Climate Censorship, Part II, Courtesy Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board

October 26, 2022

WatchDog Opinion: Climate Censorship, Part II, Courtesy Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board

By Joseph A. Davis

We journalists love freedom of the press. Mostly. The problem is that today a lot of us do our work without an actual press — we live today in a very different world than the one that invented the First Amendment.

Recently The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Climate-Change Censorship Campaign.” It raises issues that environmental journalists should think about. (And yes, WatchDog knows The Journal’s editorial board is traditionally outrageous and not all that fond of inconvenient facts. Especially about climate.)

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Image: Twitter

First off, the editorial was all about online publishing, no presses involved. Second, it raises the issue of disinformation and misinformation, which pester “fact-based” journalists today more than ever. Online disinformation — perhaps because of its unprecedentedly powerful virality — presents graver challenges to us remaining “fact-based” journalists than we have faced before.

The editorial was sparked by several events. First was Elon Musk’s effort to ostensibly free Twitter. Second was a newly passed EU online media rule called the Digital Services Act. Third was an Oct. 4 letter from U.S. environmental groups to the major U.S.-based online platforms demanding that they stop “amplifying and perpetuating climate disinformation.”

This latter is what The Journal’s editorial board called “censorship.” The WatchDog would disagree. But we are nonetheless troubled by the difficulty of finding a path for transparency through the muddle of viral online disinformation and the complexities of managing online media.


The rise of ‘awfulness’

First some background. We have a law in the United States that protects your internet provider, Google and social media platforms from liability for those terrible things that trolls put forth using their platforms. It is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, or CDA.

Note that the CDA was passed in 1996 (though the act was later struck down by the Supreme Court, excepting Section 230). That was less than a decade after the web was invented (1989) and before Google was founded (1998). People were still using telephone modems.


The ‘awfulness’ has grown, and grown darker.

By ‘awfulness’ we mean trolling, lies, deceit,

revenge porn, doxing, bullying and disinformation.


So doubtless, it’s a very new world. For many years, Section 230 has protected freedom of expression online — and the WatchDog has applauded. Mostly. But during that time the “awfulness” has grown, and grown darker. By “awfulness” we mean trolling, lies, deceit, revenge porn, doxing, bullying and disinformation.

Meanwhile, the Digital Services Act, or DSA, was finalized and adopted by the European Parliament this past summer. It is a sprawling and complex package — but is meant to update the legal framework for managing the complex challenges of today’s online media. Now comes the much harder job of rolling it out, dotting the I’s and implementing it. We are not going to try to explain the whole thing. But it sets a standard by asking digital platforms to monitor and manage (at least by labeling) misinformation.

The U.S. has nothing like it yet. Just Section 230. National law may not actually be the critical variable right now, because the web is a global thing and the large-platform corporations are pretty multinational. Because of that, the DSA will inevitably affect, or even govern, a lot of digital policy within the United States.


Opportunity to throttle back climate disinformation

That’s probably why those environmental groups wrote not to a government, but to the CEOs of Facebook, TikTok, Google (and YouTube), Twitter and Pinterest. The 14 groups signing the letter included the likes of, Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists. All of them want effective climate action and oppose the burgeoning of climate misinformation.

The groups made the point that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a scientific as well as a governmental body, named disinformation as “a threat to the world’s ability to effectively address climate change.”

And it is. Two months ago, the WatchDog lamented another facet of climate disinformation — but the battle over climate denial and disinformation has been going on for decades. Journalists have sometimes played a role in it and sometimes covered it.


The Digital Services Act offers an opportunity to moderate

and throttle back climate disinformation. ... But only

if the EU labels climate misinformation online,

and the big platform companies cooperate.


The environmental groups were making the point that the DSA offers an opportunity to moderate and throttle back climate disinformation. So it does, but only if the EU labels climate misinformation online, and the big platform companies cooperate. The groups were asking for transparency and accurate labeling, not censorship.

The Journal’s editorial blared: “The left increasingly wants Silicon Valley to deploy its mute buttons as a way to stifle opposition, especially on climate.”

No, they didn’t ask for mute buttons. But what we journalists must keep struggling with is how to manage the overwhelming volume of climate disinformation that is funded by fossil fuel, utility and other (e.g., agriculture, chemical) industries. Disinformation that is often created and amplified by PR firms earning hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when media companies are still laying off journalists.

[Editor’s Note: Also see an earlier WatchDog, “Climate ‘Censorship’ Raised in Disinformation Fracas,” on a dispute involving House Republicans and White House climate czar Gina McCarthy, along with a discussion of how journalists can get caught up in the decades-long campaign to deny climate change.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 38. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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