Monday, January 08, 2018

Undermining the public good on Climate Change--online


It’s profoundly disturbing that a bad meme like climate denial still infects the minds of so many people.  The denialists’ objective is to sow doubt on the science of Climate Change and thwart a viable future for all of us. Much is being accomplished by many virtuous people around the world to alter our behavior, so that we can address Climate Change. But many of those efforts are being seriously undermined by the Trump administration and others using insidious online tactics that must be brought to light.

You might have missed this story in the New York Times or avoided it because articles about online search engines seem a little too wonky and ‘special interest’ for the general reader. (Wonderfully, Climate Change articles are now viewed by our mainstream media as quite fitting for general public consumption.) The climate denial aspects of the article below are plain enough, but how the deniers are gaming our internet via search engines might not captivate most readers.

How Climate Change Deniers Rise to the Top in Google Searches Groups that reject established climate science can use the search engine’s advertising business to their advantage, gaming the system to find a mass platform for false or misleading claims. Type the words “climate change” into Google and you could get an unexpected result: advertisements that call global warming a hoax. “Scientists blast climate alarm,” said one that appeared at the top of the search results page during a recent search, pointing to a website, DefyCCC, that asserted: “Nothing has been studied better and found more harmless than anthropogenic CO2 release.” Another ad proclaimed: “The Global Warming Hoax — Why the Science Isn’t Settled,” linking to a video containing unsupported assertions, including that there is no correlation between rising levels of greenhouse gases and higher global temperatures. (December 29, 2018) New York Times [more on Climate Change in our area]  

Back in the early 1990’s, before I started RochesterEnvironment.com, I began a blog, Green Solitaire. My agenda, as the internet was blossoming, was to bring together as much of the increasingly available environmental information, resources, and studies as I could. The media, universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even branches of government themselves were putting material online free for the public. To my mind, this was a giant leap forward in information/communication about our life support system, unparalleled in history. Suddenly, everyone had access to real-time and comprehensive data about the state of our environment. RochesterEnvironment.com, which I began in 1998, does more of this sort of thing than my first website, but views the now incalculable wealth of environmental information through the lens of one community—Rochester, NY.

One of the most popular things I did on Green Solitaire was to help other environmental websites get noticed by the myriad online search engines. (What good is your information if no one can find it?) It was a lot of work trying to pool as much information about how search engines located and displayed information so that the public could find it. Back then, the internet needed a good Librarian. Those in our loosely knit group would tweak our websites so that our chances of being found were more likely. We’d figure out how to jump through the many hoops the old search engines used in order to get a high ranking.

It was an especially difficult challenge for environmental websites, as we weren’t selling anything. We were not interested in hiring companies to place us prominently on search engines and we were not going to pay for ‘hits.’ We weren’t advocating for a special interest cause, or trying to amuse a growing internet community in thrall to what this new medium could offer. Environmental information, especially before Climate Change, wasn’t an automatic attention grabber. But we tried a lot of things, including listing each other’s site on our sites.   

Then Google arrived in September of 1998. In quick order, environmental sites, any sites really, that continually put up new information and got linked with other sites got noticed. Whether they paid anyone or not. RochesterEnvironment.com did well because when you searched for anything relating to Rochester and environmental issues, my site came up early in your search. Getting environmental resources to folks looking for them became a no brainer.  

Today, things are different. Social media has become what internet visitors attend to, while websites, especially environmental websites, are often stranded by their own inherent inactivity. In other words, social media is important in driving visitors to the websites where all the accumulated information resides. But social media postings are too ephemeral for studying an issue in depth.

So, it is with great dismay that we find that rather than trying to get important information to people, especially environmental information that has always had to struggle for attention, far too many bad players are trying to game the very system meant to bring us incredibly important information. The effort to control what information people get on the internet and how they get it seems as busy an industry as information gathering itself—making it less likely the public will be informed about our environment. Within the timeframe of the rise of the internet, our past environmental concerns have morphed into the mother of all problems under the planetary crisis of Climate Change.

But instead of having a thoughtful discussion in the US on the most important crisis in the world, we are still waging a war over the facts we already know. We could have used the time since Dr. James Hansen informed Congress of the urgency of Climate Change in 1988 to better purpose. Now, decades later, after little progress in addressing Climate Change, it’s more likely there will be a stiff penalty for the procrastination resulting from the corruption of our information systems, when we could have instead been making our information feeds more useful. Killing the messenger is another craven meme humanity is all too good at.

It’s in the public’s best interest to know as much as possible about Climate Change, as this warming phenomenon grows stronger every day. It will impact every aspect of our lives—everywhere you live on Earth. It’s not in the public’s best interest to have their minds poisoned with intentional misinformation from those whose agenda is immediate self-interest.    


Time passes. 

No comments: