On Facebook, misleading coverage of California's energy woes overshadowed extreme climate-driven heat
Just 1 post out of the top 100 linked climate change to the heat wave
The West Coast is facing an unprecedented September heat wave which, according to The Washington Post, has set hundreds of all-time temperature records, as well as records for the month of September, in addition to putting a major strain on the energy grid. Scientists agree that climate change is a key driver of increasingly extreme heat events in the West. On Facebook, however, the most popular posts covering the heat wave completely ignored the root of the problem.
California narrowly avoided rolling blackouts, in part due to Flex Alerts that advised residents to avoid engaging in high-energy activities such as charging their electric vehicles during peak energy demand. Just a few days before the onset of the prolonged heat wave, on August 25, California’s Air Resources Board voted to ban the purchase of new gas-powered cars by 2035 in an effort to promote the adoption of electric vehicles. Instead of acknowledging that an energy transition is essential to mitigating extreme heat in the future, that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change in the first place, and that this is placing unprecedented demand on energy grids, right-wing Facebook pages shifted the focus to mocking policies intended to accelerate the switch to renewable energy and cleaner technology such as electric vehicles.
Media Matters found that right-leaning political pages created the most posts about the heat wave over its duration compared to ideologically nonaligned and left-leaning pages and these posts also received the vast majority of likes, comments, and shares.
For this study, Media Matters looked at top political Facebook pages from August 31, 2022, through September 6, 2022. We identified the 100 Facebook posts with the most interactions that contained keywords related to California’s heat wave and grid challenges.
- Out of the top 100 posts, 65% of posts with keywords related to the heat wave and/or energy grid challenges came from right-leaning pages.
- Nearly 87% of interactions came from these posts.
- Nine of the top 10 posts with the most interactions came from right-leaning pages, and these posts received about 61% of all interactions.
- Just one of the 100 posts, from The New York Times, mentioned climate change, receiving .25% of total interactions.
The sweltering weather in California put a massive strain on the state’s power grid, which struggled to keep up with surging demand as residents turned to air conditioning to stay cool. To help save energy and avoid the need to implement planned or rolling blackouts, California’s Independent System Operator urged Californians to pitch in and help voluntarily cut their energy usage through Flex Alerts. These alerts, which began on August 31, strongly suggested avoiding using major appliances and completing other energy-intensive tasks such as charging electric vehicles as well as keeping thermostats at 78 degrees between 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. However, many high-engagement posts Media Matters examined from right-leaning pages skewed this reality by omitting important details, suggesting that these requests were mandatory and not voluntary and that they applied at all times and not just during a short time frame in the evenings. From these false assumptions, pages tried to imply that California’s cutting-edge environmental goals are ineffective and disruptive.
Right-leaning pages were able to co-opt the conversation around the heat wave without including key context about its cause
Right-leaning pages got the lion’s share of attention from Facebook users. Out of the top 100 posts, 65% of posts with keywords related to the heat wave and/or energy grid challenges came from right-leaning pages. Nearly 87% of interactions came from these posts.
More broadly, right-wing media have sought to discredit electric vehicles and solar and wind power as viable and reliable technologies in an effort to prolong the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Right-wing media have promoted misleading information about California’s decision to ban the purchase of new gas-powered cars by 2035, and this tactic also appeared frequently on right-leaning pages in the study, particularly in the posts with the highest engagement.
Nine of the top 10 posts with the most interactions came from right-leaning pages, and these posts received 61% of all interactions. The top post Media Matters identified was a widely shared photo from conservative political commentator and YouTuber Mark Shouldice (known as Mark Dice). The August 31 post, which received nearly 217,000 interactions, is seemingly meant to depict California leadership as inept and unprepared to support an increased number of electric vehicles on its streets. However, it does so by removing relevant information about the specifics of the transition away from gas-powered cars, which is not happening for another 13 years, as well as information about the voluntary and flexible nature of the flex alert suggestions.
This post itself is not labeled, but the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact did comment to clarify the situation and provide a link to more information. Facebook claims to reduce the distribution of posts with misinformation through its fact-checking partnerships, though it does not remove climate change misinformation posts unless they violate its community standards. These organizations -- certified through the nonpartisan International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter -- can label misinformation, and posts with such labels are apparently pushed lower in the news feed.
A popular post from Breitbart also linked to an article from its news site making the misleading claim that California “has been at risk of electricity shortages for the past several years, thanks to a lack of new power plants and the unreliability of energy from wind and solar power,” when in reality, many factors are contributing to the threat of summer power outages across the country, including the stress of experiencing increasingly extreme weather. This post received over 59,000 interactions and did not have a fact-checking label.
Left-leaning and nonaligned political pages were underrepresented among top posts, and posts that did get attention largely did not connect the heat wave to climate change
Climate change, not renewable energy or electric vehicles, is the greatest threat to energy grids across the country. The sweltering weather in California put a massive strain on the state’s power grid, which struggled to keep up with surging demand as residents turned to air conditioning to stay cool.
And grid instability is far from the only threat extreme heat presents. Hot weather creates health risks such as heat stroke and exacerbates heart disease, as well as respiratory illnesses such as asthma. It’s killing more people in the United States than any other type of severe weather or climate disaster. The risk is particularly high for those who work outdoors.
Where right-leaning pages created confusion about the implication of the heat wave, nonaligned news pages did not adequately pick up the slack. Only one post from a nonaligned page, The New York Times, used the word “climate change” in the post text. The post received only around 3,300 interactions, which is .255% of total interactions.
Top posts from nonaligned news pages that covered the heat wave such as NBC affiliates KCRA in Sacramento and WFLA, sometimes failed to put the energy conservation alerts, grid challenges, and California’s gas car ban into context by neglecting to mention climate change. A local nonaligned San Diego News station, KUSI, even echoed right-wing pages and used a screenshot from a video of Vice President Kamala Harris learning how to charge an electric vehicle that right-wing media attacked extensively in 2021. Combined, these posts had nearly 48,000 interactions.
Shockingly, no posts from left-leaning pages that Media Matters examined mentioned climate change specifically in connection with California’s heat wave.
Climate change is driving extreme heat and other disasters. While this past week seemed bad, it could be the mildest September California will see in coming years if this pattern of warming continues. The Southwest is currently experiencing its driest period in over 1,200 years. This prolonged drought combined with high temperatures have created the perfect conditions for the eight wildfires that have started since August 31 and are now raging across the state. At least four people have been killed. As Tropical Storm Kay approaches California, strong, dry winds could exacerbate fires before heavy rains could cause flooding in fire-scarred regions. This is the new normal, and it cannot be glossed over.
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 on August 31, 2022, and were related to the California heat wave, including the terms “heatwave,” “heat wave,” “high temperatures,” “drought,” “extreme heat,” “wildfires,” “California,” “heatwaves,” “heat waves,” “high temperature,” “droughts,” “wildfire,” “excessive heat,” “blackout,” “outage,” “outages,” “electric grid,” “electricity grid,” or “power grid” in the post itself or in the headline or description of any included link from August 31, 2022, through September 6, 2022.
Two Media Matters researchers then reviewed the 100 posts with the most interactions to determine whether the post was relevant to the heat wave or its impacts. These posts were then coded for explicit mentions of either “climate change” or “global warming” in the post text, linked article headline, or content summary preview. If coding differed, posts were reviewed and discussed to reach a consensus.