More than a year later, in January 2021, a Facebook employee noted a similar concern when searching for “climate change” on the social network’s video-on-demand service, Facebook Watch. The second result, according to the employee, was a video titled “Climate Change Panic is not based on facts.” The video had been posted nine days earlier and already had 6.6 million views, according to another internal post.
Although Facebook has taken a number of steps in recent years to address climate change misinformation, it has so far resisted calls to remove such content altogether, the way it does for Covid-19 or election misinformation. Instead, it has focused on efforts to promote good information and relies on third-party fact checkers to label false claims.
Meta has repeatedly said the “Facebook Papers” paint a skewed picture of the company and its efforts. The company said the internal documents underscore “the reasons why we’ve launched our Climate Science Center and has informed our approach to connecting people with authoritative information about climate change from the world’s leading climate change organizations.”
“As a result, more than 100,000 people are visiting the Climate Science Center every day and we’re continuing to update it with new features and more actionable resources so people know how they can make a difference,” Meta spokesperson Kevin McAlister said in a statement to CNN Business. He added that on Facebook Search and Watch, the company has removed climate denial suggestions and now directs users to the Climate Science Center and other authoritative information sources, and that misinformation makes up only a small percentage of all climate-related content on the company’s platforms.
Experts, however, say the stakes could not be higher for Facebook to further ramp up its solutions for this problem — and soon.
“Given that [climate change] is an existential threat, we can’t be casual about the seriousness about the threat of climate misinformation,” said John Cook, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. “It needs to be addressed with the same level of urgency and proactiveness that they’re showing with Covid-19 and election misinformation.”
The shortcomings of Facebook’s climate misinformation strategy
But the company’s internal documents suggest there may be barriers to effectively countering misinformation with the Climate Science Center.
“Facebook is a key place for people to get information related to climate change, so there is an opportunity to build knowledge through our platform,” according to one internal report posted in April. However, the researchers found user awareness of the Climate Science Center was low. The report said 66% of users surveyed who had visited the center “say they are not aware” of it; 86% of those who hadn’t visited it said they didn’t know about it.
The report also found that some users did not trust the information Facebook published in its Climate Science Center, especially US users. This tracks with research on the effects of climate misinformation, according to Cook.
“Providing facts is necessary but it’s insufficient to deal with misinformation,” Cook said, adding that his and others’ research has found that “misinformation can cancel out facts.” For example, if a Facebook post says one thing and a fact-check label says another, it can leave a user confused and believing neither. An effective strategy to address climate misinformation “needs to be a mix of providing facts and countering misinformation with fact checking, but also there need to be efforts to reduce the spread of misinformation or to bring down misinformation,” Cook said.
Facebook says it does “downrank,” or reduce the spread, of climate change content that third-party fact checkers have labeled as false, and says “we take action” against pages, groups or accounts that regularly share false claims about climate science.
“We work with a global network of over 80 independent fact-checking organizations who review and rate content, including climate content, in more than 60 languages,” the company said in blog post Monday. “When they rate content as false, we add a warning label and move it lower in News Feed so fewer people see it. We don’t allow ads that have been rated by one of our fact-checking partners.”
But it doesn’t outright remove climate change misinformation — something it does do for misinformation about Covid-19, vaccines and elections.
However, environmental advocates say climate change does indeed present imminent threats to safety.
“People around the US have faced harm from extreme events just in the last few months with Hurricane Ida and people dying, wildfires across the West and extreme heat in the Northwest,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the Climate & Energy team at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Climate change is not a threat in the future, it’s a reality in the present.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated John Cook’s current university affiliation. He is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University.