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Facebook starts bid to fight climate misinformation

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
March 1, 2021

After coming under fire for not doing enough to stop climate myths from spreading on its site, Facebook will now add info labels to climate change posts and direct users to a fact-checked website. But is it enough?

Hand holding up a smartphone with a warning label on climate-change misinformation
Vetted, proven research on climate change will be displayed on Facebook posts to combat misinformationImage: Facebook

Facebook has started tackling dangerous climate change myths and anti-environment propaganda that circulates among the platform's almost 3 billion monthly users.

In a new trial that was launched in the UK in late February, posts about climate change will now automatically be labelled with an information banner that directs people to accurate climate science data at the company's Climate Science Information Center.

"We do recognize that we have a bigger role to play when it comes to informing people accurately about climate change,” Alexandru Voica from Facebook's tech communication team told DW.

"This will make users more aware of what information they share," he said.

Debunking climate myths

The Climate Science Information Center, which uses research that has been vetted by leading scientific organizations, also has a climate-myth-busting unit that actively debunks false information circulating online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking to Senate committee
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, here giving testimony to the US Senate, has come under increased scrutiny over his site's role in the spread of false informationImage: Michael Reynolds/Capital Pictures/picture alliance

It explains, for instance, that the decline of polar bear populations is actually caused by rising temperatures, that global warming is not just part of a natural cycle of temperature fluctuation and that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere harms Earth's plant life.

Misinformation about climate change is not new, but experts believe it has been greatly amplified in the new digital world, where the topic is increasingly polarizing.

"Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are the most relevant infrastructure for information these days," Markus Beckedahl, editor-in-chief of Netzpolitik, a German platform advocating the digital right to freedom, told DW.

"These companies have a monopoly and dominate the market when it comes to how people get informed, communicate and debate society. That's why they carry a huge responsibility."

Fighting climate change starts with fighting misinformation around it

Research has shown that the best way to counteract the politicization of science is to convey the high-level consensus among experts about the reality of human‐caused climate change. 

That's why Facebook's UK-based trial is putting short, factual messages into posts containing climate-change related information,such as the fact that 97% of the world's scientific community agree that global warming is real and caused by humans.

Fire tears across open land, billowing thick smoke into the air
Climate misinformation claimed Australia's devastating Black Summer fires were caused by arsonImage: Imago/B. Xuefei
The new Facebook label states that at least 97% of published climate experts agree that global warming is real and caused by humans
Is this enough to stop misinformation?Image: Facebook

Behavior and communication experts from George Mason University, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the University of Cambridge helped advise Facebook on how best to debunk such climate myths in a way that is tailored to the psychology of misinformation. Dr. Sander van der Linden is one of the experts behind the UK trial.

"One common error that we often see media outlets make, for instance, is to prominently repeat the myth in an attempt to debunk it. But that tends to strengthen people's mental associations with the myths and people kind of forget about the correction," van der Linden, who is a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, told DW.

So instead of repeating the myths, they start by stating the facts.

The next step "is not to argue with people over the specifics, but to actually show what's misleading about the presentation of a particular argument and what the underlying technique is."

Social media business model  a 'catalyst for misinformation'

The Climate Science Information Center was launched in the US, Germany, the UK, and France last year and was just expanded to Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Nigeria, South Africa, Spain, India, Indonesia and Taiwan. If the UK trial goes well, these countries could see climate information banners and corrective message next, says Voica.

"We'll need to see the results from the UK tests first before we either expand the test or we make it into a real feature."

Busting climate myths

But for Markus Beckedahl, the climate trial comes years too late. He believes social media giants haven't done enough in the past years to combat misinformation. On the contrary, he says, they have actually promoted it through their own business model of collecting data and selling ads to keep people on the site.

"And the easiest way to do that is by showing content that creates emotions and anger. That's why disinformation and conspiracy theories have been shared and promoted massively on these sites in past years," he said.

Opinion loophole makes fact-checking even harder

Facebook has been coming under increasing pressure in recent years for failing to weed out false information, including myths about the climate crisis.

"The future of our planet is at stake, and there should be no company too big, too powerful, and too opaque to be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis. Facebook is no exception," US Senator Elizabeth Warren and her colleagues wrote in a statement last year.

One way the company tried to combat this problem is by outsourcing fact-checking to more than 80 independent organizations, including journalists who review and rate public Facebook and Instagram posts.

"Fact-checking posts is often very complex. There are some parts that are true, others that are not. So there is a need for explanation; this is why we need the expertise of journalists to do this work," Basak Tezcan, who leads Facebook's sustainability team in Germany, told DW.

Cars driving along a snowy highway in Texas
Climate deniers have been quick to cite recent snowfall as 'proof' that the planet is not warmingImage: Brett Coomer/AP Photo/picture alliance
Different Facebook labels designed to stop the spread of fake news
Different Facebook labels designed to stop the spread of fake newsImage: Facebook

Content that has been rated false or altered will be labelled and will be limited in its distribution. It won't be deleted, though, unless it contributes to "the risk of imminent violence or physical harm,” according to Facebook's Community Guidelines

Here's the catch, though: "The fact-checking program is not meant to interfere with individual expression or debate," which means that opinion and speech from politicians, for example, isn't necessarily subjected to a fact check.

This has led to a backlash from climate activists, saying the policy is a huge loophole for climate change deniers.

Pre-bunking instead of debunking

Considering the risk to society of climate misinformation, van der Linden believes Facebook's climate trial is at least a small step in the right direction.

Dr. Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge
Dr. Sander van der Linden has been researching how people form (mis)perceptions of the social world Image: Daniella Da Silva Photography

In the future, van der Linden hopes Facebook will work not just on debunking, but also "pre-bunking." In his previous research he has found that facts about scientific consensus can also be used to "pre-bunk" — pre-emptively debunk — the public against climate misinformation.

"Once people are exposed to a falsehood already, it's so much more difficult to undo the damage. So the better thing is a pre-bunk."

Another question is whether, as Beckedahl sees it, tech giants will agree to give independent scientists and government agencies access to their internal data so they can better understand how misinformation and climate myths spread exactly and what impact this has on society and our planet.

"Right now, it's a big black box, and the only ones who know what's really going on are the tech giants themselves — and they won't share their information. And that's a huge and dangerous asymmetry of power."