By Anders Lorenzen
In the last few years, the term ‘fake news’ has more frequently appeared in the modern vernacular than ever before. It has been suggested that ‘fake news’ contributed to the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result.
But when it comes to climate change, ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon, it has existed for as long as we have been discussing human-induced climate change – even scientific consensus hasn’t curbed its existence.
While the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter publicly support action on climate change, they have not been willing to deal with the flow of climate denialism on their platforms. As, at the end of the day, it generates what they want; traffic on their platforms.
The amount of climate denying crap filling up their platforms is quite frankly staggering. It is becoming clear they have no interest in regulating it. And why would they? In their eyes being interested would lose them customers and potentially reduce growth – and profits almost always come before ethics
For instance typing ‘what is climate change?’ into Google, I get a climate change denying article on the very first page. In this instance a Spectator article claiming that climate change might even be good for us. While similar articles will be doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, being shared thousands of times. And the more times it is shared the more visible it becomes to other people – that is the nature of the game and how their algorithms work.
What the likes of Facebook and Google should be doing, is, in fact, downgrading these sites, so they’re less likely to come up in search results and news feeds. These sites are also disseminating untruths, twisted interpretations of data and knowledge whilst, sometimes, showcasing outright lies without any credible scientific backing. Today’s fast-paced social media streams are based on emotive clickbait tactics, many won’t actually read an article before sharing, but like the dramatic headline and so, off we go.
The problem with today’s algorithms is that they’re based on keywords and not facts. And they’re gearing up for a less truthful world. To generate high amounts of traffic, articles have to be dramatic and emotional. Where a clickbait themed article ought to be downgraded on search engines and social media sites, in fact, the opposite happens – it becomes more visible. The honest truth remains that it is difficult to produce a fact-based, precise and concise article that at the same time will feature highly in search rankings. Therefore publishers are consequently pushed to create less accurate news.
And it’s a big problem that fact-based news is not featured as high as the watered down and less truthful, as it gives climate deniers an audience that they should never have had, with very little consequences for the publisher.
In the ‘fake news’ debate a lot of focus has been on shutting down Russian propaganda websites and others that have originated in the Eastern Europe. But if we are to tackle ‘fake news’ we really ought to look much closer to home.
The tech giants should downgrade sites such as the Daily Mail, Fox News, What’s Up With That, and thousands other blogs every time they produce inaccurate articles on climate change. This cannot, of course, be done manually, but algorithms should be engineered in such a way that they spot these things. Whilst also building in an ability to factor in fact checks to move away from visibility based solely on emotional keywords.
Tech giants have disrupted progress on climate change in a significant way, and in a short space of time. If the will really is there, they can, and should, redress this fact.