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Google, Greenwashing and Information Dystopia

When a student in a school in Copenhagen, Connetticut or Calcutta turn to the world’s biggest search machine, Google, and ask “How to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” or about “eco-friendly companies” or “net zero”, it is not unlikely that the results are directly paid for by the oil and gas industry.  

A new report from the nonprofit, Center for Countering Digital hate, reveal that nearly half of the $23.7 million spent on Google search ads by oil and gas companies in the last two years have targeted search terms on environmental sustainability. As they conclude: “Google sell search terms to the highest bidder, no matter the consequences“. 

In total Google accepted $23.7m for ads from Big Oil within the last two years. And today, according to the new report, Google Search is among the “newest weapons of choice” in greenwashing. Out of the $23.7m in total, Big Oil spent $10.9m to target US Google Search users with greenwashing ads in the last two years, which were viewed an estimated 58.6m times. These money include:

  • $1.8m to target users searching for information on greenhouse gasses 
  • $1.7m to target queries about renewables 
  • $1.2m to target queries about carbon offsets 
  • $5.2m to target users searching for information about Big Oil companies 

But, isn’t it obvious where to the line is between advertisement, propaganda and neutral information?

Well, not in Google search, it seems.

As an example, Google sells ads to the US’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil, at the top of the page. But 68% of users are unable to spot the difference between ads and organic search results. Moreover, studies show that only 0.63% of Google searchers will click on links shown in the second page of results.

Google dominates the global search engine market share, averaging an 86–96% market share worldwide. In the US Google is commanding a market share of 87% and here users have a high degree of trust in search engines: 73% believe that most or all of the information they find in search is accurate and trustworthy.

As the report concludes: “Google is not only complicit in the latest disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry, but actively profiting from this deception”. 

Before Google became our outsourced cognitive facility PR companies were main actors in the acts of “greenwashging” /that is the when companies use green messaging to appear more climate friendly and environmentally sustainable than they really are). For oil and gas companies this could be to: “distract and deceive the public about their role in the climate crisis, particularly when their business models and activities are undeniably key drivers of climate change”. 

It could look something like this:

I guess this it what Ian Brenner meant when in 2018 he tweeted: “The idea that we get our information as citizens through algorithms determined by the world’s largest advertising company is my definition of dystopia”.

What I wonder is: Will we ever learn?