Facebook, well-known as a breeding ground for misinformation, has a particular problem with disseminating false and misleading messages about climate change science. The platform spreads climate-denying videos and other posts, hosts climate-denying ads, and officially partners with climate-denying media outlets and organizations.
Climate-denier videos get millions of views on Facebook
A recent video promoting false arguments against climate change science got more than 5 million views on Facebook, The Guardian's Dana Nuccitelli reported last week.
The video -- posted in June by The Daily Signal, an arm of the right-wing Heritage Foundation -- is titled “Why Climate Change Is Fake News.” It features Marc Morano, a longtime spokesperson and blogger for the climate-denial cause, who outlines three things that “the left gets wrong about climate change.” Nuccitelli points out that all three are common and easily debunked myths.
Nuccitelli notes that Facebook's viewership numbers are likely inflated, but the video has still reached a lot of people:
Fortunately, the exposure to Morano’s misinformation video is not as bad as it seems at first blush. Although Facebook implies the video has been viewed over 5m times, a “view” is counted after just three seconds, and videos on the site play automatically.
Nevertheless, the video has been shared over 75,000 times, so it has certainly reached a wide audience. Facebook needs to come to terms with the fact that there is an objective reality. Even if Marc Morano sincerely believes humans aren’t causing global warming, that belief is false, and by continuing to host his myth-filled video, Facebook is misinforming tens of thousands, perhaps even millions of its users.
As of this writing, the Daily Signal video has now been “viewed” 6.3 million times and shared 102,000 times.
Other denier videos get traction on Facebook as well. For example, one titled “GLOBAL WARMING IS THE BIGGEST FRAUD IN HISTORY,” which features a rant by a climate-denying retired businessman, has gotten at least 2 million views by Facebook's count.
Facebook is partnering with climate-denying organizations
In an interview with Recode published on July 18, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook shouldn't remove content just because it's wrong. Using the example of Holocaust denial, he said it's “deeply offensive,” but “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Zuckerberg tried to clarify his views two days later, writing, “Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services. If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed.”
Joe Romm at ThinkProgress pointed out that Zuckerberg's approach is a major problem when it comes to climate denial, a particularly pernicious form of disinformation.
One of Facebook's official fact-checking partners, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, has at times been dismissive of climate science and the need for climate action. A piece from July 2017, headlined “Dadaist Science,” cast doubt on research that found a scientific consensus around the human causes of climate change. A piece from June 2017 criticized arguments being made on behalf of the Paris climate agreement. A long feature in the magazine from 2014 lauded climate-denying scientist Richard Lindzen.
As Romm put it, “How can Facebook stop climate misinformation when its ‘fact-checkers’ are deniers?”
Meanwhile, Facebook is partnering with the Heritage Foundation to determine whether the platform displays liberal bias -- a persistent but blatantly false claim made by conservatives. Heritage gets funding from the Kochs and other fossil fuel interests, and it has a long history of spreading climate denial. It brought us the “Why Climate Change Is Fake News” video mentioned above.
And the Facebook Watch initiative, in which Facebook partners with media companies to produce original videos, has teamed up with Fox News, despite the network's long history of climate denial. Last month, when Facebook Watch debuted a slate of news shows from eight news publishers, Fox got more than twice as many slots per week as any other outlet.
Facebook hosts climate-denying ads
Late last year, a climate-denier blogger tried to buy ads linking to his site on five social-media platforms and found that Facebook was the only one that ran them with no pushback or questions asked.
Leo Goldstein writes a blog at DefyCCC.com that focuses on what he calls “climate realism.” The CCC in the URL stands for "cult of climate change." He also writes periodically for WattsUpWithThat, a more well-known climate-denial blog. He claims that climate change is a “pseudo-scientific fraud” and that “real scientists are against climate alarmism.”
Goldstein attempted to buy ads linking to his DefyCCC site. “In November and December 2017, I experimented with distributing the climate realism message using advertising options on Google and some other platforms,” Goldstein wrote in a December 31 post on WattsUpWithThat. In a follow-up post the next day, Goldstein described the outcome of his experiment. The short version: Twitter refused to run his ads. Google ran some of his ads for a period of time. Facebook ran his ads with no pushback.
“Facebook has been acting squeaky clean,” Goldstein wrote. “None of my messages have been banned for content.” Facebook is the only platform that gave him no problems, he reported.
Since then, Goldstein has continued to place ads on Facebook, often under the banner of the Science For Humans and Freedom Institute. One ad he ran on Facebook in July claimed, “CO2 is the gas of life, not a pollutant. Climate alarmism is a dangerous cult”:
Facebook's advertising policies prohibit “deceptive, false, or misleading content,” but the company has still allowed Goldstein to purchase space for ads like this.
Zuckerberg talks the talk about climate change, but doesn't walk the walk
Zuckerberg has expressed concern about climate change, arguing last year that the U.S. should not pull out of the Paris climate agreement and noting that rising temperatures are melting the glaciers at Glacier National Park.
But he is not using the immense power of his platform to halt misinformation about climate change. To the contrary, Facebook is enabling and disseminating climate denial on multiple fronts. In addition to the problems outlined above, the platform helps bogus climate stories to spread -- like a hugely popular climate-denial story from YourNewsWire, a fake news site that Facebook refuses to ban even though fact-checkers have debunked its stories at least 80 times. And one of Facebook's most high-profile scandals involved handing user data over to Cambridge Analytica, a shady political consultancy that has close ties to fossil fuel companies and climate deniers.
Media Matters named Zuckerberg as its misinformer of the year in 2017 for leading a company that is spreading misinformation far and wide. In the first half of 2018, he and Facebook have not changed their ways. Rather, Facebook is currently bending over backward to cater to conservatives who falsely claim that they're discriminated against on the platform, when in fact right-leaning Facebook pages get more interactions than left-leaning ones.
Combating fake news is key to combating climate change. As an editorial in the journal Nature Communications argued last year, “Successfully inoculating society against fake news is arguably essential” if major climate initiatives are to succeed. Facebook could be a big part of the solution. But by kowtowing to conservatives, prioritizing profits over accuracy, and maintaining open-door policies toward misinformation, Facebook is entrenching itself as a major part of the problem.