Fact-check of viral climate misinformation quietly removed from Facebook

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.

A fact-check of a viral climate misinformation article was quietly removed from Facebook earlier this month, a joint investigation by Popular Information and HEATED reveals. 

The article, authored by Michael Shellenberger and published on The Daily Wire, uses 12 "facts" to argue that concern about climate change is overblown. Shellenberger's piece was reviewed by seven Ph.D. climate scientists as part of a process organized by Science Feedback, one of Facebook's fact-checking partners. The scientists determined that Shellenberger's article was "partly false." 

As a result, the distribution of the article on Facebook's platform was reduced. Facebook users who posted The Daily Wire article were also warned they were about to share "partly false" information and given a link to Science Feedback's analysis. This is how the fact-checking process is supposed to work.

But then, without explanation, the fact-check was removed. If a Facebook user attempts to share the article today, there is no warning and no link to the fact-check. Shellenberger's piece, on The Daily Wire and elsewhere, has now been shared over 65,000 times on Facebook. 

What happened? 

Internal Facebook documents obtained by Popular Information reveal that, prior to the removal of the fact-check, Science Feedback's fact-check of The Daily Wire article was brought to the attention of top Facebook executives including VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg, VP of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown, and VP of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan. The documents also show that Facebook was asked by the office of Congressman Mike Johnson (R-LA), a powerful member of Republican leadership, to reverse the fact-check. 

Facebook and the executive director of Science Feedback deny that Facebook pushed Science Feedback to remove the "partly false" rating. But the incident raises questions about the integrity of Facebook's fact-checking process, Facebook's deference to far-right publications, and the company's commitment to fighting climate misinformation.

"Urgency: High-Priority (Under 24-Hour Resolution)"

On July 7, Shellenberger posted an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claiming that he was being "censored" by Facebook. On July 8, an internal task was created in Facebook's system titled "Urgency: High-Priority (Under 24-Hour Resolution) Science Feedback "Partly False" Rating on Climate Story Shared By Ben Shapiro, Daily Wire…" 

Attached to the task was an email from Facebook staff to alert top Facebook executives about the issue.

The email summarized the conclusions of a cross-functional team at Facebook who looked at the Science Feedback fact-check and considered potential responses. Under a section of the email titled "Policy assessment," Facebook staff determined that the fact-check was well-founded. Facebook's policy team determined that the Science Feedback fact-check "directly debunks" several of the most prominent factual claims in Shellenberger's piece. The team assessed that "Party False is a supportable rating under the approved new rating system" because "its claims are a mix of accurate and inaccurate." 

Despite this assessment, Facebook staff still considered the possibility of asking Science Feedback to reverse the rating and summarized the position of three Facebook teams. The team that works with third-party fact-checkers (called "3PFC") acknowledged that Facebook intervened to reverse a Science Feedback rating of the Washington Examiner last year. In light of the negative press that the decision recently created, 3PFC said it would be too risky to intervene in this case.

[G]iven the current press cycle around our intervention in a Washington Examiner op-ed, and questions around whether we exempt climate-related content from being fact-checked, we think it would be a risk to reach out to Science Feedback and ask them to amend this rating.

Facebook's communications team also argued to "limit" company involvement, citing reporting in Popular Information and HEATED about Facebook's fact-checking program and its favorable treatment of The Daily Wire.

Comms: Given the recent coverage of our policies around climate misinformation and how we define opinion, and criticism that we are too lenient with the Daily Wire, we believe we should limit FB involvement in this matter.

Facebook's policy team, based in DC and run by Republican operative Joel Kaplan, does not directly weigh in on the issue of intervention but emphasizes that its "stakeholders" view the fact-check as "biased." It raises the question of who Facebook's policy team considers "stakeholders." The team does disclose it was contacted by the office of Congressman Mike Johnson (R-LA), which questioned the validity of the fact-check.

Policy Outreach: Our stakeholders view this content as opinion and a debate within the scientific community, both relying on separate facts and research conducted by scientists, therefore view the fact-check as being biased. We have also received incoming from Representative Mike Johnson's office questioning why it is not opinion.

The involvement of Mike Johnson’s staff on behalf of Shellenberger is notable. Johnson is chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee, which is the policy arm of House conservatives. Johnson is also a large recipient of money from the oil and gas industry. The Congressman says he's "not a big proponent of the climate change data" and does not believe human beings are driving climate change. 

Facebook, meanwhile, has recently clarified that opinion content is subject to fact-checking

The Daily Wire plays by its own rules

Shortly after the email was sent to top Facebook executives, Science Feedback's fact-check was removed from The Daily Wire article. According to Facebook's policy, a rating should only be removed if: 1. The fact-checker determines their initial rating of the was wrong, or 2. The factual errors in the article are corrected.

In this case, neither occurred. Science Feedback is standing by its fact-check of The Daily Wire. It is still the featured fact-check on its homepage. And The Daily Wire did not correct the article.  Instead, at the very bottom of the article, The Daily Wire briefly summarized Science Feedback's fact-check and provided a link. (The top of the article notes it has been "reviewed by fact-checkers.") But The Daily Wire placed Shellenberger's article behind its paywall so readers can only access the link to Science Feedback if they pay for a premium account, which costs at least $3/month. 

But Science Feedback removed the rating from The Daily Wire anyway. Emmanuel Vincent, the founder and director of Science Feedback, acknowledged that, normally, articles need "to be corrected with a prominent correction notice" to have a rating removed. Vincent said that, in this case, the link appended to the end of the article was "barely sufficient" because the initial rating was "partly false."

Meanwhile, the Science Feedback rating was not removed from substantively identical excerpts of Shellenberger's article published on The Blaze, PJ Media, and Zero Hedge.

