Yesterday, I wrote a short post about Google’s Top Stories module. If you were in the US and googled “great barrier reef” on Wednesday, you’d be presented with a Breitbart article filled with ravings about how climate change isn’t real, featured at the very top in the site’s highlighted “Top Stories” box. When I went to the company’s press team to see what was up, they assured me it was perfectly normal for an article written by a noted climate change denier to get pinned to the top of Google’s results.
In fact, a Google spokesperson told me via email that the job of a search engine is to present a range of news and views from across the spectrum. In theory, that sounds great, but maybe there should be an exception carved out for complete nonsense on climate science? If Google serves a climate denying Breitbart article within its search results, that’s fine. At a very basic level, the Google search engine works by crawling and indexing the web, and does its best to present relevant links based on the search query. If some wild conspiracy is added to the results as a product of crawling the web, I can live with that. But presenting baseless climate lies in the sectioned off Top Stories module, something Google has complete control over, gives the article an appearance of credibility it certainly doesn’t deserve.
Google’s defence of the story appearing in the Top Stories module was that it appears alongside other points of view. Unfortunately for Google, what’s happening in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef isn’t exactly a point of view, but more of a consensus among scientists and climate experts. It’s irresponsible for Google to carelessly attach some implicit credibility to a story that is pushing garbage climate denial.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that the president of the country Google is headquartered in has employed former Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, and an increasing number of Americans are reading the website’s toxic untruths as fact. The company has a lot of responsibility here, and it has tried to shed virtually all of it. Google should make the legitimately difficult but correct decision to filter out climate denial from its Top Stories module. It is simply the right thing to do, and Google knows it. Google can present whatever range of views it pleases, but pushing climate change denial goes beyond that, reaching into the territory of active harm.
There are some things in this world that are simply just true, and climate change is one of them. Climate change also happens to be one of the greatest threats to the world at large, and at the very least, Google, as one of the world’s biggest information providers, could do a good job by not highlighting falsehoods about it.
In November, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that it was important that services like Google promote accurate stories, saying, “From our perspective, there should just be no situation where fake news gets distributed.” Not promoting lies about climate science might be a good place to start.