Meta logo looming over climate protesters
Andrea Austria/Media Matters 

Research/Study Research/Study

Climate groups say big polluters benefit from inconsistent ad labels on Facebook

An op-ed critical of Meta's ad policies got a nonprofit newsroom blocked, bringing renewed attention to climate advocates’ concerns

  • A recent incident in which Meta blocked links to an article critical of the company’s ad policies highlighted climate advocates’ concerns that they are unfairly impacted by these policies compared to Big Polluters. 

    Meta has maintained that the links were flagged due to a system error and has since restored them. However, the incident appears to be part of a larger pattern in which Meta requires climate groups to adhere to its strict ad guidelines while allowing some fossil fuel-linked companies to circumvent them.

  • Meta blocked links to an op-ed critical of its ad policies

    • In an op-ed for the Kansas Reflector, documentarian Dave Kendall expressed frustration that his attempt to “boost” a Facebook post about his new climate documentary was rejected. According to Kendall, an automated response told the author that the post did not “comply with [Meta’s] Ads about Social Issues, Elections or Politics policy.” Kendall pointed out that other activists have faced similar roadblocks. “Apparently, Meta deems climate change too controversial for discussion on their platforms,” he wrote. [Kansas Reflector, 4/4/24]
    • On April 4 and April 5, Meta removed all posts on Facebook with links to the Kansas Reflector as well as all links to another website that reposted the op-ed. According to Meta, on April 4, the platform mistakenly flagged these links as a “cybersecurity threat.” Most of those links were restored a few hours later, but on April 5, users still couldn’t share the link to the op-ed that was critical of the platform. In addition, Meta blocked all links from the website of an independent journalist who republished the op-ed to try to circumvent the alleged censorship. Writers and climate advocates expressed their concern over the incident. [The Handbasket, 4/5/24; CNN, 4/5/24; Twitter/X, 4/5/24, 4/6/24, 4/7/24, 4/12/24]
  • Climate advocates say they struggle to reach their Meta audiences while fossil fuel companies advance their political aims by avoiding ad labeling requirements

    • Meta requires specific categorization of ads related to politics — including about “environmental politics” — which climate groups say often makes it harder for them to reach their target audiences. Meta has distinct policies for ads related to “social issues, elections or politics,” which, in the U.S. and many other countries, includes ads related to “environmental politics.” According to Meta’s policies, “Social issues are sensitive topics that are heavily debated, may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation.” In 2022, Meta began prohibiting users from targeting audiences with specific interests when running ads about social issues. “We used to be able to find people who are interested in environmental protection and environmentalism—those [options] have evaporated,” Nathaniel Baker, a digital director at an ad agency representing climate groups, told Climate Nexus in 2022. [Meta, accessed 4/10/24; PBS, 3/14/22]
    • Advertisers running ads about “social issues, elections or politics” on Meta’s platforms must undergo an authorization process that, according to its website, “promotes transparency, accountability and authenticity.” Advertisers addressing potentially sensitive or political topics must include with their ads “a disclaimer with the name and entity that paid for the ads.” [Meta, accessed 4/11/24]
    • A report from InfluenceMap says fossil fuel ads have been published on Facebook without labels, disclaimers, or authorization for years. A 2021 report from InfluenceMap found several examples of ads that were not labeled as being related to elections, politics, or social issues, even though they appeared to align closely with Meta’s description of such categories. “InfluenceMap found Facebook’s implementation of its advertising policy was highly inconsistent,” the report said. It found that oil companies like Chevron and Shell had run ads that were not labeled as social issues and lacked disclaimers identifying the entities that paid for them. [InfluenceMap, 8/20/21, 8/20/21]
    • Media Matters found two ads from fossil fuel lobbying groups that seemingly pertain to political or social issues but did not carry the label. One April 5 ad from America’s Plastic Makers claims that “we don’t have to choose between the benefit of plastic and a cleaner planet.” The ad is not labeled as related to elections, politics, or social issues, and does not carry a disclaimer identifying the funding entity. Other ads from America’s Plastic Makers that are labeled say they’re paid for by the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the petrochemicals industry. Another unlabeled ad from Texans for Natural Gas, a campaign managed by an oil and gas trade association, ran on Facebook and Instagram in March and encouraged users to “preserve the right” to “choose how they will meet their energy needs” — a popular call to action that groups like Texans for Natural Gas use to block clean energy policy. [Facebook, accessed 4/10/24, accessed 4/10/24, accessed 4/16/24; Vox, 6/1/21; Grist, 2/20/24]
    • In at least one case, a fossil fuel-related ad first labeled as relating to “social issues, elections or politics” was later allowed to run without the label. Media Matters identified an ad from the Ohio Propane Gas Association calling propane buses “clean, quiet, and safe”; the ad was labeled as being related to “social issues, elections or politics” when it first ran in November 2023, but did not carry the label when it ran later, in March 2024.  OPGA is a trade association and a member of the National Propane Gas Association, which has lobbied for legislation that, according to the Los Angeles Times, would “prevent the Consumer Product Safety Commission from using federal money to regulate or ban gas stoves and block the U.S. Energy Department from making gas ranges and ovens less wasteful by setting stricter energy efficiency standards.” [Facebook, accessed 4/10/24, accessed 4/10/24; Vox, 10/26/23; Open Secrets, accessed 4/17/24; Los Angeles Times, 6/22/23; National Propane Gas Association, accessed 4/17/24]
    • Climate activists say avoiding these labels has allowed fossil fuel companies to more easily target specific audiences and increase their reach while avoiding full transparency. “You can still target Shell and Chevron, but I can’t target Sierra Club and NRDC [the Natural Resources Defense Council],” said Cristian Sanchez, deputy data director for the Digital Climate Coalition, a network of climate groups that focus on communications. Being able to target audiences means that companies can choose to show their ads to groups of people more likely to engage with them and thereby increase their reach. They also avoid the additional transparency process for ads labeled as being about “social issues, elections or politics.” “What we see here is the use of advertising as a very overtly political purpose, and that is to stop regulation,” InfluenceMap’s Faye Holder told Nexus Media. “These companies have a real vested interest in preventing climate policy. Treating fossil fuel ads as nonpolitical ‘statements of fact’ distorts the conversation.” [PBS, 3/14/22; Meta, accessed 4/11/24, accessed 4/11/24]
  • Facebook is a major tool for fossil fuel-linked companies to spread their messages

    • Facebook is a major tool that fossil fuel-linked companies use to get their message across and mislead users about their efforts to address climate change. A 2023 study found that from 2008 to 2018, “trade associations engaged on climate change issues spent a total of $2.2 billion on advertising and promotion.” That’s 27 times what clean energy groups spent. Another 2022 report found that 87 fossil fuel-linked groups spent roughly $3-$4 million on Facebook ads that year from September through November 23, coinciding with the United Nations’ annual climate change conference, COP27, which took place from November 6 through November 18. These ads included greenwashing from “Carbon Majors,” that is “the 100 companies allegedly responsible for over 70% of all historic greenhouse gas emission,” according to Climate Action Against Disinformation. [Pennsylvania Capital-Star, 2/14/23; Desmog, 1/19/23; Climate Action Against Disinformation, 1/19/23]