On the 28th of July, a group wearing white coats stood on the steps of the US Supreme Court and denounced the global response to the coronavirus.
Lockdowns were unnecessary, they said. Masks weren’t helping, and hydroxychloroquine could actually cure the disease. Right-wing website Breitbart streamed their presentation live to Facebook, where it racked up more than 14 million views in just six hours.
It was, of course, all nonsense. It later emerged that one of the “experts”, a Dr Stella Immanuel, believed certain diseases could be caused by demon sperm. The Breitbart video was taken down a few hours after it went up.
Facebook has been making a real effort to stamp out viral misinformation about COVID-19. When it comes to false claims about climate change, they appear to be taking a different approach.
Not only is climate misinformation routinely slipping through the net, there’s a huge loophole in Facebook’s fact-checking process, allowing posts containing disinformation about the climate crisis to spread like wildfire. “False” labels applied by the company’s third-party fact-checkers have been reversed following campaigns by conservative groups, and on at least one occasion Facebook staff have reportedly overruled their appointed scientific experts.
On paper, Facebook’s fact-checking process is fairly simple. If a post is identified as containing questionable content, it gets passed to the company’s approved “non-partisan” fact-checkers, who can apply one of nine labels to it.
“If a fact-checker rates content as false, it will appear lower in News Feed,” Facebook’s policy explains. The company also prevents false posts from being “boosted” as adverts, and in the most egregious cases, Facebook can stop the URL from being shared altogether. When it comes to climate misinformation, however, those measures appear to be applied selectively.
At the end of June, the energy industry website E&E News reported that a “false” label applied by Science Feedback, one of Facebook’s appointed fact-checking partners, to a post by the CO2 Coalition had been removed by Facebook staff.
The CO2 Coalition are notorious climate deniers, listed on Greenpeace’s directory of Koch-funded climate-denial front groups. They claim that increased carbon emissions will actually be beneficial to the planet. The article they shared was judged by five independent scientists, who said it contained claims that were “misleading” and “biased”, based on “flawed reasoning” and “cherry-picked” data.
In July, a joint investigation by Heated and Popular Information revealed a separate incident in which a “partly false” label applied by Science Feedback had again been quietly removed, after emails circulated among top Facebook executives. Facebook told Heated it was not directly involved in the decision to remove the fact-check label, but internal documents showed that a Republican congressman had joined the post’s author in lobbying them to do so, and his requests had fed into their discussions.
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Facebook has justified these moves by saying that posts like these are considered “opinion”, and are therefore exempt from fact-checking labels. Unsurprisingly, climate campaigners are outraged. John Podesta, who coordinated Barack Obama’s climate policy, described this to the New York Times as “a loophole that you can drive a Mack truck through”.
“There’s an appeals process in place for publishers to appeal directly to fact-checkers to dispute ratings,” a company spokesperson said, when asked for comment on why posts might be relabelled.
However, this appeals process appears to be open to abuse. Facebook’s own policy states that although “opinion content is generally not eligible” for fact-checking, “content presented as opinion but based on underlying false information may still be eligible for a rating”. In both cases mentioned above, the offending articles presented assertions as proven facts, which Science Feedback labelled as “inaccurate” or “false”. As Popular Information put it: “Climate facts are not climate opinions.”
Meanwhile, climate change deniers like the CO2 Coalition are apparently rubbing their hands at the idea of exploiting the opinion exemption. When asked about their use of Facebook, director Caleb Rossiter boasted to E&E News, “You can reach so many people, both with your posts and your advertisements,” and said, after the reversal of the fact-checking label, that they intended to increase their focus on the platform.
What really annoys activists and campaigners is not the fact that this loophole exists, but that allowing it to exist appears to be a choice. “If Mark Zuckerberg wanted to do something about this, he could do it immediately,” says Lauren French, senior communications director of Climate Power 2020, a group set up by three environmental organisations to push climate issues up the agenda at this year’s US election. “He is actively choosing to allow this loophole.”
Another issue, say campaigners, is that – if allowed to remain up – climate change denial posts are likely to be spread far and wide. Dr John Cook, an Assistant Professor of Climate Communication at George Mason University, says: “Studies have found that misinformation is more likely to be shared than accurate information. It's more extreme, it's more emotive, it's more shocking, so it's more likely to provoke reactions in people, [and] it's more likely to be shared.”
When Facebook's algorithms detect misinformation, or when it's reported, its distribution is rightly reduced. But there's a lot that seems to slip through the net.
Of course, the same could be said about misinformation on any other social media platform. But Zuckerberg’s platform is far bigger, and matters far more – not just because of how many people get their news from Facebook, but because of who gets their news from Facebook.
According to Lauren French, the key demographic Climate Power are hoping to reach ahead of November’s US election is “Republican-leaning suburban women. Because they are really the last bastion of persuadable voters, actual swing voters.” These people tend to be on Facebook, she says.
As a rule, Facebook’s active audience tends to skew older than that of other social platforms, and studies suggest that older people are more likely to buy into the kind of misinformation pumped out by the likes of the CO2 Coalition. “One thing that we've always found in our data is that, on issues like climate change, science denial increases with age,” says Dr Cook.
His research has identified “five techniques of science denial”, categorised by the acronym FLICC, “which stands for Fake experts, Logical fallacies, Impossible expectations, Cherry picking and Conspiracy theories”.
Of these, Dr Cook says, by far the most effective is the “fake experts” strategy. It’s particularly effective when it’s spread among older people on social media, he says, “because humans are social animals, so social arguments are the most effective”. He singles out the demon-sperm doctors as the perfect example. “They were highly persuasive to some of the population - throw people in a white coat and they look like an expert.”
When that video was flagged, Facebook took action – which only serves to make its refusal to act on climate misinformation even more stark.
As Lauren French argues: “They rushed it through for COVID because there was a clear health issue. Choosing not to do so for climate is a choice. Mark Zuckerberg has every ability to change this. If he wanted to, this could be fixed tomorrow.”