'Everybody’s entitled to their opinion - but not their own facts': The spread of climate denial on Facebook

'The arguments are that people can't trust scientists, models, climate data. It's all about building doubt and undermining public trust in climate science'

Louise Boyle
New York
Thursday 23 July 2020 15:43 BST
Facebook condemned in report it commissioned into its civil right record

An article linking climate change to Earth’s solar orbit went viral last year, racking up 4.2million views on social media and widely shared on Facebook. It was the most-engaged with climate story in 2019, according to Brandwatch.

There was just one problem. It wasn’t true.

Facebook removed the article from Natural News, a far-right conspiracy outlet with 3 million followers, after it was reported.

But the spread of misinformation on the climate crisis by groups who reject climate science continues on Facebook and other social media platforms.

While tech giants have taken steps to remove, or label as false, potentially harmful misinformation on the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a seeming acceptance of those who spread false theories on the climate crisis.

In August, an op-ed by two members of the CO2 Coalition, a pro-fossil fuel nonprofit with close ties to the Trump administration, was published in the Washington Examiner and subsequently posted to the group’s Facebook page.

The article, which claimed climate models are inaccurate and climate change has been greatly exaggerated, was initially tagged as “false” by five scientists from independent fact-checkers Climate Feedback who said it used “cherry-picked” evidence and deemed its scientific credibility “very low”.

Facebook doesn’t check content but outsources to dozens of third-party groups. A fact-checker's false designation pushes a story lower in News Feed and significantly reduces the number of people who see it, according to Facebook policies.

The CO2 Coalition did not take the fact-checkers’ decision lying down, branding Climate Feedback “alarmists” and writing an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. They succeeded in having the false label removed.

Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director, told the New York Times last week that all opinion content on the platform, including op-eds, has been exempt from fact-checking since 2016.

Dr Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, was one of the fact-checkers on CO2 Coalition's op-ed. He told The Independent: “I’ve thought since the 2016 election that social media could end up tearing society apart. This is just more evidence that that’s the case.”

On 7 May, CO2 Coalition received another “false information” label from fact-checkers, this time for a video of a Fox News interview with member Dr Patrick Michaels, a climate scientist who rejects scientific consensus on rising temperatures. He claimed that the UN climate models are all “predicting far, far too much warming”. The clip is still available on YouTube and has more than 15,000 views.

Dr Robert Brulle, Professor Emeritus and environmental sociologist at Drexel University, said that Facebook’s actions amount to “corporate irresponsibility”.

“In 2020 to be aiding and abetting people that distort climate science, to be knowingly printing their stuff even after it’s been identified by your own people as misinformation, it’s absurd,” Dr Brulle told The Independent.

“Saying, for example, ‘I think we should quit sailing across the Pacific because we’ll fall off the edges of the flat earth’ - that’s not a responsible opinion because it's based on a factually incorrect statement. It’s just nonsense.”

He added: “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts.”

Dr Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State and National Academy of Sciences member, suggested that Mr Zuckerberg was using Facebook to “exploit his platform for the spreading of disinformation, including climate change denial”.

A Facebook Company spokesperson told The Independent: “The focus of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program is combating viral misinformation. There’s an appeals process in place for publishers to appeal directly to fact-checkers to dispute ratings.”

Mr Stone also told The Times that Facebook is most concerned about misinformation that threatens human health and safety but that does not include climate content.

Yet US government agencies have been unequivocal that the climate crisis poses a serious threat to human health.

The most recent National Climate Assessment report, the federal government’s “State of the Union” on the issue, found that climate breakdown exacerbates existing climate-sensitive health threats and creates new challenges, exposing more people in more places to hazardous weather and climate conditions.

Those most at risk are low-income and minority communities, according to the civil rights organisation NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

“Undermining public trust”

This week an investigation by Heated and Popular Info raised questions about a “partly false” rating from Climate Feedback that was removed from a climate misinformation piece published by right-wing outlet The Daily Wire, reportedly after complaints from the author about being “censored” and intervention by Republican congressman Mike Johnson.

According to internal Facebook documents, communications and fact-checking staff at the tech giant agreed with the “partly false” label but they were overruled by the policy team who said its "stakeholders" thought the fact-check was “biased". The story, which no longer alerts readers to its “partly false” rating, has been shared tens of thousands of times.

Dr John Cook, a professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and founder of the Skeptical Science website, told The Independent that it is nearly impossible to quantify the volumes of climate misinformation on Facebook.

“A lot of Facebook is a black book," he said. “But the fact that Facebook is allowing this to happen, like the misinformation about politics and elections that's published freely, is really dangerous. And Facebook is so opaque about it [which] means we don’t know how much impact it’s going to have.”

Dr Cook said that climate misinformation largely came from conservative think tanks.

“It's think tanks like CO2 Coalition or Heartland Institute, [the latter] being one of the particularly prolific producers of climate science misinformation whereas a lot of others tend to focus on policy.”

The Heartland Institute has received funding from the fossil fuel industry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In a recent post, they claimed that: "Manmade climate crisis promoters reject inconvenient evidence of natural climate change. They're the real deniers.”

Through his research, Dr Cook has found that climate misinformation that is spread on social media disproportionately affects conservatives and has little impact on liberals.

“Status quo is a win for climate deniers. If they prevent people from accepting climate change or acting to do something about it, they’ve succeeded,” he said.

He said that a defining characteristic of the misinformation was the attacks on scientists, and on the science itself.

“The misinformation arguments are that people can’t trust scientists, can’t trust models, can’t trust climate data. It’s all about building doubt and undermining public trust in climate science.”

The CO2 Coalition advises the Trump administration and some Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz. One founder, Dr William Happer, served on the National Security Council.

