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Facebook serves up loopholes and special protection for climate deniers

by Aisha Dukule, press officer

Climate change and the serious threats it poses to life everywhere should not be treated as political theatre, where scientific facts do not matter. It is an urgent matter, hastened by the spread of disinformation on social media.

While Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress this week that “I do not believe that we have any incentive to have this content on our service,” the evidence tells the opposite story. Concerned with the spread of climate denial and disinformation on Facebook, Friends of the Earth and several other environmental organizations wrote to Zuckerberg requesting a meeting to discuss their recent actions and change in policy regarding fact-checking.

Instead of scientists having the final word on climate facts, disinformation notifications have been removed. In even more plain sight, Facebook provides a loophole for climate change deniers by often exempting opinion pieces from its fact-checking program.

This summer Zuckerberg’s platform has justifiably come under fire for a series of backward actions on disinformation. Senators Warren, Carper, Whitehouse, and Schatz called on Mark Zuckerberg to stop the spread of climate disinformation on Facebook’s platforms. Also in July, over 1,000 corporations and not-for-profit organizations stopped paid advertising to protest hate-speech and disinformation under the umbrella #StopHateForProfit campaign. Our letter was among many calls by enviro groups for Facebook to depoliticize its climate fact-checking program.

Facebook provides a loophole for climate change deniers by often exempting opinion pieces from its fact-checking program.

In our letter, we asked Facebook to ensure that climate scientists are reinstated as the final authority on climate information and disinformation and that all users who were targeted and engaged with fact-checked climate denial content receive relevant corrections. We asked Mark Zuckerberg to do away with loopholes that privileged climate deniers.

In response, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, wrote us claiming that Facebook does: “recognize that there are efforts to undermine, and otherwise stand in the way of advances being made in climate science,” Arguing “independent third-party fact-checking partners do review and rate climate misinformation,” but “if a publisher wants to dispute a fact-check rating, they can do so directly with the fact-checker.” Unfortunately, they let this process stand in the way of accurate science.

In June, Heated and Popular information reported that Pat Michaels’ column in the Washington Examiner was rated “false” by Science Feedback. Pat Michaels, a climate change denier, is a senior fellow at the CO2 Coalition which advocates for carbon dioxide and fossil fuels. The report revealed that last year the CO2 Coalition complained about Science Feedback’s rating to Zuckerberg and asked for the removal of Science Feedback’s rating, citing “differences of opinion”. Zuckerberg lifted the rating after the CO2 Coalition pressured Facebook, saying Micheal’s column was an opinion and thus exempt from fact-checking.

Similarly, in July, fact-checkers at Science Feedback flagged an op-ed written by Michael Shellenberger on climate alarmism with false claims about climate change as “partly false”. The flag was removed while the flag was under appeal. This removal also coincided with pressure from Shellenberger, and his supporters: a Republican representative, and The Daily Wire to remove the flag. Heated and Popular Information reported that top Facebook executives were alerted of their complaints before the removal of the flag. Several of the climate scientists who rated Shellenberger’s article disagreed with Facebook’s decision to lift the flag. Since the removal of Science Feedback’s rating on Shellenberger’s article, it has been shared over 65,000 times on Facebook without a warning to users.

Facebook cannot both absolve itself of responsibility by outsourcing its climate disinformation problem to independent fact-checkers, but then also override decisions made by those scientists. Scientists need to have the final say on fact-checking on the platform. Whether it’s placed in an opinion piece or an article, disinformation causes the same public harm. It is Facebook’s responsibility to ensure that it is not an accomplice in efforts to spread climate denialism.

It is Facebook’s responsibility to ensure that it is not an accomplice in efforts to spread climate denialism.

Facebook’s response to Covid-19 disinformation has shown it can combat disinformation on its platform that poses a danger to public health. Zuckerberg testified on Wednesday before Congress, saying that Facebook does not allow false statements presented as proven fact. They have the capacity to take down disinformation.

Why then, does Zuckerberg continue to allow disinformation on climate science?

While Facebook plays smoke and mirrors with its fact-checking program, those losing their homes and lives to more frequent record-breaking hurricanes like Hurricane Harvey continue to suffer. Further, research is beginning to show the overlap between climate denial, coronavirus conspiracists, and Qanon supporters, illustrating the dangerous rabbit’s hole awaiting us if Facebook and other social media platforms continue being marketplaces for climate disinformation.

Climate change is a serious issue that poses inevitable harm to our global community and environment. It deserves the same commitment.


Friends of the Earth U.S. defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world.

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