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Social media companies beef up promises, but still fall short on climate disinformation

December 22, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

During the second week of COP26 in Glasgow, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN)—a coalition of more than 70 organizations—issued an open letter to the summit’s presidency, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the CEOs of tech companies including Google, Meta, Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter

The letter called for the adoption of a clear, universal definition of what constitutes climate disinformation and misinformation, as well as how to identify and address it. It was signed by climate and misinformation experts, as well as some 250 businesses, including SSE, Sky, British Gas, Virgin Media O2, and Havas Media. 

This plea and wide-ranging effort comes at a time when public discourse about tech platforms’ reach and the urgency of climate action are increasingly converging. 

So it was not surprising that the initiative was directed not just at governments and institutions, but social media platforms, too: For the past several years, they have been the engine behind the steady rise of online climate misinformation.

“To really achieve a systemic shift, we have to start with the platforms,” said Jennie King, a senior policy manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank and one of the letter’s signatories.

While the latest commitments from the tech world demonstrate a growing awareness of the role it plays in spreading falsehoods and potentially harmful claims, analysts say the industry still falls short of meaningful change in preventing climate disinformation—at a time when the public’s understanding of climate change is crucial. 

Defining climate misinformation

Arriving at the same definition of what constitutes climate misinformation is the first step toward meaningfully tackling the issue.

“Recognizing a common language is absolutely critical to have any sort of sustained or unified action around climate misinformation,” King noted. “Without that, it’ll be very difficult for companies to make changes and have meaningful enforcements of better community standards, because they’ll be too fearful of being accused of censoring alternative voices.”

Jake Dubbins, CAN’s cofounder and cochair, concurs. “Social media companies have policies on everything from hate speech to piracy to children’s well-being and COVID-19 misinformation, but nothing specifically on climate,” he said. “Outlining a clear definition can help them target the issue in a more effective manner.”

Not that they haven’t been trying—at least on paper. 

In late September, Meta released a video campaign to spotlight young climate activists. It also said it would expand its one-year-old Climate Science Center to “better inform and engage” its community on climate change, and announced a $1 million investment in a new grant program managed by the International Fact-Checking Network to support organizations working to combat climate misinformation.

“Climate change is the greatest threat we all face,” Nick Clegg, VP of global affairs and communications at Meta, wrote in a statement introducing the initiatives in early November. “We want to play our part by helping people find accurate, science-led information while also tackling misinformation.”

Two weeks later, Alphabet declared it would prohibit the monetization of content that denies the existence of (or effects related to) climate change as agreed upon by authoritative scientific consensus. “In recent years, we’ve heard directly from a growing number of our advertising and publisher partners who have expressed concerns about ads that run alongside or promote inaccurate claims about climate change,” the Google Ads team wrote when presenting the measure. “Advertisers simply don’t want their ads to appear next to this content. And publishers and creators don’t want ads promoting these claims to appear on their pages or videos.” The tech giant has also been working with CAN to develop a global policy to deal with climate misinformation, Dubbins said. 

Twitter hopped on board last month, to coincide with COP26. 

In a blog post, the platform—whose bot accounts were shown to be a major source of climate misinformation in the weeks surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under former President Trump—said it would roll out a “pre-bunking” strategy to overrun misleading narratives during the conference, redirecting users to online hubs featuring “credible, authoritative information” available in its Explore tab, Search, and Trends lists. 

Yet climate advocates and academics say tech companies still fall short in effectively policing climate misinformation at a time when public pressure and awareness are critical in the push for a lot of climate policies and initiatives. 

“Spreading false claims on the sites is still incredibly easy,” Dubbins noted. “It’s obvious there needs to be a different conversation happening about how to approach climate misinformation.” 

Evidence of exactly how easy it is has emerged just as the tech conglomerates have been touting their new climate policies. 

In a report published in September, international nonprofit Friends of the Earth (FOE) analyzed the disinformation that followed the February 2021 storm-related blackouts in Texas, looking at the top 10 “highest-performing” Facebook posts falsely blaming wind turbines for outages. Less than 1% of them—including the likes, comments, and shares they generated—carried a fact-check label, which Facebook places on posts that have been reviewed by the platform’s third-party fact-checkers.

The increasing scale of misinformation

During COP26, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) released a report that found a small group of publishers were responsible for 69% of digital content on Facebook that undermines climate science, including the far-right website Breitbart. 

Another study, by British climate advocacy group Stop Funding Heat and independent watchdog the Real Facebook Oversight Board, followed a few days later, showing that the scale of climate misinformation on Facebook is “staggering” and “increasing quite substantially.” 

After analyzing a data set of more than 195 Facebook pages and groups, researchers found an estimated 45,000 posts downplaying or denying the climate crisis, which have received a combined total of between 818,000 and 1.36 million views.

Meanwhile, according to a report by U.K.-based think tank InfluenceMap, 25 companies from the oil and gas sector spent nearly $9.6 million on Facebook ads last year. 

“The efforts of social media platforms like Facebook fail to address the root of the problem: stopping misinformation from proliferating in the first place,” said Sean Buchan, an analyst at Stop Funding Heat. “Overall, they have adopted a very laissez-faire version of what climate misinformation is. There seems to be very little resources going into it, despite the fact we know they can address misinformation on a large scale.”

Buchan mentioned Meta’s pledge to support organizations that combat misinformation as an example. “Sure, they’re investing $1 million into it, but if you look at their overall profit and what’s happening on the platform, it’s really nothing,” he said. “The same goes for the Climate Science Center, which has only been rolled out in a handful of countries. It’s clearly not a top priority.”

The same goes for flagging posts that contain climate misinformation.

“Climate content can still be labeled as an opinion, which means it can circumvent fact-checking,” King said. “And even when it is flagged, that flag can be very unobtrusive—meaning it’s easy to miss if you’re a casual user. So if you were interested enough to say, ‘Okay, I’d like to know what the missing data is,’ it doesn’t provide you with any further details. Just a link to the Climate Science Center. Basically, the onus to tackle falsehoods is still too much on the single individual.” 

CAN did not expect its recipients to implement their demands straight away—in fact, no one has to date—but to “foster dialogue and set the benchmark for a definition globally,” Dubbins, the network’s cochair, explained. “That’s really the first step to take if we want to see change on a universal level. There’s no quick fix for it.”

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a series of special reports on how business can lead the fight against climate change. This quarter’s report highlights how governments and private industry are approaching the biggest challenges and opportunities in the sustainability space.