COP26 Sheds Light on Climate Misinformation Spreading on Facebook

Publishers like Breitbart thrive with help from the platform's algorithms

This week, the COP26 conference continues in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference, organized by the U.N., comes as experts say climate change is accelerating — and increasingly irreversible — if national governments do not sharply reduce fossil fuel levels. 

During the conference, two advocacy groups published reports on misinformation about climate change being spread on Facebook. The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that ten publishers are responsible for 69 percent of climate change denial content on Facebook, and reach up to 130 million followers on the platform. The ten publishers included conservative sites like Breitbart and The Daily Wire, as well as Russian state media such as and Sputnik. Despite Facebook's move in February to label posts on climate change, (providing facts and links to its climate change information center) 92 percent of posts had no label attached.

In addition, a report by the advocacy group Stop Funding Heat found 113 instances of advertisements that promoted climate misinformation. Among 41 groups or pages that post exclusively climate misinformation, their average number of interactions per post "rose substantially" during the summer of 2021.

Meta, the parent company that runs Facebook, defends itself by pointing out several actions it has taken to reduce climate misinformation. For instance, it created a Climate Science Center, which posts accurate information about climate change, the expansion of keyword detection on climate change misinformation during COP26, and a $1 million donation to organizations countering climate misinformation. However, Stop Funding Heat estimated, using engagement numbers and Meta's own statistics, that climate misinformation posts got far more views than the Climate Science Center. While Google announced that it would no longer accept ads from climate change misinformation, Facebook hasn't announced a similar step. Both advocacy groups have called on Facebook to ban ads that spread climate change denial.

The findings show some things that are broadly true about the Facebook platform -- misinformation typically gets more interactions than accurate stories. Many of the publishers that CCDH named in their report often get more interactions on Facebook than mainstream news outlets like The New York Times and CNN. 

Secondly, accurate information often goes unnoticed. The Facebook Papers, released to the Securities and Exchange Commission by whistleblower Frances Haugen, showed problems with accurate information on climate. Among visitors who went to the Climate Science Information Center, 66 percent had no idea it existed. And 86 percent who did not visit the center did not know of its existence. Visitors from the United States were significantly more skeptical of the information on the climate science center than in non-Western countries such as Taiwan and India.   

Since the problem of climate change misinformation is similar to the problem of misinformation in general, some of the same solutions that Haugen proposed -- notably deamplifying algorithms that perpetuate engagement-based rankings -- might also reduce the viewership of climate change misinformation. Doing that might reduce climate change misinformation more than directing users to accurate information. Content moderation also presents problems, in terms of technical issues with finding it as well as putting Meta in the center of a political debate about scientific facts versus opinions. Since about a third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook, the distribution of misinformation is a crucial factor in how urgently Americans view the climate crisis.

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