A Re.Climate Interview
With Dr. Chris Russill, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University
Recently, Canada passed the Online News Act, which mandates tech platforms to pay Canadian news outlets for showing links to news articles. The government claims that the act introduces measures to financially support Canadian media. However, the act has sparked controversy, particularly when major platforms like Google and Meta announced plans to remove links to Canadian news outlets from their platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Google search engine.
The Online News Act has not yet been implemented, but the government’s decision to charge media platforms and the platforms’ subsequent actions have created uncertainty for many climate communicators.
To gain insight into the significance of this for climate communication, we spoke with Dr. Chris Russill, an academic director of Re.Climate and an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.
Let’s start with Bill C-18, also known as The Online News Act. Can you walk us through this recently passed legislation? What does it aim to achieve, and what is your perspective on such regulation to support Canadian media?
The online news act is one among a series of legislative efforts to sort out our relationship with large digital platforms like those operated by Meta and Google, whose policies, technical architecture, and business model have profound effects on our information environment. Canada, like the EU and Australia, is engaging these platforms on some of their more troubling consequences including privacy, but also issues that produce completely unacceptable harms such as threats to children, terrorist organizing and incitements to violence, etc. Climate communicators are well aware of the distortions to public debate and political process by climate misinformation on major platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, etc. The online news act is the piece of those ongoing legislative efforts dealing with Canadian news and, to some extent, the ad-based business models of these companies and their market domination. There is no question that the ad-tech systems of these platforms needs far greater transparency as does their approach to removing or amplifying content. These problems are not addressed in this act.
“There is no question these platforms are generating unacceptable harms. Until we have an act that requires them to share information on these harms, we cannot prepare properly.”
The decision by companies like Google and Meta to block Canadian news outlets from their platforms as a response to the revenue-sharing requirement of the Online News Act seems to many as another manifestation of tech giants controlling the information landscape. Do you share this view, and what are the implications of such control?
The most contentious aspect of the act, as you mention, involves this idea that platforms must meet certain conditions including a requirement to negotiate with news and media organizations in Canada whose content they use. This isn’t a contentious idea, it is done elsewhere, and those negotiations have been happening for many months here in Canada with many agreements already in place. So, as the concerns about ‘bullying by tech companies’ might indicate, we are dealing with a larger issue.
If the specific policy differences are resolved, it raises the question of whether the context for climate communication would be any different and I would say ‘not really,’ because this specific act doesn’t address problems that plague news on climate change or any of the key drivers of climate misinformation. In my view, the most pressing matter is transparency and accountability for the way platforms organize our information environment. It isn’t clear how they influence the information that shapes our culture and conversations. Their opaqueness is an intentional decision to shut out the civic sector and governments from the data they need to properly assess the situation. There is no question these platforms are generating unacceptable harms. Until we have an act that requires them to share information on these harms, how they deal with them, and on what basis they decide what’s harmful and demanding of action and what isn’t, we cannot prepare properly, regulate adequately, and so on. We need holistic data-sharing before we need partial revenue-sharing in my opinion.
If the Online News Act is implemented, and Google and Meta proceed with their plan to hide Canadian media from their platforms, what potential impact do you foresee on the spread and uptake of information or misinformation, particularly related to climate change?
If Google and Facebook interrupt the sharing of Canadian news, this would affect the media ecosystem for a substantial number of people, there is no question there.
It might be harder to challenge misinformation that scales up rapidly. Journalism plays an important role in flagging, fact-checking, and challenging false content, which can help slow or dampen the escalation of misinformation, and given that engagement with climate misinformation often heightens and intensifies in moments of crisis, this isn’t a good time to mess with the ingredients of our public discourse. For instance, misinformation about the causes of wildfires ramped up quickly on social media, was amplified by political voices to push it into the mainstream, but also fact-checked and debunked in an effective fashion by a number of Canadian journalists. This effort might be less successful should news be reduced or removed from circulation. Facebook is much slower and more inept than journalists on these problems.
Also, an ability to produce content that resembles news has never been easier, cheaper, or quicker. Conversational and generative AI can produce content that is indistinguishable from journalism for many people. In fact, news outlets already use these tools as do disinformation merchants. So malign actors might see a new opening to create news-like content to either spoof or stand in for the kinds of news content one used to receive. This is just a guess. But we do need to think about the intersections of AI and misinformation more seriously now. It is interesting that these companies share information on their AI systems but not about their ad-tech systems. I think that tells you something.
The last point I would make is that this situation isn’t a strange aberration that has suddenly appeared on the political scene. Digital platforms curate the information environment to optimize their data collection, analytical products, ad sales, and market position with little regard for the truth or authenticity of the content they amplify, and this problem is baked into their business model and been distorting of the climate conversation for years in reckless and harmful ways. It is the monetization of climate denial by Google and Meta, sometimes by accepting ads from organizations keen to undermine climate action, sometimes by placing ads from legitimate brands on sites with extremist or deceptive content. This has driven the climate misinformation problem to a significant degree. The incorporation of conversational and generative AI into their advertising systems has me worried, especially given the advertising collaborations of these platforms with carbon majors including the oil sands sector.
Climate communicators do a lot of work, staying up-to-date with both evolving climate policies and the changing media landscape. What are your tips for climate communicators navigating these changes in both spheres? And what can they do moving forward?
We would know a lot more about the relationship of climate policies and public discourse, including the impacts and solutions for misinformation, if the data about the media ecosystem was not so impossible to access from platforms in a timely way. We don’t have the knowledge we need for what is a solvable problem. My guess is that advertising agencies and strategic consultancies working with digital platforms have more knowledge than academics, regulators, or journalists. So I’d recommend becoming familiar with the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and with members of the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD). Covering Climate Now (CCN) has begun partnering with CAAD on briefings, advisories, and tip-sheets for journalists, so I would engage with that network to stay up to date on the general discussion.
In Canada, we need to come together via something modeled on European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO). Fact-checkers, media literacy experts, and academic researchers work together in collaboration with media organizations, digital platforms, and media education practitioners. It is funded by the EU, based at a university in Italy, has 14 hubs to help cover all EU members, and is independent of government authorities. This is the scale of collaboration and institutional innovation we would need to address the problem across all regions of Canada.
Dr. Chris Russill is an academic director of Re.Climate and an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. His research focuses on political action and inaction around climate change and its effects. Dr. Russill is also a member of Climate Action Against Disinformation, which is a coalition of NGOs tackling mis- and disinformation on climate issues.
Interview conducted by Ghadah Alrasheed, PhD, the Training and Resource Hub Lead at Re.Climate.