When it comes to responsibility for the spread of climate misinformation, the White House has its eyes on Big Tech.
During an Axios event on Thursday, Gina McCarthy, the White House's climate adviser, said tech companies need to crack down on the spread of false and misleading information about the climate crisis. While flat-out climate denial has waned, McCarthy said misinformation on major social media platforms persists in a different but “equally dangerous” form.
“The dark money is still there,” she said. “The fossil fuel companies are still basically trying their best to make sure that people don't understand the challenge of climate.”
Specifically, she said a small but vocal group of users are repeatedly using tech and social media platforms to sow doubt about the feasibility of the energy transition. The transition to zero-carbon technologies isn't just doable; it's necessary. And most importantly, it's happening. Yet McCarthy said the entrenched fossil fuel interests are "seeding, basically, doubt about the costs" of the clean energy.
"We need the tech companies to really jump in," she added.
Major tech companies — including, mostly recently, Twitter and Pinterest — have tried to tackle some forms of misinformation. In the case of Twitter, the company said it would block advertisements that “contradict the scientific consensus on climate change.”
However, the stripe of misinformation that McCarthy is most worried about continues to be insidious and widespread. A recent Media Matters study on the spread of climate and energy misinformation on Facebook found that a large portion of posts use “energy independence” as a justification for drilling for more fossil fuels, amid a lot of hand-wringing about our dependence on foreign energy. These kinds of posts are replete with inaccuracies and lies, but are rarely labeled as misinformation nor are they fact-checked.
Another report out this week from a coalition of advocacy groups shows misinformation tends to tick up around major events, such as last year's climate conference in Glasgow. Similar to McCarthy, the report's authors called for more concerted action by tech companies to ensure lie-laden posts don't spread, including potentially working together to prevent falsehoods from moving across platforms. Giving researchers and regulators more access to data could also help, as could coming up with common definitions of misinformation. It's clear from McCarthy's comments that the Biden administration is acutely aware of what's happening on social media, and it's watching what tech companies are — and aren't — doing to help stop the spread of misinformation.