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Surprise! Facebook’s climate denial problem got worse this year

A new study found an uptick in engagement with climate misinformation on the platform

Activists bring iceberg to have it melt in front of the US Capitol
Climate activists target Facebook with ice protest in front of the US Capitol, on November 4, 2021 in Washington D.C, United States. Activists bring 5000lb iceberg to have it melt in front of the United States Capitol to protest Facebook’s role in promoting climate misinformation.
Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As world leaders scramble to forge global agreements in Glasgow this month in a last-ditch effort to avert the worst of the climate crisis, there’s a threat to meaningful climate action lurking on social media. Climate denial on Facebook has gotten even worse this year, according to a new study led by climate advocacy group Stop Funding Heat and the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group made up of academics, journalists, and activists. It’s evidence that Facebook’s efforts to stomp out lies about climate change are failing, the study’s authors say.

Reactions, comments, and shares per post from Facebook pages and groups dedicated to spreading climate misinformation jumped a whopping 77 percent since January, the report found. Each day, it found, climate misinformation on the platform gets between 818,000 and 1.36 million views. Less than 4 percent of the posts it analyzed had been fact-checked.

“Facebook is the Big Tobacco of our generation, greenwashing to avoid responsibility and sewing [sic] confusion and doubt about climate change in the global conversation,” Real Facebook Oversight Board wrote in a statement.

The authors analyzed a dataset of 195 pages and groups and 48,700 posts written in English between January and August. That included 41 accounts focused entirely on climate misinformation, like a page called ‘Friends of Science’ that today posted a photo of a cake with icing that says “COP26 Much Ado About Nothing”— a reference to COP26 the high-profile United Nations climate summit taking place in Glasgow. Other pages and groups also have a history of posting false information about climate change. Fox News, Breitbart, and Sean Hannity were the three most prolific spreaders of climate misinformation identified in the report.

The study also scrutinized advertising on the platform and found 113 instances of Facebook making money from ads pushing climate misinformation. More than three-quarters of the spending came from just seven pages, all of which had previously been flagged in an October 2020 investigation of disinformation ads on Facebook.

“Facebook has been told over and over, through public reports and in private meetings, that its platform is a breeding ground for climate misinformation. Either they don’t care or they don’t know how to fix it,” Sean Buchan, chief researcher for Stop Funding Heat, said in a statement.

Facing pressure from activists, Facebook launched a “Climate Science Center” last year that shares information, videos, and quizzes about climate change and is now available in more than 100 countries. But environmental activists say it’s a paltry effort that doesn’t stop the spread of climate lies in the first place. Facebook says that its Science Center gets more than 100,000 visits daily, far less than the number of views garnered by misleading climate posts analyzed in the new report.

The company, which recently rebranded itself as Meta, has faced even more heat recently with the massive document leak that revealed failures to stop harmful content related to everything from vaccines to body image.

The study adds to a steady stream of damning findings on Facebook’s handling of misleading climate information. Earlier this week, a separate report traced 69 percent of all interactions with content denying climate change back to just 10 publishers. In September, an investigation into misinformation around this year’s deadly cold snap in Texas found that less than 1 percent of interactions with the “highest-performing” content that falsely blamed wind turbines for blackouts were with posts that carried Facebook’s fact-checking labels. And in 2020, E&E News published an investigation into a de facto loophole for opinion content in Facebook’s fact-checking practices that triggered an inquiry from Democratic senators. The company works with independent fact-checkers to review and rate how accurate content is.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge in an email that the new report uses “flawed methodology” to inflate the number of posts and ads containing climate misinformation. “It’s really just posts these groups disagree with politically,” the spokesperson added.

But while the report authors acknowledge that their definition of climate misinformation included content which has no overt factual inaccuracies but is misleadingly packaged, the report also flagged many outright lies. For example, the study found a quote from botanist and climate denier David Bellamy that says, “Global warming is part of a natural cycle and there’s nothing we can actually do to stop these cycles.” The quote from 2008, “does not reflect scientific consensus” that humans are to blame for climate change, according to Politifact, one of the independent fact-checking groups with which Facebook partners. While some Facebook posts sharing the quote have been taken down or labeled as “false information,” the viral quote can still be found in other posts without the fact-checking label.

“Clearly Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program, and its Climate Science Center, has failed,” Buchan said in a press release.