‘We need a structural shift’: Conscious Advertising Network’s co-chair on how the ad industry can tackle the climate crisis

As underwhelming as the Cop26 climate summit was to many, it has made many marketers think longer and harder about their own contributions to the climate crisis, namely how their dollars have inadvertently funded misinformation and disinformation around the issue.

“Without definitions, all we have are vague policies that do more harm than good”

— Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN)

So much so in fact that some of the most influential ads businesses across Europe such as Sky, British Gas, Accenture Interactive and Havas Media have signed an open letter demanding immediate action from the platforms to tackle the threat. In it, the signatories ask for the following:

  • A universal definition of climate dis/misinformation.
  • ‘Action against climate dis/misinformation’ to be included in the COP26 Negotiated Outcome, based on the above definition. 
  • Technology platforms to implement climate dis/misinformation policies and enforcement that extend to content, algorithms and advertising, similar to the robust COVID-19 policies that have been published over the last 18 months. 

The letter has been organized by the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) — a voluntary coalition of over 70 organizations set up to highlight the ethics that underpin advertising. 

Digiday caught up one of the architects of the initiative Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) to discuss Cop26 and how the ad industry could become even more conscious about how its dollars fuel the spread of multitude of facts, opinions and lies — for better or worse. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Of all the things the platforms could do to address this issue, why are universal definitions of climate dis/misinformation crucial?

If the platforms don’t take more demonstrable action against this issue then what happens is that you just get updates from that saying “we’ve taken down x number of posts,” which just isn’t enough. We want to see more action. That’s the reason we put together this letter; if we have a common definition for both climate disinformation and misinformation because if we have them then everyone knows where the line is — they know what’s harmful. Without definitions, all we have are vague policies that do more harm than good because there’s no consistent take on what is and isn’t acceptable.

The next COP event is in Egypt next year, but we can’t wait for when this issue is front and center again to make an impact. The platforms need to implement this definition straightaway. They should take it and use it to create and enforce policy changes across their networks because doing so would make huge headway in demonetizing the worst of this problem. Freedom of speech isn’t really a good enough excuse. Let’s be clear, it won’t be hampered by the platforms adopting this definition because it’s focused on monetized content only. People shouldn’t be paid for saying climate change is a hoax or casting doubt on issues that are doing so much harm to the world.

What’s the difference between climate misinformation and disinformation?

I use the Triple A agenda as per the CAN misinformation manifesto. Disinformation is created or shared with the intent to deceive. Misinformation is shared without the intent to deceive. Importantly, we’ve probably all accidentally contributed to misinformation. Then, the definition of climate disinformation is here.

Why is climate misinformation — and subsequently funding it —  so dangerous?

The issue of climate misinformation is one that has become so complicated in recent years. There was a time when it was just people saying “climate change is a hoax.” Back then it was easier to refute those claims because 97% of scientists believe that climate change is happening. That said, the misinformation around climate change has become more insidious; you’re starting to see false solutions being offered, for example. Its not so straightforward to tackle this. You have to have a reasonable level of knowledge of the problem to do it. Not to mention there’s this delay messaging effect whereby people push this idea that society has time to deal with climate change. Again, it’s something that requires a lot of scientific knowledge and insight into the different solutions to really unpick it.

Has the industry had its head in the sand on dealing with this matter?

There are many advertisers behind the scenes taking real steps to ensure they don’t appear next to this sort of thing but it’s not as straightforward as it was before when it was so clearly against scientific consensus. The hope is that with the definition, which has been developed with climate experts, that we’re able to address this — or at least start to. It starts with the platforms. If the platforms adopted this definition then it would stop so much content from being monetized. Sure, individual advertisers can adopt this definition and they can start to adjust their exclusion lists accordingly, but each one is just a small drop in the ocean. We need a structural shift to tackle the problem.

Are the platforms more at fault here? 

It’s not that the platforms haven’t done anything. Google is now preventing advertisers, publishers and creators from monetizing content that denies the existence of climate change, for example. Furthermore, Twitter made authoritative information about climate change more accessible to people during COP26, while Facebook recently beefed up its internal processes around the issue. It’s all great but it won’t fix the problem. If they adopt the definition, however, they can start to address it at speed. We’re volunteers at the CAN but we don’t want to spend our lives sending these companies updates and keeping our own networks updated on what disinformation trends they should be aware of. 

What should advertisers do?

First, we’d urge advertisers to sign the open letter to show the strength and depth of feeling around the matter. Secondly, I’d point them to CAN’s misinformation manifesto, which has been drafted with experts, and is a really clear and practical resource for marketers who are looking at how they tackle misinformation broadly. Finally, I’d urge advertisers to adopt the definition that’s in the open letter and use it as a tool to help them understand what climate misinformation looks like and ensure their advertising doesn’t fund commentators or publishers who peddle those narratives.

We’ve seen so much good work around this COP that its clear companies are making corporate-wide strides to tackle climate change. Nevertheless, it’s important for any marketer who is thinking about this issue to understand that there’s a strong possibility that if they’re not considering whether their media spending is funding climate misinformation and disinformation, then it’s working against those charitable intentions. We urge all marketers to audit their media spending accordingly.

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