Facebook Is Making Millions Off Lies About the Climate Crisis

A barrage of new data shows just how bad Facebook's climate misinformation problem is, and how the company profits from it.
November 5, 2021, 2:17pm
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Sum Of Us
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

As world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow try to negotiate the drastic and urgent action needed to avoid total climate catastrophe, a trio of new reports shows that work is being directly undermined by Facebook’s inability to prevent toxic misinformation about climate change from pervading its platform.

And two of those reports show how the company is profiting on that toxic misinformation.

The first report shows that despite Facebook’s claims that it is putting more resources into tackling climate change misinformation on its platform, the level of engagement with such content shot up by 77% since the beginning of this year.

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The researchers found that the number of reactions, comments, and shares on posts from Facebook pages and groups dedicated to spreading climate misinformation jumped 77 % since January. This means that each day, climate misinformation on the platform gets up to 1.36 million views. The number of those posts that are fact-checked is fewer than 4%.

This new study was conducted by climate advocacy group Stop Funding Heat and the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group made up of academics, journalists, and activists. To highlight the report’s findings, activist group Sum of Us dumped 5000lb block of recycled ice in front of Congress, which revealed flames and Facebook’s logo as it melted. 

“Our report shows the staggering scale of climate misinformation on Facebook, in posts, groups, and ads,” Sean Buchan, chief researcher for Stop Funding Heat said in an emailed statement.

“This is where the ambitions of COP26 and the revelations of the Facebook Papers collide, with our data showing Facebook is among the world’s biggest purveyors of climate misinformation. Clearly, Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program, and its Climate Science Center, have failed.”

The second report comes from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which found that 69% of climate misinformation on Facebook was coming from just 10 publishers. These superspreaders, dubbed the “Toxic Ten,” include a number of right-wing outlets including Breitbart, which tops the list, as well as Newsmax, the Daily Wire, Western Journal, and the Washington Times.

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Also among the so-called “super polluters” was the Media Research Center, a “think tank” that received funding from ExxonMobil.

The articles being spread by these publishers claim that those warning about the impending dangers are part of a “cult of climate change” whose “worship” risks people’s future. Others told their readers not to “worry too much about CO2 baking the planet.”

Facebook relies on a network of third-party fact-checking organizations to label content posted on the site as misinformation, but these groups are only able to assess a tiny fraction of the content posted on the network each day.

Like the Stop Funding Heat report, the CCDH researchers found that Facebook failed to label the vast majority of the content from the Toxic Ten publishers, catching just 8% of posts.

If that wasn’t bad enough, another analysis published this week showed how Facebook is not only failing to tackle climate misinformation, but also profiting from it.

Eco-Bot.Net is an AI system that reveals the hidden ecosystems of climate change disinformation on social media. In its first report published Monday, it found that fossil fuel companies such as Exxon, CEMEX, Shell, and Teck frequently use Facebook’s advertising tools to promote false and misleading narratives about climate change and/or the role of fossil fuels in it.

Facebook/ExxonMobil

Facebook/ExxonMobil

For example, an ExxonMobil targeting New Yorkers warned that a proposed new piece of legislation would “force” them to switch from gas to electric and would cost them “more than $25,600 to replace major appliances.” This is misleading: The proposed legislation only applies to new-build homes, Time reported.

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And this type of greenwashing—a tactic companies use to misrepresent or overstate their green credentials—is rampant on Facebook. Eco-Bot.net found 1,700 climate misinformation ads on Facebook from 16 of the world’s biggest polluting companies have paid for some 1,700 climate misinformation ads, which altogether have received up to 150 million impressions.

Additionally, Stop Funding Heat’s research found 113 climate misinformation ads in Facebook’s own Ad Library between January and October 2021. Using Facebook’s own figures, almost 80% of the estimated total money spent on these ads came from a group of seven pages that were flagged as spreaders of climate misinformation a year ago by InfluenceMap, an independent think tank focusing on the climate crisis. 

Adverts included phrases like “climate change is a HOAX” and “environmentalism...is tantamount to religion,” the researchers found.

Facebook did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request about these reports but has criticized them in comments to other publications. It told the Verge and Guardian respectively that the methodology used by Stop Funding Heat and CCDH was “flawed”—though it didn’t elaborate publicly on this claim.

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Facebook also played up its Climate ScienceCenter, a central repository of climate change information from credible sources. Facebook this week announced that it was expanding the system to over 100 countries.

Facebook labels certain posts about climate change with information from the Center and links to further resources. The company claimed this week that the site is visited by 100,000 people per day.

But that number is dwarfed by the 1.3 million people who are viewing climate misinformation on a daily basis, according to the Stop Funding Hate report, and it is clear that the company still has a long way to​​ go.

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

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