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Facebook Failing to Catch Climate Misinformation, Research Finds

Facebook Failing to Catch Climate Misinformation, Research Finds

Facebook is lagging behind in its efforts to identify and remove climate change misinformation on its platform, campaigners have warned.

As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26 this week, a report published by the pressure group Stop Funding Heat on Thursday found that Facebook’s recent commitments have not been sufficient in curbing climate misinformation on the site.

Researchers suggested that restrictive third-party fact checking rules and a lack of clarity on how to identify climate misinformation had led to swathes of misleading and false posts going unchecked. 

Stop Funding Heat’s report is the second to criticize Facebook’s approach to climate misinformation this week. A separate study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that just 10 percent of misleading climate denialist posts were marked as misinformation.

In response to the CCDH report, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that climate misinformation only accounted for a small percentage of posts on its site, and that "We continue to combat climate misinformation by reducing the distribution of anything rated false or misleading by one of our fact-checking partners.”

Facebook has launched a number of environmentally friendly initiatives in recent weeks. These include its pledge to grant $1 million to groups finding ways to tackle climate misinformation, and an expansion of its Climate Research Center.

However, the latest research from Stop Funding Heat suggests that a restrictive approach to the definition of climate change misinformation has led to false and misleading posts slipping through the net.

Looking at 48,701 posts in the period of January to August 2021, just 3.6 percent of climate misinformation found had a fact checking label, with an additional 10.7 percent linking to Facebook’s Climate Science Center.

Stop Funding Heat highlighted that Facebook frequently failed to flag posts from noted political and media personalities, which it identified as creating the most misinformation surrounding climate change organically. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there from media outlets and their anchors, particularly in the U.S, which isn’t being picked up on at all, and therefore isn’t falling foul of any repeat offender policy,” said Sean Buchan, a researcher at Stop Funding Heat, who authored the report.

As COP26 pushes the need for drastic and swift changes to lower carbon emissions, climate denialism could pose a serious threat, Buchan added. 

“That misinformation is subtle, but it can really change people’s minds as to whether something like Biden’s infrastructure plan is a good idea or not. That could really put a break on important policy, and could continue to get out of hand.”

While this category of posts only accounted for four percent of climate misinformation identified in the category of “multi-issue climate denial” they received 67 percent of total interactions in the dataset.

Multi-issue climate change skeptics tend to focus on the economic costs of green policy or to cast doubt over the viability of reducing carbon emissions. 

The findings align with a report from Logically and APCO, which found that top-down communications from politicians and media outlets were by far the biggest drivers of climate misinformation.

As it stands, politicians are exempt from Facebook’s fact checking policies. A number of fact-checkers from International Fact-Checking  Network (IFCN) accredited organizations have previously called for Facebook to change its stance on fact checking politicians, which they said could remove a “climate of doubt” created by politicians known to espouse falsehoods. 

Following Facebook’s decision to uphold the ban on Donald Trump on the platform in May 2021, Politifact’s executive director, Aaron Sharockman, said the board must also consider scrapping its policy on fact checking politicians.

As such, this led to zero percent of climate misinformation being fact checked by the political pages analyzed in Stop Funding Heat’s report.

Posts on Facebook advocating for clearer forms of climate denialism also saw a steep increase in engagement this year.

Stop Funding Heat also tracked single-issue Facebook pages run by what the group describes as “dedicated climate denialists,” regarded as those who publish the most obvious forms of climate misinformation. Pages such as “Friends of Science” and “Climate change is natural” argue that climate change is inevitable, and that policy and behavioral changes are attempts to control and monitor the population. 

The group found that in January 2021, there were a total of 165,000 interactions with such posts. This rose to 226,000, 226,000, and 241,000 in June, July, and August respectively. 

Significantly, this figure is higher than the number of visits to Facebook’s Climate Science Center, which Facebook says stood at 100,000 visits a day in September 2021. 

While Stop Funding Heat acknowledged that these posts only accounted for a small proportion of climate misinformation, they warned that the situation could become steadily worse without intervention:

“Mark Zuckerberg is on record saying that content that tends to be controversial tends to be more shareable, and our feeling is that if you don’t do anything about it, it could get worse. That increase to us gives an impression that this could be a canary in a coal mine,” Buchan said.

Buchan called on Facebook to produce a clear explanation on how it categorizes climate misinformation alongside a plan of action on how to tackle the problem.

“Facebook tends to walk the walk, but they’re not talking the talk. We have not been approached directly to tackle the issue. There does not appear to be an internal understanding of what counts as climate misinformation. In response to our last report, Facebook said that climate misinformation appears to be a small part of misinformation generally. For journalists and campaigners, it would be helpful to have a public definition of what counts as climate misinformation. ”

Logically is one of over 80 organizations to have partnered with Facebook as part of its third-party fact checking program and is a verified signatory of non-partisan International Fact Checking Network (IFCN)

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