Facebook's climate of denial

By Judd Legum and Emily Atkin

This is a special joint edition of Popular Information and HEATED, a climate newsletter by journalist Emily Atkin. HEATED is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the planet earth. Sign up HERE.

Time is running out to prevent a climate catastrophe. The summer of 2020, with its devastating wildfires and climate-fueled extreme weather, is a preview of the world's apocalyptic future — unless decisive steps are taken to reduce carbon emissions. The public’s need for accurate climate change information could not be greater. 

Last week, Facebook announced that it is going to help. “As a global company that connects more than 3 billion people across our apps every month, we understand the responsibility Facebook has and we want to make a real difference,” the company said in a news release. To do that, Facebook announced a new feature called the Climate Science Information Center. It is a Facebook page containing climate change information from credible sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organization. It also contains a sampling of recent climate-related news, and a section for “actionable steps people can take in their everyday lives to combat climate change.”

Combined with the company’s efforts to reduce its own carbon emissions, Facebook said it hopes the Climate Science Information Center demonstrates “that Facebook is committed to playing its part and helping to inspire real action in our community” on climate change.

Scientists and climate advocates, however, have panned Facebook's initiative because it does nothing to address the massive distribution of climate disinformation on Facebook. Further, Facebook's Climate Science Information Center contains no information about the primary reasons the climate crisis exists: polluting companies, policy obstruction, and unchecked climate denial.

“I see it as a greenwashing exercise,” said John Cook, an assistant research professor at George Mason University who studies climate misinformation. “Facebook is polluting the information landscape by allowing misinformation to proliferate from their platform. And they’re trying to distract from the fact that they’re not doing anything to prevent it.”

Facebook’s misinformation problem 

Facebook is one of the planet's largest purveyors of climate disinformation. According to CBS News, “A 2016 analysis found that the most popular climate change story shared on Facebook that year was a fake story that declared climate science a "hoax." In 2018, a video that denied humans were responsible for global warming received more than 5 million views on Facebook.

In an emailed statement to HEATED and Popular Information, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the site’s new feature would help combat the misinformation problem. 

“The Climate Science Information Center won’t solve climate misinformation on its own, but coupling it with our global fact-checking program and over 200 climate experts who contribute to the information center will mean major progress,” he said. “Our goal is for Facebook to eventually become the most widely used source for reliable information about global warming and climate science.”

But according to Cook’s research, simply providing accurate information is not an effective solution to climate misinformation. For people to not be misled by climate denial, Cook’s research shows, they need to be explained “how misinformation works and how it misleads them.” “The whole concept of, ‘Hey we’re solving it by providing an information hub’ is not a scientific approach,” he said. “Providing science is not the best solution, according to the best science. ”

Facebook’s Climate Science Information Center ignores systemic solutions and emphasizes individual solutions like turning off the lights and buying local produce. Cook calls this approach “disturbing” because it's the same tactic fossil fuel companies have used to delay climate action for years. “Facebook’s new page buys into that framing,” he said. “It pushes an unhelpful narrative that distracts from what is necessary to solve climate change.”

Stone said Facebook “spoke to a number of leading climate science organizations as well as academics in different countries” to inform what was on the page, but declined to say which organizations or academics were involved. 

He added that Facebook is “looking to expand the types of actions featured and are working with partners on that now.” In the meantime, climate disinformation continues to spread on Facebook at an alarming rate. 

Daily Caller, a Facebook fact-checking partner, spreading climate disinformation

In the wake of devastating forest fires on the West Coast, Trump and others on the right have claimed that poor forest management, not climate change, is responsible. Science Feedback, an official Facebook fact-checking partner, rated this claim "misleading." The intensity of the fires is "influenced by a variety of factors, including weather conditions, climate change, past fire suppression practices, and an increase in the number of people living near wildlands." Moreover, "[s]cientific studies demonstrate clear links between climate change, hotter and drier conditions, and an increase in dry vegetative fuel load, drastically increasing the amount of forest fire area in the western US."

But this hasn't stopped the claim from spreading widely on Facebook. Climate Feedback's fact check was applied to one viral Facebook post that has been shared over 9,000 times. 

But Facebook has not applied the fact check to numerous other posts making the same claims about the wildfires and forest management. Some of the worst information is coming from The Daily Caller, which is a Facebook fact-checking partner, entrusted to evaluate the claims of other publications on Facebook. The Daily Caller cites "fire expert" Bob Zybach to make the claim. 

[Bob] Zybach is not convinced. “The lack of active land management is almost 100 percent the cause,” he told the DCNF, noting that climate change has almost nothing to do with fire kindling gathering across the forest floors. Other researchers share his skepticism.

Zybach is also identified by the Daily Caller as "an experienced forester with a PhD in environmental science." But he is actually an operative for the Heartland Institute, the most prominent source of climate disinformation. The article has been shared more than 12,000 times on Facebook.

A version of the article syndicated by The Daily Signal was shared another 7,000 times. Neither version of the article has been tagged with Science Feedback's fact check. This is significant because being tagged as false or partially false will limit the distribution of the article on Facebook. 

Other Facebook posts making similar claims by far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, The Western Journal, and Breitbart have been shared thousands of times. They also have not been associated with Science Feedback's fact check. Facebook said that these posts are "eligible" for fact-checking.

Glenn Beck's viral video

As a matter of course, Facebook does not remove climate misinformation from its platform. Why? Facebook's policy is that it only removes content that "poses an immediate threat to human health and safety." In Facebook's view, climate change misinformation "does not fall within that category." This is misguided, but it's Facebook's policy.

Facebook made an exception, however, for the false claim that Antifa and left-wing activists were responsible for setting wildfires on the West Coast. It was part of a broader effort to divert focus from climate change as a cause of the fires. In response to rumors that spread rapidly on Facebook, vigilantes had set up checkpoints and had begun stopping motorists at gunpoint to apprehend Antifa and other activists. According to Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone, content falsely blaming left-wing activists for the fires would be removed from Facebook because "these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public." 

Although Facebook has acknowledged that these rumors pose an immediate danger to the public, it has not stopped them from spreading on Facebook. Last Wednesday, Glenn Beck published a video with the following caption:

The media — and social media — insist that this year's fires in California and Oregon are a product of climate change. Well I have news for all these so-called "protectors" of the truth. Even better, I have the actual DOCUMENTS to prove otherwise! Here are the arrest records for multiple suspected ARSONISTS — and at least one is a known BLM activist, dating back to Ferguson.

Beck does not actually have any documents or evidence to prove this point, since it is false. The entirety of his evidence linking the fires to Black Lives Matter is that one man, Jeffrey Acord, who was arrested for arson in Washington State once was arrested at a Black Lives Matter rally. Acord allegedly set a fire in a highway median which was quickly extinguished. He is not responsible for any wildfires. The rest of the video talks about and a handful of recent arrests for arson by people with no established connection to BLM or Antifa. 

Acord was also falsely described as a member of "Antifa" by right-wing websites responsible for spreading the rumors on Facebook. Beck's video, however, was not removed. Instead, it quickly accumulated over 550,000 views on the platform. 

After the video had accumulated over 550,000 views, Facebook applied a fact-check to the video, which said Beck's claims were "missing context." 

But the linked fact check from Science Feedback does not say Beck's claim is "missing context." It describes claims that widespread arson is the cause of western wildfires as "factually inaccurate" and "unfounded and contradicted by documentation of other causes of ignition." These include lightning strikes, downed power lines, and a smoke machine. The severity of the fires is not related to the source of ignition but "the result of strong winds and intense drought driven by a dry summer and record warmth, which is part of an ongoing human-caused warming trend."

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