Facebook just handed climate deniers a huge victory in their war on climate science. On Tuesday, E&E News broke the story that Facebook is allowing climate misinformation to spread unchallenged on its platform -- and that it is doing so at the request of a well-known climate denial organization, the CO2 Coalition.
According to Emily Atkin and Judd Legum, in August 2019, Facebook rated as “false” a Washington Examiner piece co-authored by climate science denier Pat Michaels, a senior fellow at the CO2 Coalition. Facebook’s decision came after its climate content fact-checking partner Climate Feedback -- a group of climate scientists -- flagged it for containing false information.
The following month, after the CO2 Coalition wrote to Facebook saying that the concerns about Michaels’ piece amounted to “simple differences of opinion,” the platform lifted the false ratings designation, creating a new climate denial loophole.
According to E&E News, “After the quiet decision by Facebook, the coalition says it and other groups that attack consensus climate science can share content that climate scientists have labeled as misleading because Facebook will consider it ‘opinion’ and therefore immune to fact-checking.”
This is monumentally bad. Andrew Dessler -- one of the five climate scientists who originally fact-checked Michaels’ op-ed -- called it “complete bullshit.”
Facebook’s “opinion” loophole opens the floodgates for climate denial
The CO2 Coalition has already “announced its intention to exploit this loophole,” according to Atkin and Legum. No doubt other purveyors of climate misinformation will, too. There are currently many op-eds that would be able to squeeze through the loophole and not even be subject to review.
One such example is from a June 17 opinion piece by Neil Frank in the Washington Examiner, which has been shared on Facebook. Frank, a former director of the National Hurricane Center, is a known climate denier currently affiliated with Life:Powered, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has received money from groups such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. It has also promoted numerous climate denial arguments.
In his opinion piece, titled “Hurricane season is here, but don’t believe climate change pandering,” Frank trotted out a number of climate denial arguments in trying to downplay climate change’s role in extreme weather. He wrote, “Supposedly, droughts and wildfires are increasing, sea levels rising, polar ice is melting, and storms (tornadoes and hurricanes) are becoming stronger and more frequent.” He then went on to categorically deny that these extreme weather events are getting worse.
However, a simple fact check shows that he is wrong on most major counts. Climate change is already worsening droughts in some parts of the U.S., including the Colorado River and California. A new study also says that climate change is driving a massive megadrought in the western U.S., which could be “worse than any in recorded history.” Acreage burned by wildfires has increased since 1985, and the number of large western U.S. wildfires nearly doubled between 1984 and 2015. Wildfire season “has lengthened across a quarter of the world's vegetated surface.”
Regarding polar ice melt and sea level rise, Arctic sea ice has been gradually declining in recent decades, with NASA climate change senior scientist Claire Parkinson noting in 2019, “This year’s minimum sea ice extent shows that there is no sign that the sea ice cover is rebounding.” Melting ice has drastic implications for sea-level rise; sea levels have as risen almost 10 inches since the late 19th century. Hurricanes, too, are getting stronger -- according to one recent study, climate change has increased the chances of hurricanes reaching Category 3 or higher. Climate change is also affecting the amount of rainfall and storm surge from hurricanes.
Frank also made false claims about other climate issues. He lambasted climate models for being “flawed,” even though most climate models have correctly predicted global warming going back 50 years. He also downplayed the role of CO2 as a major factor in the Earth’s rising temperature. This is one of the oldest denier arguments in the book, but in reality, humans and their CO2 emissions are overwhelmingly the cause of current climate change.
Under Facebook’s loophole, this absurd climate denial drivel, which is labeled as “opinion” on the Washington Examiner website, would not be eligible for fact-checking. This approach also enables a long-standing strategy of climate deniers by flooding climate change discussions with misinformation that stalls action on promoting climate solutions.
Some of Facebook’s “trusted” news sources promote climate denial, too
Other right-wing outlets with a history of climate denial can also take advantage of Facebook’s loophole, including Breitbart News, one of Facebook News’ “trusted” sources.
Breitbart has produced a lot of climate denial content over the years; this content can be so egregious that Climate Feedback -- Facebook’s fact-checking partner on climate-related content -- has published 10 posts since 2017 that pushback on Breitbart’s misinformation. Breitbart's lead climate writer, James Delingpole, has no background in climate science and has repeatedly called climate change a “myth” or a “hoax.”
