Facebook fuels climate misinformation online, report finds

Facebook says it is tackling misinformation with a global network of independent fact checking partners but campaigners say it is not enough to contain misleading posts

Facebook is allowing misleading claims about climate events to circulate widely on its platform, campaigners warn. (Photo: CREDIT/Flickr/Book Catalog)

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Facebook is fueling climate misinformation around the world, allowing misleading claims and climate denial to circulate widely on its platform, a new report claims. 

The social media giant does not mention tackling climate misinformation in any of its advertising policies or community standards, according to a Stop Funding the Heat campaign report.

Examples of misinformation widely distributed on Facebook include false claims that frozen wind turbines were the main cause of Texas power outages and inaccurate reports that arson was the cause of bushfires in Australia. 

“Facebook is talking the talk but not walking the walk on climate misinformation,” Sean Buchan, lead author of the report, told Climate Home News. 

“They say they are doing a lot about it, but we haven’t seen any evidence that they are fighting climate misinformation with the vigour they are implying,” said Buchan. 

Facebook told Climate Home News that the platform directly connects over 100,000 people every day with reliable information through its Climate Science Information Centre, which was set up in September. The centre compiles data and expert information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the national oceanic and atmospheric administration and the UN environment programme. 

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“We combat climate change misinformation by working with a global network of independent fact checking partners to review and rate content,” a Facebook spokesperson said. 

But Buchan said the centre does not do enough to prevent climate misinformation slipping through.

“It’s not sufficient right now. With Cop26 around the corner, climate misinformation is going to be on the rise,” said Buchan.

“This is a really big opportunity for Facebook to take leadership on this. These sorts of events have been derailed by misinformation campaigns before,” he added.

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The report highlights the global scale of misinformation, from Australia to the US. 

During the bushfires in Australia last year, bots and trolls spread false posts on Facebook claiming that arson by environmental campaigners was to blame, the report states. 

Misleading claims by US conservative pundits, saying that frozen wind turbines were causing mass power outages in Texas in February, were shared on Facebook without fact-checking labels.

This Fox News misinformation has no fact-check warning and has been viewed 4.4 million times.

Fact-checking website Snopes has described these claims as “mostly false”. It found that the power outages were mostly caused by failing fossil fuel and nuclear power generation. “Far from being the main culprit, wind turbine shutdowns accounted for only a fraction of the loss of electricity and power generation,” it said.

According to human rights group Avaaz, the top 10 Facebook posts about wind turbine failures received more than 15.8 million views. “Facebook failed to apply a fact-checking label on 42 posts, which were responsible for 45% of total estimated views,” Avaaz said.

Genevieve Guenther, director of the campaign group End Climate Silence, has experienced Facebook’s inadequate policies on climate misinformation first-hand. 

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“Facebook does not allow groups like End Climate Silence to promote posts that contain climate-science research. They flag and disallow these posts as ‘political content’,” Guenther told Climate Home News. 

“But they do allow climate-denial groups to promote posts containing disinformation, circumventing their fact-checking process, by labelling such posts as ‘opinion’,” she added. 

In its report, Stop Funding the Heat calls on Facebook to update its community and advertising standards to include climate disinformation and stop taking money from climate denial groups. 

Buchan said brands and investors play an important role in driving Facebook to crack down on misinformation. “A brand could cease advertising because it does not want to be associated with a specific piece of misinformation. Brands can threaten Facebook’s bottom line,” he said. 

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