The coalition is featured on Greenpeace’s list of “Koch-funded Climate Denial Front Groups”. Along with the Charles Koch Institute, the non-profit has received funding from the Mercer Family Foundation, according to a 2016 tax filing.

Koch Industries controls oil refineries and ethanol plants along with 4,000 miles of pipeline, according to Rolling Stone, while the Mercers are Republican mega-donors who previously staked far-right site Breitbart, CNBC reported.

The CO2 Coalition, which states on its website that “higher carbon dioxide levels will be beneficial for the Developing World”, has been ramping up its social media presence over the past year.

“The one thing we do is make sure we are active all day now,” Dr Rossiter told The Independent.

Following the removal of the Facebook fact-check on the Washington Examiner piece, written by Dr Rossiter and Dr Michaels, CO2 Coalition was also able to resume buying ads.

Dr Rossiter said the group could buy ads "very inexpensively" and expand its reach.

“We don’t bother with East Coast readers of the Washington Post when we’re doing an advertisement and we want to target our post, or boost our posts, and show it to other people. We pick people in the midwestern states who might subscribe to something like the Republican National Committee's chain," he said.

“We’re trying to target people who need to know more, but are naturally at least reachable by us to be educated. There’s not much education going on in this issue for people who are firmly committed on one side or the other.”

“Not in the news business”

Facebook’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert, told CNN last year that the social media giant “is not in the news business, we’re in the social media business”.

And yet more Americans (35%) get their news from Facebook than anywhere else, according to the 2020 Digital News Report, followed by YouTube (24%) and Twitter (17%).

The report also found that globally, seven in 10 people view climate change as a serious problem. However in the US a significant portion (12%) dispute its severity, in part because they may be “sceptical of the science”, the report said.

Regardless, Americans who say climate change is not serious are just as likely to share views on it via social media or email as those who are deeply worried about it. “We see a highly vocal minority making a big noise online,” the report states.

Timothy Karr is a director with advocacy group Free Press and Free Press Action Fund, which calls for media reform and net neutrality. He told The Independent: “Facebook is in a very strange position. On the one hand, it claims to be doing more than ever to combat disinformation but it also benefits from disinformation by virtue of the way its advertising model functions.”

He said that posts with the most engagement on Facebook are those which are “very divisive or spread disinformation or conspiracy theories”.

“Those levels of engagement drive advertising dollars to Facebook so it has an incentive to encourage the spread of posts that engage people in this often disingenuous way,” he added.

The pushback

On 1 July, a coalition of environmental and political groups sent a letter to Facebook's oversight board demanding a crackdown on climate denial and to close the “giant” opinion loophole that allows climate misinformation to be posted as an opinion.

"Facebook is allowing the spread of climate misinformation to flourish, unchecked, across the globe. Instead of heeding the advice of independent scientists and approved fact-checkers from Climate Feedback, Facebook sided with fossil fuel lobbyists by allowing the CO2 Coalition to take advantage of a giant loophole for “opinion” content. The loophole has allowed climate denial to fester by labelling it “opinion,” and thus, avoiding the platform’s fact-checking processes,” they wrote.

More than 500 companies including Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts, Verizon, and this week Disney, according to WSJ, have slashed or suspended ad spends on Facebook as part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” boycott, a move by civil rights groups to try to force the social media giant to address hate speech and misinformation.

An independent audit of Facebook earlier this month reached harsh conclusions on the social media giant, reporting that it was allowing hate speech and disinformation to proliferate.

Separately, Generation Progress, the youth-centered research and advocacy group, on Thursday launched a “Get The Facts Out Campaign” website aimed at debunking myths on the climate crisis and calling out climate deniers across Congress and the Trump administration, with a focus on the interwoven issues of climate and racial justice.

“Black Americans have been fighting for clean air and water in their communities for years. Our legislators must understand the importance of addressing these inequities, not deny their existence,” the group said.

And earlier this month, two senators introduced legislation to reform Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Reuters reported.

The legislation, titled the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, or PACT, from Democratic Senator Brian Schatz and Senate Republican John Thune, aims to provide more accountability and transparency for large tech platforms with respect to content moderation decisions.

The bill would require tech platforms to explain their content moderation practices in a way that is accessible to consumers, form a complaint system that notifies users of moderation decisions within 14 days and allows them to appeal such decisions.

It would offer no immunity for known illegal content if companies are notified and when federal regulators pursue civil actions.

Tech giants appear to be reacting to the pressure. Alphabet Inc’s Google announced it would start showing fact-checking labels on Google Images search results globally.

Twitter also introduced fact-checking programmes and warning labels for “manipulated media” – which were applied to some of President Trump’s recent tweets – although critics say the moves are too limited in scope.

Climate experts were sceptical of tech platforms' ability, or desire, to enact meaningful change, and said that public action was key.

For Dr Mann that means political overhaul. “Americans must vote in a Democratic president and Congress in the next US election. Unlike Trump and Congressional Republicans, who appear beholden to both Russia and fossil fuel interests, will be willing to crack down on Zuckerberg/Facebook’s nefarious activities,” he said.

Dr Cook is working with machine-learning researchers on a system to detect and categorise climate misinformation in real-time. He acknowledged that social media platforms would have to be incentivised to use such a model, as it “would basically be taking money out of their pockets" in terms of ad revenue.

Just as important, he says, is “building public resilience against misinformation” – teaching people how to spot misleading or rhetorical techniques and logical fallacies in climate denial arguments.

“We found that when you explain techniques, that not only neutralises and inoculates people against that myth, but also against other topics like the tobacco industry and anti-vaxxer misinformation,” he said.

Dr Cook and his team have created a smart-phone app for public use and for schools.

He added: ”We need to look at technological solutions but ultimately we need to make ourselves un-hackable.”

Additional reporting from Reuters

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