The conservative Washington Times is also listed as a “trusted” source for Facebook News; this outlet recently called the idea of a climate emergency “cartoonish” and said that the two well-known climate skeptics advising Trump are the “real experts on climate change.” Finally, Fox News is also a “trusted” Facebook News source. Just last year, Fox took climate denial to insane new levels, and it is one of the most influential purveyors of climate misinformation in the U.S.
Facebook's loophole facilitates astroturf op-ed campaigns, a favorite tactic of the polluter syndicate
The fossil-fuel industry -- and its allied constellation of think tanks and front groups -- has utilized astroturf op-ed campaigns multiple times to erode the public consensus around climate change, undermine support for climate policy, and create a false sense of momentum for its denialist agenda. While these campaigns boast varying degrees of success, they give a glimpse of how the climate denial machinery will further weaponize Facebook’s platform.
Media Matters has published pieces on many of these op-ed campaigns. For example, in October 2016, the largest Florida utilities, as well as front groups allied with Koch and Exxon, backed an astroturf group named “Consumers for Smart Solar.” The group published more than a dozen op-eds in favor of a misleading ballot initiative that was disguised to come across as pro-solar energy. During the summer of 2018, more than 50 groups, many funded by the Koch network or other fossil fuel interests, waged a multitiered attack to blunt growing bipartisan support for carbon pricing. These attacks included multiple op-eds decrying former Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s (R-FL) extremely modest carbon-tax legislation.
In mid-2018, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas lobbying organization in the United States, recruited minority business groups to place op-eds in their local newspapers touting the benefits of offshore drilling for communities of color. That year, the Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon, two favorites of the anti-climate right, published 24 pieces criticizing a clean energy ballot initiative in Arizona and amplifying industry talking points.
Big Oil used Facebook to spread disinformation throughout 2018 about a climate ballot initiative in Washington state. The “No on 1631” astroturf campaign, which received more than $31.5 million from BP, Chevron, Phillips 66, Koch Industries, and Shell, among others, spent more than $1.1 million on digital advertising in the weeks leading up to voting day. Much of this money paid for 71 Facebook ads that garnered millions of impressions and helped defeat the historic initiative that had the support of 200 clean energy and environmental groups, labor unions, tribal nations, and others.
These disinformation campaigns are part of the fossil fuel industry’s decadeslong strategy of utilizing lobbyists, think tanks, nonprofits, and front groups to erode the public’s belief in climate change and thwart climate policy and environmental regulation.
In an interview with Atkin and Legum, Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University, said that the CO2 Coalition’s use of Facebook’s op-ed loophole “fits right back into that strategy of trying to promulgate misinformation to the public in order to keep alive the lack of public concern over climate change, to stop meaningful action to address it.”
Climate deniers see platforms like Facebook as the last frontier
Pat Michaels and the CO2 Coalition see Facebook as fertile land to wage their war on climate science, in part because many media outlets have stopped legitimizing arguments that have been disputed by a vast majority of climate researchers, including the CO2 Coalition’s claim, also promoted by Michaels, that carbon is not a pollutant.
Michaels, who has “built a career vending doubt about the reality of climate change and denying its urgency,” has a platform in the right-wing mediasphere, but he views Facebook as an opportunity to stop “preaching to the converted” and “reach to a really broad and diverse audience” -- to which mainstream media have purportedly denied him access.
The CO2 Coalition's executive director, Caleb Rossiter, told E&E, “We're kind of like Donald Trump. We're not happy with the treatment we're getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That's where our action is in larger part."
The CO2 Coalition’s message that “climate change fears are overblown and that burning more fossil fuels would help humanity” has not been given a platform by most publications because it is wildly false -- and dangerous.
Climate scientists, communicators, activists, and journalists have been battling for years to get the media to report the facts on climate. Instead, in an effort to appear balanced, many in the U.S. media gave fringe climate denial equal time and space as the accepted science around climate change -- at great cost to climate action. While deniers and their debunked arguments still appear in mainstream media periodically, they are not granted the same airtime and ink that they once were.
It should give Facebook huge pause that fringe arguments and career climate deniers embraced only by right-wing media see the social media platform as the clear vector for their content.
The realities of extreme weather, coupled with the efforts of climate activists, scientists, and journalists, have helped to raise public awareness of the climate crisis. Facebook’s loophole threatens to undo much of this progress by giving a well-organized and well-funded denial machine free rein to propagandize and misinform about the climate crisis during a time of much-needed action.