A new report from InfluenceMap, a London-based not-for-profit think tank working on climate and sustainability issues, shows that Facebook is allowing groups to use their ad targeting tools to spread doubts about climate change. Based on data from Facebook ads, the organization identified 51 climate disinformation campaigns that apparently violated the platform’s rules against false claims and were viewed 8 million times in the US in the first half of 2020.
Facebook, of course, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to its ad network. In March 2019, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development brought a lawsuit against Facebook allegedly “discriminating against people based on their person and where they live” in violation of the Fair Housing Act. When asked about the allegations during a hearing at Capital Hill last October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “people shouldn’t be discriminated against in any of our services,” citing newly introduced restrictions on age, zip code and targeting of gendered ads. However, later studies have shown that Facebook’s advertising practices remain problematic at best, and actively discriminatory and inconsistent at worst.
Last month, Facebook launched a climate information center known as the Climate Science Information Center, and said it was “committed to tackling climate misinformation through its existing fact-checking programs.” However, InfluenceMap noted that under the current regime, anti-climate groups have used Facebook’s advertising and targeting capabilities to spread disinformation, and deliberately sowed doubt and confusion about the science of climate change. (InfluenceMap defines disinformation as false information that is disseminated with misleading intent.) Two ads identified in the InfluenceMap survey – both from a campaign by PragerU, a conservative nonprofit in the United States – launched on January 23 and ran through October 1, two weeks after Facebook made its announcement.
InfluenceMap used Facebook’s ad library to identify around 250,000 Facebook pages in the US that are using paid ads to promote political messages. (Facebook launched the Ad Library, an API that provides data on political and advocacy ads, in May 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s role in elections became controversial.) Cross-reference to a list of 95 advertisers, Known to have previously augmented climate disinformation, InfluenceMap identified the above 51 ads of climate disinformation in the United States, spanning a six-month period from January 2020.
Part of the problem seems to stem from Facebook’s nebulous fact-checking policy, which relies on third-party vendors reviewing content and advertisements, including climate information, on their platforms. Because the fact-checking program “is not intended to compromise individual expression, opinions and debate,” according to Facebook, it has likely enabled some forms of disinformation to be exempted from fact-checking. In June 2020, E&E News reported that Facebook allowed a post containing climate information to be classified as an “opinion” that is not subject to fact-finding. InfluenceMap posits that the same thing happened to the 51 identified ads. At the time of the research, Facebook only switched one off and let the rest run for its entire lifespan.
Opaque groups with tens of millions of dollars in funding, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, were the main sources of the disinformation ads that InfluenceMap discovered. (InfluenceMap puts the total cost of the 51 ads it identified at around $ 42,000.) Their campaigns attacked the credibility of climate scientists and climate science communicators, often targeting the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Denied the widespread consensus on climate science. and to indicate that there is a high level of uncertainty while encouraging alternative sources of information.
For example, some climate science disinformation ads identified by InfluenceMap have denied that climate change is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases. Other advertisements focused on the role of natural sources of carbon dioxide in climate change, while others questioned the extent of the reality of climate change and posed a serious threat to humans.
InfluenceMap reports that these groups have also made extensive use of Facebook’s ad targeting tools to reach audiences who are likely to be okay with their cause. The identified InfluenceMap climate disinformation ads were “widely distributed” in rural US states and among men over 55 years of age, with the greatest intensity of impressions per person found in Texas and Wyoming. In all age groups, more climate disinformation ads were placed for men than women. While 18- to 34-year-olds were shown more ads questioning the predicted effects of climate change, 55-year-olds and above were likely shown ads questioning the causes of climate change.
In a statement, Bill Weihl, former Facebook sustainability director and founder of the nonprofit ClimateVoice, said the study’s findings point to the ineffectiveness of Facebook’s attempts to fight disinformation. “It is critical to highlight the problem of climate misinformation on Facebook,” he said. “It’s another attempt by Facebook to say that if the problem persists, we are doing something good, mostly unabated.”
Photo credit: Facebook
As the US presidential election approaches, Facebook has come under increasing criticism for handling potentially misleading and misleading ads shown to hundreds of millions of US users. In early August, the Washington Post reported that bogus political ads were not flagged by the company’s fact-checkers because the policy protects politicians from rules against deception. While Facebook later promised to take steps to curb the spread of political disinformation, including limiting some advertisements in the week leading up to the US election, the company initially refused to ban ads that falsely claimed that a politician had the Vote won early.
“InfluenceMap’s devastating report affirms and reveals how Facebook is enabling climate deniers to distribute dangerous trash to millions of people,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said in a statement. Warren published a letter this summer with Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) calling on Facebook to “fill in the loopholes that are causing the Disinformation of the climate could spread ”platform. Facebook responded that its third-party fact-checking partners regularly review and evaluate climate misinformation and that there has never been a ban on them from doing so, but that these reviews do not include opinion pieces.
Photo credit: Facebook
According to a recent poll by the think tank Data for Progress, a majority of US voters surveyed believe that Facebook should label opinion articles with incorrect information about climate change as incorrect.
“We have repeatedly asked Facebook to fill the loopholes that spread misinformation on its platform, but its leadership would rather make money quickly while our planet burns, sea levels rise and communities – disproportionately black and brown – suffer,” so Warren continued. “Facebook must be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis.”
VentureBeat contacted a Facebook spokesperson for comment but received no response before going to press. Facebook made the following statement to The Guardian: “We are banning ads containing claims exposed by third-party fact-checkers, and are investigating the findings of this report. We are working to reduce the spread of climate misinformation on Facebook and recently set up a Climate Science Information Center to connect people with factual information from the world’s leading climate organizations. “
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