climate crisis.” Groups like The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Koch-funded Mercatus Center, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation are all receiving Google money, the article read. All of those groups have played major roles in spreading climate denial and misinformation.

The story is a textbook example of greenwashing. The term refers to when a company tries to appear more environmentally friendly than it really is. And Google has been widely accused of greenwashing since the Guardian’s story ran.

But Google’s funding of climate denial groups is not primarily a story about environmental hypocrisy. It’s a story about how America’s largest information source is actively funding misinformation despite multiple promises to do the opposite, and undermining its own good work on climate in the process.


A tale of two Googles

Today, Google sees no problem with funding large conservative policy groups that dabble in climate misinformation.

“We’ve been extremely clear that Google’s sponsorship doesn’t mean that we endorse that organisation’s entire agenda—we may disagree strongly on some issues,” a company spokesperson told the Guardian.

That wasn’t the case five years ago, though. In 2014, Google pulled its financial support for the American Legislative Exchange Council—a large conservative policy group with many policy agendas but which also spread denial of climate change—because it was spreading misinformation. Google’s then-executive chairman Eric Schmidt said the company had funded the group for other policy reasons, but that ultimately, funding climate denial was a “mistake:”

[Google] has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts—what a shock. And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore.

Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place.

And so we should not be aligned with such people—they’re just, they’re just literally lying.

It’s unclear what happened in the last five years that made Google change its mind about being affiliated with climate denial groups.

What is clear is that the misinformation Google is funding represents a far bigger threat to the climate than Google’s own carbon emissions.


A self-sabotaging act

Google is, to its credit, doing a lot when it comes to climate change.

Just last month, the company claimed to have made the "biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history," adding to an already-huge fleet on renewable power. Google has said it owns enough renewable power to match its annual electricity consumption.

But while Google’s actions to ramp down its own carbon emissions are important, they won’t have that big of an actual impact on the climate. As Axios’ Ben Geman noted last month, “corporate commitments won't change the underlying trend of global carbon emissions on track to bring warming that blows past the Paris Agreement's temperature goals.”

Changing the underlying trend of global carbon emissions requires national policy changes—and the climate denial groups funded by Google are doing everything they can to ensure such national policy changes never happen.

Thus, by funding these groups, Google is effectively sabotaging its own efforts to make a difference in the climate fight.

It’s also supporting the exact kind of organized misinformation campaign it claims to be working diligently to dismantle.


Google’s responsibility

The biggest obstacle to climate action is widespread misinformation. And the only way to fight misinformation is to make the truth louder.

Google has acknowledged its responsibility to spreading truth. Earlier this year, the company released a white paper detailing all the steps the company is taking to fight the spread of misinformation on its platform.

In a blog post about the paper, the company acknowledged that it had an “important responsibility” to “provide useful and trusted information.”

Google also recognized, however, that meeting that responsibility would be difficult. “Over the last several years, we’ve seen organized campaigns use online platforms to deliberately spread false or misleading information,” the post read. It said that these organized misinformation campaigns pose “complex” challenges, but that solving those challenges is “what we strive to do better than anyone else.”

“We hope this paper and increased transparency can lead to more dialogue about what we and others can do better on these issues,” it concluded. “We're committed to acting responsibly and thoroughly as we tackle this important challenge.”

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