In July, Tommaso Boggia, a climate activist turned programmer, swiped to the Google Discover tab on his phone to scan the headlines the company had algorithmically selected for him. He was shocked to find a climate change denial website prominently featured in his feed. The next day, it happened again.
Boggia didn’t click on the link — which led to a blog post titled “Bipartisan Panel of Scientists Confirms Humans are NOT Responsible for Past 20,000 Years of Global Warming” — but he did screenshot it, peeved that Google’s algorithms were promoting content that disputes our current climate crisis. Discover promises to “surface relevant content to you,” so why was it showing him articles disputing the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused global warming?
Boggia was not alone. BuzzFeed News spoke to eight people who said they received climate change denial articles on Discover, a feed of content tailored to individual users that appears as a dedicated tab on Google phones, on the Google search app, and on the Google mobile homepage. All these individuals — who were either interested in climate change or held environmental jobs — questioned why Google was uncovering and promoting content from such sources, which ranged from an anti–climate change lobbyist’s website to a personal blog espousing the “global warming hypocrisy.”
In recent months, Google has faced mounting criticism from the public and lawmakers for its role in spreading misinformation, including flat Earth conspiracies and anti-vaccination videos, and for the lack of transparency around the algorithms that prioritize that content. And while the company has taken steps to combat conspiracies and bogus science on its properties, including YouTube, its active pushing of climate change denialism on Discover concerns climate researchers, who believe the search and advertising giant has a duty to prevent the spread of false information.
“Google is aiding and abetting the promulgation of climate science misinformation,” said Robert Brulle, a sociology professor focusing on environmental science at Drexel University and Brown University. “They are unwittingly spreading misinformation and they have to take responsibility for that.”
A Google spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about how Discover, which is used by more than 800 million people a month, selects information sources, noting only that it was curated “via algorithm.” Provided with an example of a climate denier site that was being promoted on Discover, a page titled “The Deplorable Climate Science Blog,” the spokesperson said the company would “take action against the site” for violating policies around “transparency” and directed BuzzFeed News to a set of rules for publishers on Google News — an entirely different product. The spokesperson did not clarify if Google considered or categorized the climate change denier site as news.
These blogs are spewing “denial 101,” said Kert Davies, a climate activist and director of Climate Investigations Center. “They want people to lose faith in the science or have uncertainty around science,” he said.
Eric McDaniel, a journalist who maintains a daily climate headline newsletter, noticed the Deplorable Climate Science Blog at the top of his Discover feed last month. A few days later — just above a CNN story about the Amazon fires — the Google service served him a post titled “The Iconic Image of the Global Warming Movement Is a Fraud” from a publication called the Mike Smith Enterprises Blog.
While Discover users can tailor the topics they’d like to see on their feeds, the service also curates based on a person’s search and web browsing history. McDaniel told BuzzFeed News he had never visited or even heard of Deplorable Climate Science Blog or Mike Smith Enterprises Blog. But when he reviewed his Discover settings, he found Google had served him that content because it had determined he was interested in “global warming.”
“It’s spectacularly good at surfacing content that it thinks is relevant to me right now,” McDaniel said, adding that Discover has fed him college basketball scores and recommendations for Amsterdam when it knew he was visiting the city. Climate crisis denialism was one of the few aberrations McDaniel has seen, something he believed was surfaced to him because Google’s algorithms have categorized it as relevant information about global warming.
Why does @Google keep recommending me climate change denial articles? Insidious. Clicking the "not interested in" option isn't useful since I am interested in climate change news. At least label it denialism so I can reject it outright.
— Eitan (@elkensky) August 10, 2019
BuzzFeed News found at least eight different climate denial sites promoted on Discover. Among them were leading climate change denial blog Watts Up With That? and the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a UK-based lobbying group that contests the scientific consensus on global warming.
“At first, I was confused by them,” H. Curtis Spalding, an environmental professor at Brown University and former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, told BuzzFeed News of the climate crisis denial blogs that appeared in Discover early this summer. Spalding said he clicked on one, thinking it was a legitimate news site, causing Google’s algorithm to serve him even more in the following weeks.
In recent years, climate change deniers have exploited Google’s products to challenge scientific consensus on the climate crisis, buying paid search results and inundating YouTube with conspiracies and bogus theories. What’s happening on Discover is arguably worse, said critics, because Google is determining what people see without any kind of active search, while the company’s curation of such content can be viewed as a seal of approval.
BuzzFeed News spoke with the owners of three climate change denial sites that had been seen in Discover; all three were unaware their posts were being recommended. All three said they had done nothing different to optimize their sites for Google search, nor had they changed or increased any ad spending. Two of the three said they had noticed a steady increase in traffic, though were unclear why.
Robert Felix, who runs Ice Age Now, called it “good news” that his site was now appearing in Discover. Previously, he said, his page wouldn’t even come up if you did a search for the term “ice age.”
.@Google Discover figured out I'm interested in #climate change. Now the algorithm pushes climate denial content (which I almost never read) in my feed almost daily. @Googledevs, please stop this. On top of this content being factually inaccurate, it's incredibly harmful.
— J.C. Kibbey (@jckibbey) April 27, 2019
That’s “creepy,” said J.C. Kibbey, a Chicago-based climate activist, who first noticed the denial content in his Discover feed back in April. Since then, he’s been monitoring his feed and the provenance of each of the articles. Last month, Kibbey said he was seeing as many as three bogus climate science stories a day in his feed.
“It’s already a struggle to get the right accurate information into folks’ hands,” he said, calling Google’s algorithm “a black box.”
“Maybe the benign answer is that their algorithm doesn’t distinguish between truth or fiction,” he added.