Social media is polluted with climate denialism
By Greg Bensinger
This fall, Exxon Mobil started targeting New Yorkers with Facebook advertisements that warned about a proposed law that would require electric-only appliances in some buildings. “If your household was required to go full electric, it could cost you more than $25,600 to replace major appliances,” one ad reads.
But the ad doesn’t tell the whole story: The law would apply only to new buildings, making Exxon’s cost claims specious at best. Other advertisements, among roughly 1,200 placed by the fossil fuel giant found by the artificial intelligence outfit Eco-Bot.Net this year, claimed oil pipelines are necessary to keep “energy affordable and accessible” and that natural gas helps customers “meet their environmental goals.”
These are examples of so-called greenwashing, or corporate attempts to underplay companies’ true impact on the environment. Along with other climate misinformation on social media, such ads have become a potent threat to efforts to combat global warming. Researchers for the environmental group Stop Funding Heat found that climate misinformation is viewed as much as 1.36 million times daily on Facebook.
Social media companies simply aren’t rising to the challenge of rising sea levels. Climate change is an urgent threat, but the companies are treating misinformation around it with far less urgency than other issues like political conspiracy theories, hate speech and lies about COVID vaccines. Climate content can be considered opinion and is therefore exempt from standard fact-checking procedures, which climate change deniers have seized on to push misleading information onto the sites.
The largest social media firms demonstrated in last year’s presidential election that they can effectively combat some misinformation by appending warning labels, using algorithmic suppression and adding links to more reliable news sources. But such work requires sustained effort, and Facebook, for one, dismantled its well-intentioned civic integrity group overseeing election misinformation shortly after the 2020 presidential vote.
“The results from the American presidential election show that the social media companies have the capacity to address misinformation on a broad scale,” said John Cook, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University who is advising Facebook on its climate misinformation efforts. “But they’ve not put the resources or effort behind this that are necessary.”
Even with the rapid shift in public opinion and the outward signs of global warming in recent years, social media companies have been slow to adapt, allowing sometimes blatant disinformation to flourish unchecked on their sites. Under Facebook company guidelines, climate content may be categorized as opinion and subject to no more scrutiny than peer-reviewed scientific research.
Social media companies have a standard playbook for addressing many online falsehoods: add warning labels, push them lower in an algorithmically driven news feed, remove them or penalize their creators by suspending or barring them from using the site. But often misleading posts, such as one that claims combating climate change “involves Americans giving up their freedom and way of life,” carry an incongruous and wishy-washy Facebook label about local average temperatures. Compare that to the labels appended to former President Donald Trump’s voting misinformation posts, which Facebook called “disputed” or “misleading.”
Posts featuring conspiracy theories around Texas’ February power grid failure that left many residents freezing in the dark racked up millions of views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, particularly ones falsely suggesting that frozen wind turbines or President Joe Biden’s energy policies were to blame. The companies did little to intervene. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., falsely alleged in a tweet that Biden’s energy policies were “leaving millions of Texans freezing to death.” Twitter never appended a clarifying label.
Employees at Facebook have wrestled internally with how to approach climate change misinformation since at least 2019, according to documents released by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. According to one exchange, an employee seemed flummoxed by the company’s refusal to remove posts featuring climate change denial, because global warming is not a matter of opinion. Another employee said Facebook removes posts when “content may lead to imminent harm against people offline.”
Facebook said its policy of not fact-checking or labeling posts from politicians was justified because the company doesn’t “want to limit political speech on the platform” — despite evidence it has that politicians are more likely to be believed than regular users and their posts are more widely shared.
Facebook, which has called climate change the “greatest threat we all face,” has established only a sparsely visited section on its main site, known as the Climate Science Center, with occasional articles addressing rising global temperatures.
Climate skeptics are simply altering tactics from outright climate change denial to discrediting evidence and shifting blame from corporations to individuals, said Michael Mann, the author of “The New Climate War.”
On YouTube, the nonprofit Heartland Institute, known for attacking climate science, has backed German influencer Naomi Seibt, who has posted videos denying climate change “hysteria” and encouraging viewers to live carefree lives. But YouTube rarely appends warning labels directing users to more reliable information, even as her videos garner thousands of views.
YouTube says it uses software to make debunked climate content less likely to show up in people’s recommendation feeds, but the climate activism nonprofit Avaaz found last year that the algorithm still prompted millions of views of questionable videos. The group also found that YouTube was selling ads to run alongside them.
As a result, Google, YouTube’s parent company, recently took a baby step, announcing it will no longer allow websites and YouTube creators to make money off advertising that denies humans’ contributions to climate change or denies global warming. Similarly, Facebook said climate change and global warming were on a list of topics that could no longer be used by marketers to target advertising, starting next year.
But spreading false information on the sites remains as easy as making a few keystrokes.
With the public shifting toward acceptance of climate change, corporate strategies are also evolving, including companies’ use of paid influencers on Instagram and TikTok who embark on idyllic road trips to Joshua Tree National Park using Shell gasoline or who snack on chips from Phillips 66 stations. In an effort to combat legislation to ban natural gas hookups, the fossil fuel industry also is paying Instagram stars to post videos of anodyne tasks like cooking tacos over gas stoves. The aim is to conjure good feelings about the brands, known to be significant contributors to carbon emissions, and perhaps even to convince consumers that they are stylish.
Elsewhere on the web, pages have sprung up with names like Climate Change Is Crap and Climate Change Is Natural to spew denialism on social media — no targeted ads needed. One headline from Climate Realism: “Evidence Indicates Climate Change Doesn’t Threaten Human Health.”
Social media could be a forum for healthy debate about climate action, but the companies’ flimsy policies around policing climate change misinformation stand in the way. Automated software systems are simply not enough to combat misinformation about an unalterably changing Earth.
Facebook, YouTube and other companies have shown they have the power to amplify facts and suppress lies — will they use that to help protect Earth from its most dire threat?