In October 2021, Google promised it would address videos on its platform spreading climate denial and misinformation. The company introduced a new policy that would "prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change."
However, Google has not kept to its promise and has been profiting from advertising on YouTube, which is owned by Google, alleging that climate activists are exaggerating the dangers of climate change with some portraying it as a hoax, according to a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CAAD). The research discovered 100 videos, viewed at least 18 million times in total, that violated Google's own policy, according to The New York Times. Climate change has been proven many times, and its devastating impacts have been detailed through numerous studies.
"It really begs the question about what Google's current level of enforcement is," said Callum Hood, the head of research at CAAD. "I think it's fair to say it's probably the tip of the iceberg." On the flip side, Michael Aciman, a YouTube spokesman, emphasized that the platform encourages "policy debate or discussions of climate-related initiatives" but added that "when content crosses the line to climate change denial," they "remove ads from serving on those videos."
Is Google intentionally monetizing anti-climate content or is it caught in the fire of attempting to remain neutral?
"It's profitable and advances the agenda of the fossil-fueled status quo"
Google's lack of action regarding climate disinformation is "because it's profitable and advances the agenda of the fossil-fueled status quo," Erika Seiber wrote in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the questionable videos on YouTube come directly from fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil and conservative media outlets like Fox News, and "almost all the videos featured ads … which meant YouTube was generating revenue from the content," per the Times. The platform may have also directly paid the creators.
In addition, both the platform and the companies creating the ads are participating in greenwashing, in which companies "attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products," without taking legitimate climate action as defined by Investopedia. While oil companies are appearing to care about climate change, "the goal is the same the industry has had for decades: to delay action and protect profits for as long as possible," and "the biggest social media companies help amplify it," according to Mark Gongloff in Bloomberg.
"Disinformation and greenwashing are meant to, and will, delay effective climate action," remarked Harriet Kingaby in a piece for Common Dreams. "In democratic countries, where popular support informs government policy, it is a huge barrier."
"It's driven by ideological concerns and lacks any scientific merit"
Google and YouTube are actually not violating their own policies in allowing anti-climate videos on the platform, and the study is "driven by ideological concerns and lacks any scientific merit." The policy prohibits monetization of videos "that challenge the scientific consensus on the existence of and causes behind climate change" but doesn't include "ideological perspectives unrelated to the scientific consensus on human-made global warming," according to a piece in Cowboy State Daily.
The platforms balance "differentiating between content that states a false claim as fact versus content that reports on or discusses that claim," per Google's policy, and the company itself claims to be doing work to stop the spread of climate misinformation. However, "good intentions by brands may lead to unintentional greenwashing," according to Qiyun Woo, an executive member of the Climate Action Singapore Alliance, in Marketing-Interactive. "Greenwashing, intentional or not, breeds mistrust, and the inconsistency around what counts as green will eventually result in doubt being cast on brands."
"While many brands manage to do it right with meaningful campaigns and movements that have made significant impact, there are some brands that simply just miss the mark," commented Camillia Dass in Marketing-Interactive.