Vincent said that Facebook did not contact him directly about The Daily Wire article. But Science Feedback was in contact with The Daily Wire concerning the appeal. Facebook acknowledged that it communicated with The Daily Wire about the appeal prior to the rating being removed, but described the interaction as perfunctory. 

"Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers can and do rate climate science content. When someone posts content based on false facts — even if it’s an op-ed or editorial — it is still eligible for fact-checking. We set the guidelines for the scope of our program, but the over 70 fact-checkers we work with globally are independent and their feedback has shaped our program since its inception," Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said.

Climate scientists speak out 

Several of the climate scientists who conducted the fact-check of Shellenberger's article disagreed with the decision to remove it from The Daily Wire. “It's extremely frustrating, although I can't say that I'm greatly surprised,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, who participated in the process. 

Swain said he didn’t believe The Daily Wire’s summary and link adequately corrected the misinformation contained within the piece. “That seems like a classic example of closing the barn door after the horses have bolted,” he said.

Gerardo Ceballos, a professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexicowho fact-checked the article’s claims about mass extinction, agreed. He said that Facebook has a “moral, philosophical, ethical, and economic responsibility” to do a better job of limiting the spread of misinformation about climate change on its platform.

The Daily Wire version of Shellenberger's piece has been shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook. Other versions of Shellenberger's piece, published on Quillette, Environmental Progress, and Breitbart, continue to circulate on Facebook without Science Feedback's fact-check.

The claims scientists rated false

“On Behalf of Environmentalists, I Apologize for the Climate Scare,” is promotional copy for Shellenberger’s new book, “Apocalypse Never.” It summarizes the book’s thesis, which is that climate change is real, but not a huge problem. 

The piece makes several claims that Science Feedback fact-checkers rated false, including that humans “are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction,’” that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse,” and that “wood fuel is far worse for people and wildfires than fossil fuels.”

The overall credibility of these claims is “low,” according to the seven publishing climate scientists who fact-checked the piece for Science Feedback.

Specifically, Shellenberger claims that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse.” As the reviewers describe below, this claim is inaccurate and contradicts reports from the IPCC as well as numerous scientific studies linking anthropogenic climate change to temperature extremes, drought, precipitation patterns, and wildfires.

Shellenberger also claims that “Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction’”. This categorical statement misrepresents the discussion happening in the scientific community. Scientific evidence clearly shows that human activities are driving global species extinctions, and these extinctions are expected to accelerate with continued global warming.

The article’s claim about “the build-up of wood fuel and more houses” causing destructive wildfires is also at odds with published science. As the Guardian reports: “A review of the academic literature produced earlier this year in response to Australia’s devastating bushfire summer found ‘human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire.’”

The claim about wood burning being worse than coal is also inaccurate, said Amir Sapkota,  a professor at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “Our work has shown much higher cancer risk from coal-burning stoves compared to wood-burning stoves,” he said. “This is yet another example of clever but deceptive use of scientific data by Shellenberger to support his opinion.”

Indeed, “clever but deceptive” is how many climate scientists have described the factual claims in the piece. This is why the article was only rated “partly false” by the scientists. As climate journalist Amy Westervelt recently wrote, “there were aspects of [Shellenberger’s] book I agreed with, thorny subjects I think the climate movement should grapple with, from the role of nuclear energy in decarbonization to the way any critiques of renewable energy are often shut down.”

But multiple factual inaccuracies and a blanket dismissal of the severity of the climate crisis made it an overall misleading work, the scientists said. 

Facebook: climate change not an “immediate threat” 

Facebook says it does not treat climate misinformation the same as coronavirus misinformation because climate change is not an urgent problem. As Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the New York Times:

Facebook is most concerned with flagging or removing content that poses an immediate threat to human health and safety, including disinformation about the coronavirus or hate speech that incites violence. Climate change content, he said, does not fall within that category.

Aaron Bernstein, who directs the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, disagrees. “Climate change has made this summer one of the hottest ever,” Bernstein said. “This week alone, 90 percent of Americans will endure 90+ degree weather. More people will die as a result. That’s about as immediate as it gets.”

Indeed, Facebook’s characterization of climate change as not “immediate” is dangerously misinformed. Climate change is killing people right now, through increases in extreme weather, disease spread, and air pollution, among other things. Last year, over 100 professional health and medical groups--including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Heart Association--called on policymakers to recognize climate change as “a public health emergency.” 

“The health, safety and wellbeing of millions of people in the U.S. have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change,” the call to action reads. It called climate change the “greatest public health challenge of the 21st century.”

“There will be no vaccine to bail us out of climate change”

The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t take away from the urgency of the climate crisis. In fact, it only further emphasizes it, said Sapkota of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health. 

“COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear the price we pay as a society when we are not adequately prepared or fail to heed the warnings.” Sapkota said. “As we are all helplessly waiting for antiviral drugs or vaccines to get us through this pandemic, it is worth thinking--there will be no vaccine or antiviral drug to bail us out of climate change-driven public health crises.”

If the largest social media platform in the world wouldn’t allow vaccine misinformation to slip by, Bernstein said, it shouldn’t allow climate misinformation to slip by either.

“We wouldn’t tolerate someone saying that SARS CoV-2 doesn’t cause COVID-19 or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS,” Bernstein said. “Nor should we tolerate the spread of falsehoods about the scientific consensus on climate change that deceive people into believing that it’s harmless.”

Additional reporting by Chris May.

Top photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images. 

UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify that it was a member of Congressman Mike Johnson’s staff who reached out to Facebook. A spokesperson for Mike Johnson said he was not personally involved.


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