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  • Facebook has a climate-denial problem

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    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.

  • This data conclusively debunks the myth of conservative censorship on Facebook

    We studied Facebook pages that post content about American political news. Conservatives are not being censored -- in fact, right-wing Facebook pages are thriving.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Right-wing politicians, pundits, and campaigns continually claim that Facebook and other tech platforms censor conservative content online. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, frequently makes this argument. At every congressional hearing about social media, Republican members reliably make the same accusation. The GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee has already held one hearing on the supposed censorship, and they’re scheduled to hold a second on July 17. Conservatives believe that attacking tech companies about so-called censorship will rally their base, and they plan to continue the attacks.

    Even though those making these accusations have offered no evidence to support censorship claims, Facebook responded by announcing a conservative bias review -- retaining former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona and his lobbying firm to advise the company. (Kyl is now also shepherding Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh through confirmation hearings.)

    It’s not the first time Facebook has reacted to claims of nonexistent right-wing censorship. In May 2016, a flimsy report claimed that conservative outlets and stories were “blacklisted” from Facebook’s Trending Topics section. To great fanfare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with conservatives, including a representative from Trump's campaign, and made promises to be good to them. A subsequent internal investigation revealed “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the Trending Topics section. But Facebook soon gave in anyway and fired the curators of the section, resorting instead to using an algorithm that routinely promoted fabricated stories from bogus sources. Add this cravenness to existing confirmation bias and plenty of dishonest actors willing to take advantage, and Facebook became a cesspool of fake news.

    The algorithm change that was announced in January 2018 was supposed to fix to the fake news problem, which existed only because of previous failures at Facebook. And now with Facebook rolling out the welcome mat for conservatives, we’re about to begin that cycle anew.

    And once again, conservatives are pressuring Facebook with a total myth. Media Matters conducted an extensive six-month study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook and found no evidence that conservative content is being censored on the platform or that it is not reaching a large audience.

    We identified 463 Facebook pages that had more than 500,000 likes each and regularly posted content dealing with American political news. We analyzed data from these pages, week by week, between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, to observe trends in post interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) and page likes. We found two key things:

    • Partisan pages had roughly equal engagement, and they had more engagement than nonpartisan pages: Right-leaning and left-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical average interaction rates -- measurements of a page's engagement -- at .18 percent and .17 percent, respectively, and nonaligned pages had the lowest interaction rates at .08 percent.
    • Right-leaning pages in total have a bigger presence on Facebook: In every week but one, right-leaning Facebook pages had a higher total number of interactions than left-leaning Facebook pages. Right-leaning pages had 23 percent more total interactions than nonaligned pages and 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. Images shared by right-leaning pages -- including memes that frequently include false and bigoted messages -- were by far the highest performing content on the Facebook pages examined.

    The data indicates something I’ve long assumed anecdotally: The right is out-organizing the left on Facebook. Even though the right-leaning pages had fewer page likes than the left-leaning pages, the rates of interaction are virtually identical. And when you look at the individual metrics, especially on image-based posts, the news gets even worse. Despite having a larger base of aligned supporters on Facebook in terms of page likes, left-leaning pages don't have as much impact with their base.

    You can view the full study here. 

    It’s time to end the charade. The Trump campaign and politically aligned groups aren't going to stop advertising on Facebook. They need Facebook to reach their voters. Facebook should disband the conservative bias review and stop enabling political theater. Considering how many problems Facebook as a company is facing, it's long overdue for the company to stop wasting its time and resources on a problem that doesn't exist. Political media also need to stop giving this myth oxygen. Next time Parscale or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) start whining about bias, reporters need to ask for some actual numbers to back up their claims.

  • Study: Analysis of top Facebook pages covering American political news

    Study of 463 leading Facebook pages shows that partisan pages have roughly equal engagement, but right-wing pages drastically outnumber left-wing pages

    ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ

    A Media Matters study of engagement, measured by interactions over a six-month period, on Facebook pages that regularly post content about American political news found that right-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical engagement to left-leaning pages and received more engagement than other political pages.

