March 2024

Reducing the Footprint of Misinformation Around Climate Change By Emma Lacey, SVP EMEA | IAB UK

Reducing the footprint of misinformation around climate change

Despite serious efforts to negate its impact, misinformation around climate change continues to abound on the internet.

On both the open web and platforms, the impact of this content can be hugely damaging – and what’s worse is that brands can sometimes inadvertently support climate change misinformation through their ad spend.

Brands globally are greatly shifting how they operate to become more sustainable, but the truth is that none of that matters to consumers if ads are found adjacent to climate misinformation. 

So, why does climate misinformation continue to spread online, how can brands avoid finding their ads near this content, and why is better brand safety and suitability a positive for the entire ecosystem?

Climate change misinformation is a widespread issue in the digital landscape. A study by The Reuters Institute found three-quarters of UK respondents had encountered fake climate change stories – primarily from online sources. This is bad news for consumers who want to be informed by fact-based information. It’s also bad news for brands who don’t want their ads next to unsuitable or false content.

Climate misinformation can quickly gain attention due to a variety of factors, highlighting the need for greater awareness, education, and innovation to combat its impacts. One online post gaining popularity in France, for example, denied the connection between CO2 emissions and climate change – a claim proven as groundless by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Another instance saw a series of viral online posts inaccurately interpreting data to claim that the levels of Arctic ice are increasing – falsely concluding that climate change isn’t real.

Brands are strongly affected by climate change misinformation. Around four-fifths (82%) of marketers agree that a brand’s public image is damaged when its ads appear next to unsuitable content, with one in four brands experiencing negative press as a result. Shoppers agree on the damage advertising near misinformation can cause. Half of customers reveal they would not purchase from a brand appearing next to questionable content — preventing a brand-customer relationship that could have otherwise prospered. Furthermore, 87% of audiences agree that it is a brand’s responsibility to ensure their ads are appearing in suitable environments.

Ads from notable brands appearing next to these posts can inadvertently bolster their misleading claims, while also funding illegitimate publishers through ad spend.

Why climate change misinformation spreads online

Psychology plays a role in why climate misinformation spreads online. As humans, we have evolved to use minimal mental effort to make sense of the world as quickly as possible. This means information is filtered through our personal preferences and experiences leading to the development of cognitive biases. Unfortunately, this means humans rarely use the extra effort needed to evaluate the accuracy of content and so take what it is saying at face value.

The illusory truth effect is another factor that affects how we view online content. This theory states that an audience’s judgement of information is skewed based on how frequently they are exposed to it. On social media, where posts can go viral across multiple platforms, repeatedly exposing someone to the same misinformation can compound their belief in it.

Financial incentives also impact the spread of climate misinformation. Advertising spend, often allocated through automated programmatic ad exchanges, can end up supporting distributors of misinformation – despite preventative measures. By unwittingly allocating ad spend to sources of climate misinformation, brands financially incentivise distributors of misinformation to perpetuate their activities and give the impression they are intentionally supporting misleading claims about the climate. This can be particularly harmful to the wider sustainability strategy of an advertiser.

How brands can tackle climate misinformation

Given the reputational damage and accidental funding of misinformation, many brands naturally want to take steps to reduce their association with climate misinformation.

One way brands have tried to tackle this is through the use of keyword block lists. Block lists are, however, not nuanced enough to tackle online misinformation. These blunt tools lead not only to potentially harmful ad placements but can also obstruct ad placement for reputable sources – therefore limiting ad views in high quality locations. For example, art

For example, numerous advertisers blocking climate-related keywords to avoid climate misinformation have prevented their ads from generating revenue across brand safe content. This problem becomes even more challenging when dealing with particularly complex video content.

Brands instead need to embrace industry-wide standards, such as those laid out by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM). GARM acts as a cross-industry forum to align online advertisers and publishers on shared priorities for the removal of harmful content. The dangers of misinformation, and its wide-reaching consequences for society and brands, prompted GARM to introduce it as a category within its Brand Safety Floor and Suitability Framework in 2022. This has helped brands to become more aware of the importance of monitoring misinformation and has provided key, unified guidelines for identifying and demonetising it during the media planning, targeting, and optimisation process.

AI-driven brand suitability solutions are also increasingly effective at tackling climate misinformation. Dynamic content can be intelligently categorised, based on its context and sentiment, through AI’s ability to comprehensively interpret its suitability. By analysing the accompanying nuances and contextual environments of content, brands can not only navigate complex online ecosystems with greater safety but also ensure they are not being blocked from contextually suitable content.

As the capabilities of AI detection technology are continually developing, having additional human moderation is important when combating online misinformation as content subtleties can be grasped more thoroughly. Combining powerful AI technology and human oversight offers brands the safest way to scale targeted campaigns in rapidly growing online platforms. 

Combating climate misinformation is no easy feat in ever-evolving online environments. Although online platforms are taking measures to tackle fake news, brands also carry the responsibility of ensuring their advertising spend doesn’t fund distributors of misinformation. This is not only essential for creating a safer internet but also for ensuring brands avoid long-term damage to their reputations. 

By Emma Lacey, SVP EMEA


Zefr is a technology company that delivers precision content targeting solutions for brands on YouTube. 

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