Facebook under pressure to curb climate misinformation

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Facebook is facing mounting pressure from advocacy groups to weed out climate misinformation on its platform and be more transparent about the extent of the false or misleading claims.

A pair of reports released this week amid the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow found scores of accounts spreading climate misinformation and raised questions about the tech giant’s efforts to combat such content.

“Facebook is not solely responsible for climate misinformation existing, but it’s definitely amplifying the problem and a possible bigger problem down the line and doing nothing about it,” said Sean Buchanan, author of a Stop Funding Heat report published Thursday.

That report, along with another on the topic from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) published earlier in the week, were unveiled as global leaders gathered at the U.N. summit to discuss new efforts to address climate change.

The Stop Funding Heat report, released in partnership with the group Real Facebook Oversight Board, estimated an average range of between 818,000 and 1.36 million daily views of climate misinformation, citing data from monitoring platform CrowdTangle.

Authors found just 3.6 percent of climate misinformation identified on the platform had a fact-checking label applied.

Researchers studied 195 pages and groups identified as spreading climate misinformation, including 41 “single issue” groups and 154 that posted on a wider range of topics. The study focused on posts between January and August.

Facebook pushed back on the report’s findings and questioned the methodology used. A company spokesperson said the report seems to take a broader view of misinformation, and the platform’s fact checkers review content that contains a verifiable claim. 

“This report uses made up numbers and a flawed methodology to suggest content on Facebook is misinformation when it’s really just posts these groups disagree with politically,” the spokesperson said in a statement.  

“We’re focused on reducing actual climate misinformation on our platform, which is why we partner with a global network of fact-checkers and reduce the distribution of anything they rate as false or misleading —and— reject any ads that have been debunked,” the spokesperson added.

The report defines climate misinformation as content that “undermines the existence or impacts of climate change” or that “misrepresents” scientific data “in order to erode trust in climate science.”

Part of the problem researchers run up against is ambiguity around what Facebook considers climate misinformation, Buchanan said.

“They have a third-party fact checking program that in theory checks climate misinformation. But as we’ve seen, [only] 3.6 percent of climate misinformation that we identified was actually fact checked. Which means one of two things — they don’t know how to enforce it, or they’re not enforcing it very well,” Buchanan said.

He added the scale of Facebook’s response to climate misinformation “is just not fast enough.”

Facebook, now under parent company Meta, rolled out information labels specifically for climate change content earlier this year. The labels, which direct users to Facebook’s Climate Science Center, were expanded to more than a dozen countries this week.

“When [fact checkers] rate content as false, we reduce its distribution so fewer people see it and we show a warning label with more context. And we apply penalties to people who repeatedly share false information,” Facebook said in a blog post on Monday.

The Climate Science Center includes information from experts about climate change, but advocates questioned the use of the center as an effective tool to combat misinformation.

“Their approach is, ‘let’s outperform bad information with good information.’ They have no evidence to show that actually even works as a strategy,” Michael Khoo, climate disinformation co-chair at Friends of the Earth, told The Hill.

Along with 15 other environmental groups, Friends of the Earth sent a letter to Facebook and other social media companies demanding action on climate misinformation ahead of the U.N. climate summit.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, responded to the groups with a letter touting actions Facebook has taken to address climate misinformation.

”We share your concerns about the use of our services in ways that risk distorting the established consensus on climate science, delaying support for climate action, or degrading the important work of climate advocates,” Clegg wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared with The Hill.

However, Khoo said that Facebook failed to address direct concerns raised by the groups or commit to policy and enforcement changes demanded by activists.

“The letter that they sent continues to miss the entire point of being transparent about the extent of disinformation and zeroing in on the known bad actors,” Khoo said. 

The Friends of the Earth official said Facebook should be more transparent about disinformation on its site, noting research is curtailed by the information Facebook makes available.

Limitations on information available to researchers stretches beyond climate change content. Facebook suspended accounts of NYU researchers who launched a tool to review political ads and the spread of misinformation, effectively cutting off the project.

The effective shutdown of the NYU Ad Observatory tool, coupled with Facebook’s failure to disclose research about its products’ impact on youth before it was released by whistleblower Frances Haugen, has led lawmakers to demand greater transparency on Facebook’s research.

Khoo said Facebook should take further action to combat the false claims — including removing known offenders, “who are actually a small group of people who spread the vast majority of disinformation.”

The CCDH report released Tuesday found 10 publishers, dubbed the “Toxic Ten,” that were responsible for up to 69 percent of Facebook users’ interactions with climate denial content.

Just 8 percent of posts on Facebook from those publishers that contained misinformation had the labels Facebook pledged to add to such posts, according to the report.

Facebook pushed back on those findings as well. 

“This analysis uses a flawed methodology designed to mislead people about the scale of climate misinformation on Facebook,” a spokesperson said in a statement. 

But advocates are still urging Facebook to take greater accountability for the spread of false content about climate change on the platform. 

“On social media, blatantly, wildly false stories still run rampant. So it really has become the last home for climate denial, and Facebook, being the biggest where it’s residing. They have an additional responsibility as the last ones carrying the torch for climate deniers,” Khoo said.

Tags COP26 Facebook Meta misinformation

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