Facebook logo and swirling hurricanes

Andrea Austria/ Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

As Hurricane Ian pummeled Florida, Facebook allowed anti-science content to thrive

On the day Ian made landfall in Florida, 82% of interactions on related posts came from right-leaning pages

During Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida and South Carolina last week, popular right-leaning Facebook pages directed users to content that downplayed or completely refuted the connection between the climate crisis and the changing nature of extreme storms. Media Matters found that between September 24 and October 2, 2022, right-leaning Facebook pages published a higher volume of posts on the topic, and their posts received more interactions than posts from ideologically nonaligned or left-leaning pages. 

As recovery efforts continue, nearly 100 deaths have been confirmed in Florida as of October 5, and more than 1,600 people have been rescued. About 200,000 homes and businesses still do not have power, down from 2.7 million. At a press briefing last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called Ian a “500-year flooding event” and added, “The impacts of this storm are historic and the damage that has been done is historic. … We've never seen a flood event like this, we've never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.” 

Key Findings:

  • Out of the top 100 posts with keywords related to Hurricane Ian and climate change, 63% came from right-leaning pages. 
    • 70% of interactions on these posts went to right-leaning pages, a total of over 181,000. 
  • Seven top 10 most-interacted with posts on this topic came from right-leaning pages, and these posts received about 69% of interactions. 
  • On September 28, when Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, right-leaning posts received nearly 82% of total interactions.
  • Posts from right-leaning pages received 70% of all interactions and featured misleading attacks on media and politicians

  • Scientists agree that warming oceans and sea level rise, which are exacerbated by climate change, are likely causing various changes in hurricane behavior that threaten human life and infrastructure. But on Facebook, many of the top posts with the most likes, shares, and comments that mentioned climate change in the context of Hurricane Ian insisted that there was no connection at all. All of these posts came from right-leaning pages, some of which have a history of spreading misinformation about climate change and energy. 

    Of the top 10 posts, 5 used comments from Democrats and media figures to claim that the left was attempting to politicize Hurricane Ian for its own gain. An interaction between CNN’s Don Lemon and acting National Hurricane Center Director Jamie Rhome was used by right-leaning pages to claim that CNN was trying to push a false narrative about climate change and hurricanes to politicize the storm and push a Democratic agenda. In reality, Rhome confirmed that “on the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse.” He also told Lemon, “I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event.” This is true, but the developing field of attribution science allows climate scientists to calculate how anthropogenic changes to the climate have “made some extreme events more severe and more likely to occur.”

  • Dan Bongino on his podcast claiming Don Lemon got "humiliated"
  • Washington Examiner video of CNN's Don Lemon getting "shut down"
  • Lemon was not the only public figure whose statements about climate change and Hurricane Ian drew criticism on Facebook. Right-wing media outlets warped comments that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) made on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to make it seem like she insinuated that voting for Democrats in the midterm elections would put an end to hurricanes. In reality, Sen. Klobuchar said, “We just did something about climate change for the first time in decades. That’s why we have to win this as this hurricane bears down on Florida. That’s why we’ve got to win in the midterms.” At no point did the senator suggest that voting a certain way would permanently end hurricanes, and mainstream coverage has made it clear that climate change is just one of many factors impacting storms. She also only briefly mentioned climate change, and mostly spoke about the Electoral Count Act reform.

  • Daily Caller claims on Facebook that Sen. Amy Klobuchar thinks "we can control the weather"
  • Foxnews.com Facebook claiming Amy Klobuchar thinks voting Democrat will help stop hurricanes
  • Other posts simply used straightforward climate change denial to claim that human activities have nothing to do with hurricanes. In the top post, Dennis Michael Lynch, a conservative political commentator and podcast host, insisted “my SUV ain’t to blame” for climate change. The post got 11,671 interactions.

  • Facebook post from Dennis Michael Lynch
  • TPUSA screenshot of tweet about Hurricane Ian on Facebook
  • In a post linking an article from Foxnews.com, Thomas Catenacci, who has been shaping the website’s consistently low-quality climate coverage, quoted known climate deniers such as Gregory Wrightstone, James Taylor, and Fox regular Steve Milloy. Wrightstone has worked for oil and energy companies and heads CO2 Coalition, a member of the Koch climate denial network. The Heartland Institute, another member of this network, was also used as a source. Heartland president James Taylor said that because “these types of hurricanes existed before SUVs and coal-fired power plants were invented,” connecting climate change to hurricanes is a “despicable politicization of a real tragedy.” He also added, without evidence, that “they [hurricanes] were much more frequent and severe before coal power plants and SUVs." On Facebook, popular posts largely mirrored climate denial on national TV news coverage and Fox News, specifically. Fox personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham all dismissed the role of climate change in driving hurricanes and attacked Don Lemon on their programs. Carlson and Hannity also mocked Amy Klobuchar.

  • Crucial information was overshadowed by climate denial when Ian made landfall

  • The link between hurricanes and climate change is not as straightforward as it is with other extreme weather events, such as heat waves, but there is evidence that hurricanes are moving more slowly, intensifying faster, and producing more rainfall, and that these trends will continue in the future. A few popular posts from nonaligned, such as The Washington Post, and CNN, and left-leaning pages such as MSNBC, did a good job of making this connection. However, these posts got fewer interactions overall, and these types of pages published fewer posts on the topic, especially on September 28, when the storm made landfall and people needed reliable information. On that day, right-leaning posts received nearly 82% of total interactions.

  • Washington Post article on Facebook
  • CNN Facebook post linking Hurricane Ian article about climate change
  • MSNBC Facebook post with Bill Nye explaining hurricanes and climate change
  • A recent study found that climate change may have helped increase rainfall during Hurricane Ian by 10%; most of the storm’s victims died by drowning. But even when there is an undeniable, direct connection between climate change and extreme weather deaths, right-wing media shamelessly pushes climate denial and blames negative impacts on renewable energy and other cleaner technology. They have no credibility when it comes to climate science, and it is worrying that Facebook is allowing them to overshadow more reliable sources during a crisis of Ian’s magnitude.

  • Methodology

  • Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1 to August 25, 2020.

    For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.

    The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.

    Every day, Media Matters also uses Facebook's CrowdTangle tool and this methodology to identify and share the 10 posts with the most interactions from top political and news-related Facebook pages.

    Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts for the pages on this list that were posted from September 24, 2022, through October 2, 2022, and included the terms “climate” AND one or more of the terms “hurricane,” ”Hurricane Ian,” “hurricanes,” “flood,” “flooding,” “storm”, “storms,” “storm surge,” “disaster,” ”natural disaster,” “extreme weather,” ”tragedy" in the post itself, in the headline, or in any included link.

    Two Media Matters researchers then reviewed the 100 posts with the most interactions to determine whether the post was relevant to how climate change impacts hurricanes. If coding differed, posts were reviewed and discussed to reach a consensus.