Facebook accused of profiting from misinformation about climate crisis

Report claims misleading adverts on climate change are receiving more than one million daily views

Hebe Campbell
Friday 12 November 2021 08:22
<p>Protests left a huge block of ice in Washington DC to protest against misinformation on Facebook </p>

Protests left a huge block of ice in Washington DC to protest against misinformation on Facebook

A new report claims Facebook is profiting from fake news about the climate emergency at the same time that thousands are at the Cop26 summit to discuss urgent action to protect the planet.

Campaign groups Stop Funding Heat and The Real Facebook Oversight Board said that Facebook is accepting paid-for adverts on the social network that are pushing fake news about climate change and facilitating the spread of misinformation.

These posts, the campaign groups claim, are receiving more than a million daily views of this kind of content.

It comes at a bad time for Facebook and its new parent company Meta, the launch of which was overshadowed by whistleblower Francis Haugen’s claims that the company is actively prioritising profit over user safety.

The former product manager urged Mark Zuckerberg to step down as company chief as she addressed MPs, saying the company could be stronger with someone willing to focus on user safety at the helm.

Based on what Facebook itself classifies as climate misinformation, Stop Funding Heat’s report found that there are between 818,000 and 1.36 million daily views of climate misinformation on the platform.

It also found that just 3.6 per cent of fake posts about climate change had a “fact-checking label”, something Facebook uses to mark content that is deemed by their third-party fact-checkers as misinformation.

Only 10.7 per cent of these posts were directing users to Facebook’s Climate Science Centre, a page created to counteract this kind of content. The Climate Science Centre directs users who are reading misleading posts about the climate to credible information.

Facebook has questioned the accuracy of the figures in the report and said the campaign groups used “flawed methodology”.

The company announced earlier this month the platform is rolling out the Climate Science Centre to 100 more countries and will be applying the informational labels to more posts to fight the spread of misinformation.

It also said comparing estimates on impressions to daily Climate Science Centre visitors is “apples to oranges”, as content impressions happen on users’ news feeds and in pages and groups while people generally click into the Climate Science Centre.

Sean Buchan, chief researcher at Stop Funding Heat, said the spread of misinformation on the climate crisis can lead to “real-world changes in attitudes”.

Facebook unveiled its new Metaverse sign outside its headquarters

He said: “Hundreds of thousands are already dying every year from the impacts of climate change. Academic research has shown that climate misinformation, wherever consumed, leads to real-world changes in attitudes, including changes in acceptance of climate change science, changes in behaviour regarding its urgency, and even changes in stance on policies."

The report claims that Facebook is taking thousands of pounds from paid-for adverts sharing climate misinformation.

It said that 76 per cent of the accounts found to be sharing false information had been flagged to Facebook in October 2020 by InfluenceMap, an independent think tank sharing data and analysis on how business and finance are affecting the climate crisis.

It found adverts on Facebook’s advertising platform that included phrases like “climate change is a HOAX” and “environmentalism... is tantamount to religion”. It is estimated that between 11.7 million to 14.1 million people had viewed these adverts per year.

Some 113 of these adverts including climate misinformation were identified from 1 January to 17 October this year, with most of the adverts predominantly shown in the UK, North America and Australia.

Using Facebook’s own numbers, these adverts amounted to an estimated revenue for the platform of around $75,000 and are estimated to have had over 10 million views.

More than 90 per cent of the adverts had a disclaimer but none of the adverts were fact-checked or taken down by Facebook. When approached, Facebook said they pause all adverts from advertisers who repeatedly share fact-checked content.

They also said all climate-related adverts that are permitted to run are included in the public Ad Library for anyone to scrutinise, which gives it more transparency than the adverts received when they run on television or in newspapers.

The report is not the first time Facebook has been accused of propagating climate misinformation through its platform - clothing brand Patagonia announced it had pulled all of its paid advertising on the social media platform in June 2020 due to “the spread of hate speech and misinformation about climate change”. Last week the company said they continue to stand by the boycott.

The company wrote: “The internal Facebook documents released over the last few weeks have made it incredibly clear that they know the irreparable damage that their lack of accountability causes their three billion users and the corrosive effects that has on society itself.

“We encourage other businesses to join us in pushing Facebook to prioritise people and the planet over profit.”

The release of the report coincides with the meeting of world leaders in Glasgow to debate the measures needed to safeguard the future at the Cop26 climate summit.

Mr Buchan added that Facebook “continues to downplay or totally ignores” the issue of climate change misinformation on its platforms “whenever new evidence using their own data and tools is presented to them”.

He said: “Facebook need to take leadership on this issue before their growing climate misinformation problem becomes the next accidental Q-Anon, or worse.”

A spokesperson from Facebook said: “This report uses made-up numbers and a flawed methodology to suggest content on Facebook is misinformation when it’s really just posts these groups disagree with politically.

“In fact, there were over 140 million interactions with climate change content overall during the same time frame - more than 14 times the interactions this report claims.”

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