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As the Australian Government talks tough on Big Tech, where’s the big picture?

Below are two reports addressing recent concerns about the impacts of Big Tech on public health.

The first article examines the Australian Government’s recent tough-talking; the second article, published via the Covering Climate Now collaboration, provides a United States perspective on imperatives to address climate disinformation.


Melissa Sweet writes:

The Morrison Government today announced a Parliamentary inquiry to examine “toxic material on social media platforms and the dangers this poses to the wellbeing of Australians”.

Whether this inquiry will be a meaningful opportunity to address the wide-ranging public health and other policy concerns associated with Big Tech is another matter.

Its timeline – with hearings to start this month and the report due in February, presumably with a Federal election campaign in mind – does not suggest there will be a capacity to engage deeply with the complexity of the issues involved.

Lucy Wicks, MP for the Robertson electorate on the News South Wales central coast, is to chair the inquiry but when Croakey rang her office today for more details, we were told the terms of reference weren’t yet available. Nor were dates for the hearings.

So we will wait to see if the terms of reference mention concerns like racism, hate speech, disinformation and misinformation. We will also wait to see if the companies that use digital platforms to market disinformation and other unhealthy products are targeted. And what about the political vectors of disinformation and misinformation?

The Government clearly perceives electoral benefit in being seen to be tough on Big Tech, although there are many questions and concerns about its “world-leading” plans, announced earlier this week, to force social media giants to unmask anonymous online trolls.

See, for example,’The government’s planned ‘anti-troll’ laws won’t help most victims of online trolling’ and ‘Why ending anonymity would not make social media better‘.

Peter Lewis is co-editor of a new book, ‘The Public Square Project: Reimagining our Digital Future’

It is politically revealing that today’s announcement is very much angled around the concerns of “mums and dads” about keeping “kids safe online”.

However, if the safety of children really is the priority, then perhaps the inquiry’s terms of reference could take a comprehensive approach to addressing how misinformation and disinformation are affecting public health concerns ranging from COVID to the climate crisis.

Read more below about the importance of tackling disinformation as part of climate action, in an article first published in the United States by The Nation.


Amy Westervelt writes:

In the past month or so, climate disinformation has been making its way into the news more than usual. There was the House Oversight Committee’s climate disinformation hearing in October, and then, just days later, leaked documents from Facebook revealed its role in spreading climate denial.

The Oversight Committee’s investigation continues, as does the work to fully understand social media’s role in disinformation, about climate and otherwise.

But for all we know about disinformation and how dangerously effective it can be, tackling the problem rarely makes its way into conversations focused on climate solutions. This raises the question: How are you going to implement new green technology or policies without eliminating the obstacle that’s helped block both for decades?

At COP26 in Glasgow, a group of organisers, brands, and advertisers published an open letter calling for disinformation to be on the negotiators’ agenda.

Signatories included climate leaders like May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, and Laurence Tubiana, the CEO of European Climate Foundation; NGOs, like Friends of the Earth and WWF; and brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Virgin Media O2.

They had straightforward asks: an agreed-upon definition of climate disinformation, action against climate dis/misinformation to be included in the COP26 Negotiated Outcome, and for tech companies to adopt policies that would crack down on the spread of climate disinformation in both content and advertising.

Climate disinformation, unfortunately, did not make its way into the COP26 negotiations.

Had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports included contributions from social scientists on the role of media and information in tackling climate before the conference instead of next year, as they’re scheduled to be, perhaps that would have been different.

In the lead-up to the event, though, Google did announce a new policy aimed at addressing this problem. In partnership with the Conscious Advertising Network, the tech giant said that it will now “prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”

That policy doesn’t just affect Google advertisers but YouTube creators as well, which is a big deal given that YouTube has been pushing climate disinformation to millions of viewers for years.

But one policy at one tech platform is not a systemic solution. When pressed about potential outcomes of the House climate disinformation investigation, congressional representatives seemed at a loss about what they could even be proposing to grapple with the threat.

There’s a lot of talk of fining the oil companies, of Department of Justice investigations, and of providing more fodder for the two dozen or so climate lawsuits currently in state courts, but nothing around changing the system that enables disinformation in the first place – nothing that would stop the next strategy from working or keep the next industry from lying to the American people. Instead, the focus remains on making Big Oil the next Big Tobacco.

But after its momentary embarrassment and a few fines, tobacco went on to profit and, perhaps more importantly, to keep deceiving the public about other products. And the oil companies, many of which were co-defendants with the tobacco companies, for their role in developing the cigarette filter, watched that and learned. They pivoted almost immediately away from litigating the science.

One former Shell employee told writer Nathaniel Rich, for his story ‘Losing Earth’, that the oil companies “didn’t want to get caught in our lies the same way the tobacco guys did”. So all that supposed accountability for disinformation just resulted in making companies better at spreading it.

To solve the disinformation problem, we have to understand that it, too, is an industry. PR firms, hired to help companies and industries avoid regulation and circumvent democracy, built and fine-tuned the disinformation machine over more than a century.

The House Oversight Committee has said it will broaden its investigation of climate disinformation beyond the fossil fuel industry to its enablers – PR firms chief amongst them.

The activist campaign Clean Creatives has been pressuring the PR industry to own its role in crafting and spreading disinformation, and to ditch fossil fuel clients altogether. In response to recent criticism of its work with ExxonMobil (after decades spent helping oil companies and their trade groups create and spread both disinformation and greenwashing), Edelman PR announced it will be undertaking a 60-day review of its client roster.

Some academics and advocates have begun calling for more than public shaming. “I think that their past actions provide justification for holding them to a higher standard than you would normally hold a company,” Stanford University researcher Ben Franta said.

“They need to come under some level of special scrutiny, something that goes beyond mere transparency, that goes beyond disclosure. It’s almost like an information receivership.”

We don’t necessarily have a solution to climate disinformation yet. But it’s clear it will not be dismantled by a company policy here and a congressional investigation there.

A problem this large and complex requires concerted effort to solve – and we can’t even start until a critical mass of people realise that doing so is critical to the success of any climate solution.

Amy Westervelt is a journalist who runs Critical Frequency, a network of climate podcasts, including Drilled and Hot Take.

Further reading

This article, ‘The forgotten oil ads that told us climate change was nothing’ is a reminder that the disinformation and misinformation business has a long history that pre-dates Big Tech. It includes a selection of thousands of deceptive climate ads from the oil industry between 1984 to 2021.

The authors say: “The fossil fuel industry has perpetrated a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar disinformation, propaganda and lobbying campaign to delay climate action by confusing the public and policymakers about the climate crisis and its solutions.”


Amy Westervelt’s article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year to put the spotlight on the climate crisis. Croakey Health Media is a member of the collaboration, which was co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.


Read Croakey’s extensive archive of stories on the digital platforms and public health.

 

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