  • The UK’s Information Commissioner's Office just fined Facebook 500,000 pounds

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Big news from across the pond: The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has completed an interim investigation report about Facebook’s data-sharing practices and fined the tech company 500,000 pounds for two breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. Further, the report states that SCL, parent company of Cambridge Analytica, will face criminal prosecution for not complying with an order the office issued the now-defunct company in May.

    The fine is the largest ever given out for a breach under the Data Protection Act. Facebook’s actions came before a new set of European Union data rules -- the General Data Protection Regulation -- went into effect, but had the data breach happened under GDPR, the fine could have been up to 359 million pounds.

    The ICO first began investigating Cambridge Analytica when an American academic, David Carroll, asked Cambridge Analytica to provide all of the data it had about him -- a request U.K. law required the company follow. Note that the data Carroll was requesting was his voter profile, which he was unable to obtain under U.S. law even though the information was used in U.S. elections.

    When Cambridge Analytica failed to supply the data, Carroll asked the ICO to enforce his request, which spurred the office to open an investigation. Just a few weeks later, the news broke that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the Facebook profiles of 50 million users (the reported number has since increased to at least 87 million). Cambridge Analytica executives were also caught on hidden camera bragging to potential customers about the company’s use of “bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers” on behalf of its clients. Because Facebook failed to protect its users, the company became part of the ICO investigation.

    Today’s interim report doesn’t mean the investigation is over. According to The Guardian, “More than 20 different organisations, including political parties, data brokers, and social media companies, were approached by the ICO. One of the commissioner’s announcements on Wednesday was that the ICO would audit the data-processing practices of 11 political parties in the UK.” The ICO has also called on the U.K. government to “legislate a statutory code of practice under the new Data Protection Act to govern the use of data in political campaigns.”

    I appreciate the ICO’s suggestion that the U.K. needs additional legislation to protect Facebook’s users, but to be honest, that won’t be enough. Practically speaking, Facebook is too large a company for any one government to oversee. We already know that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t the only firm to exploit Facebook’s user data, and just yesterday news broke that a Russian company with Kremlin links also had access to user data, having developed “hundreds of Facebook apps” to collect data, “some of which were test apps that were not made public.”

    Facebook’s users are spread across the globe, and breaches of their data and other abuses have a global impact. The response to Facebook’s failures must be global as well. The  American professor who is suing in the U.K. came up with a creative approach, and we need more of the same, as Facebook will change only in response to pressure. The more we can organize pressure campaigns with international reach and the more those campaigns utilize institutions in multiple countries, the more successful we’ll be at forcing Facebook’s hand.

  • Jon Kyl’s new side hustle: Working for Trump while he already works for Facebook

    Why Facebook should end its partnership with the White House’s SCOTUS Sherpa

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Former Sen. and lobbyist Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is a busy man. Last month, Facebook hired Kyl and his law firm, Covington and Burling, to lead the social media company’s conservative bias review. Facebook created the review as a response to debunked claims from the right that the platform was censoring conservative content. Though the right has no data to back up these claims, and Facebook almost certainly has data to prove the opposite, the social media giant caved to conservative demands.

    Then, yesterday, the White House announced that Kyl would also act as the “sherpa” for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

    Via CNN:

    A GOP official said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had suggested Kyl for the task. The White House had asked for McConnell's advice on the matter, the official said.

    The recommendation continued to underscore McConnell's significant behind-the-scenes role in the process -- one bolstered by months of close coordination with the White House, and with White House counsel Don McGahn specifically, on filling circuit and district judge slots. As CNN previously reported, McConnell has consulted with Trump and his team daily on strategy and Senate math for the possible picks.

    Kyl’s new side hustle is yet another reminder that Facebook’s decision to cave to the right is all political theater. Facebook wants that sweet 2020 digital ad campaign money from the Trump campaign -- not to mention from the GOP’s many allied groups. Given the context, it seems clear the social media company didn’t hire Kyl and his firm because its leaders genuinely believe he’ll help the company fix a problem, but rather because he’s a connected GOP operator and they hope that his involvement will tamper the barrage of whining from the right.

    Given that the GOP plans to scapegoat tech companies as a way of rallying its base, Facebook should scrap both the conservative bias review and Jon Kyl’s lobbying role with the company.