Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect an announcement by Hulu.
After facing fierce backlash, the popular streaming service Hulu has reversed its decision to reject political ads that include topics that the company initially deemed too “controversial,” including abortion rights, gun control and climate change, according to a series of news reports. It’s the latest incident to highlight the role Big Tech plays in America’s increasingly polarizing culture war, which many experts and activists say has become a major impediment to climate action.
Earlier this month, Hulu rejected several political ads from Democratic organizations and political candidates that referenced some of the party’s central campaign issues in this year’s election cycle, as first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. In at least one situation, the streaming service refused to run an ad until the phrase “climate change” was taken out of it.
That’s a problem, Democrats say, because streaming services have become a key platform where younger generations consume media, meaning a major voting bloc could essentially be cut off from their messages. Regarding global warming, it’s an especially poignant problem ahead of a midterm election that many experts believe will determine whether the Biden administration can pass any meaningful national climate legislation at all, and perhaps whether the U.S. will be able meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement to rein in global warming.
“To not discuss these topics in my campaign ad is to not address the most important issues facing the United States,” Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York City, wrote in a public letter after his ad was rejected by Hulu for using certain phrases, including “climate change.”
Hulu’s decision to ban advertisements that discuss topics like climate change “has a perverse effect on Democracy,” Patel added.
Hulu didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But an anonymous source who is familiar with the company’s policies told The Washington Post that the streaming service prohibits advertising that takes a position on a controversial issue, regardless of whether it is a political ad. The company apparently reversed that policy Wednesday, when it announced that after “a thorough review of ad policies,” it will now accept “candidate and issue advertisements covering a wide spectrum of policy positions.”
While political discourse in the United States makes climate change appear to be a controversial topic, the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees on the core facts of the issue, with more than 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed studies agreeing that climate change is real and has been caused predominantly by humans burning fossil fuels.
Michael Khoo, the climate disinformation coalition co-chair at Friends of the Earth, an international environmental advocacy group, said in an interview that the situation highlights one of the biggest problems society now faces regarding Big Tech companies: they play an outsized role in the way the world communicates but remain almost wholly unregulated by governments.
Both broadcast television networks and radio stations are regulated by the Communications Act of 1934, which—among other things—requires broadcasters in the U.S. to develop public interest programming, provide space for controversial topics and give equal air time to candidates running for political office. Today, internet companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Hulu have replaced broadcasters as the predominant platform for mass communication, yet those providers aren’t bound by the same rules.
Many analysts and communication scholars, including Khoo, have warned that the lack of regulation is partly to blame for the nation’s growing political divide and could have long-lasting consequences for American democracy. Proprietary algorithms and massive personal data collection efforts, they say, are fueling growing echo chambers and making it harder for the public to have constructive discussions based on a common set of facts.
Last month, a coalition of climate and social media watchdog groups that included Khoo’s organization released a report that found that misleading or false information about climate change was flourishing online despite recent promises from tech companies to crack down on the spread of “fake news” on their platforms. The report, which analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media posts over the last 18 months, also found that disinformation campaigns were explicitly framing global warming issues through the lens of Western culture wars with the goal of delaying climate action.
Some nations are just now beginning to address the issue. Earlier this month, the European Union approved the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, two landmark laws that would force the world’s largest tech companies to more aggressively tackle harmful content on their platforms and more transparently disclose their data to the public, among other things.
And Indonesia also passed its own sweeping law in 2020 that requires Big Tech companies to agree to strict government oversight, including by handing over user data, or be banned from operating in the country. As of last week, several major tech brands, including Meta, Twitter and Google, have agreed to cooperate with the law, though critics worry that the government could use the measure to unfairly censor free speech. Some observers also worry the EU’s laws could be excessively costly and difficult to enforce.
Despite those concerns, Khoo sees the legislation as a significant step in the right direction and hopes other countries like the U.S. follow suit. “Tech companies are finally waking up” and realizing that “running society is hard,” he said. “So, if they want to have that much power, it comes with the need for running it fairly and strongly.”
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That’s how many Republicans between the ages of 18 and 34 say they worry “a great deal” about environmental issues like climate change, roughly twice the rate compared to older conservatives, according to a new Gallup poll.