Unfriending climate denial: Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation, and how we can stop it

"Facebook needs to close this loophole, but it also needs to do plenty more beyond that to help mitigate the damage caused by climate denial on its platform." Sara Hall, co-founder of Stop Funding Heat, details how Facebook is failing to crackdown on climate change denialism on the platform, and explores what we can do to pressure the social media giant to make a change.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sara Hall

The big boycott 

This July saw advertisers take part in the largest ever boycott of Facebook. Under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, over 1,000 corporations and not-for-profit organisations paused their paid advertising to protest against the spread of hate and misinformation on the social media platform. The damaging false information includes climate denial for which, according to an investigation by HEATED, Facebook has even created a specific loophole in its fact checking operations. 

The loophole 

A recent column co-authored by notorious climate change denier Pat Michaels in the Washington Examiner, which claimed that climate models were a ‘failure’, was shared over 2,000 times on Facebook. The article was reviewed by an independent third party fact checker, Science Feedback, who logged the article as false on Facebook’s system. Normally this would have meant that users received a pop up warning if they shared the article, and that it would appear lower in news feed rankings. But in response to pressure applied by fossil fuel industry supporters The CO2 Coalition, Facebook labelled the offending article as ‘opinion’, which therefore rendered it exempt from fact checking, apparently. Another example of fact-checks of a viral climate misinformation article being removed from Facebook has also been reported.

The knots 

The loophole has confused even Facebook itself. Ever since making this controversial decision, it has tied itself in knots trying to explain what its rules actually are regarding ‘opinion’ pieces. Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director, told the New York Times that all opinion content on the platform is exempt from fact checking. But he then contradicted himself, also stating that “When someone posts content based on false facts, even if it’s an op-ed or editorial, it is still eligible for fact checking”. 

Harvard professor and co-author of ‘Merchants of Doubt’, Naomi Oreskes, told HEATED that because so many people rely on social media for news and information, Facebook’s loophole is “potentially very damaging”.  This is evident in the fact that The CO2 Coalition is apparently gearing up to exploit Facebook’s ‘opinion’ loophole and use the platform to share the message that “burning more fossil fuels would help humanity”.

Denial? Denied. 

According to Andy Stone in the New York Times, Facebook isn’t challenging misleading content about the climate emergency because it doesn’t believe it poses “an immediate threat to human health and safety”. As we all know, science has proven otherwise.

Awareness of, and opposition to, the damage caused by climate denial on Facebook is growing. US climate leaders have publicly appealed to Facebook’s Oversight Board to close the loophole. Several US senators including Elizabeth Warren have written to Mark Zuckerberg demanding more information. And prominent environmental organisations like 350.org, the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council and the European organisation Bankwatch also joined July’s #StopHateforProfit ad boycott. 

Facebook needs to close the loophole, but it also needs to do plenty more beyond that to help mitigate the damage caused by climate denial on its platform. Many of the recommendations made by the #StopHateforProfit movement, the recent Civil Rights Audit and other reports such as one by Avaaz on stopping the spread of hate and misinformation generally on Facebook would also help to address climate denialism.  

Turning the page on Facebook

There’s plenty we can all do to add pressure on Facebook to reflect the truth. We can download Facebook ad blockers. We can ask companies and not-for-profits to join the Conscious Advertising Network, a network of over 70 organisations committed to ethical advertising principles. We can write, email or tweet the companies we shop with asking them to raise concerns about climate denial on Facebook. And we can help strengthen a global movement tackling climate denial not just on Facebook but elsewhere too. A good start will be to make sure that the threat caused by misinformation about the climate emergency is acknowledged during COP26, and an agreement is made to combat it. 

That we all have work to do is undeniable. Climate change isn’t. So let’s get busy.

Sara Hall is co-founder of Stop Funding Heat, a non-party political campaign aiming to persuade brands to pull their ads from platforms which fuel climate denial. You can find Stop Funding Heat on Twitter: @stopfundingheat