Facebook is no stranger to climate misinformation. Just last month, the platform became a key player in spreading flat-out hoaxes surrounding the wildfires raging across the West Coast to an audience of tens of thousands, taking them down only after public outrage. And last year when activists pointed out that climate misinformation seemed to be exempt from the platform’s fact-checking program, the company labeled them as opinion pieces which are (apparently) exempt from the program entirely.
On Thursday, UK-based think tank InfluenceMap released a hefty research report detailing dozens of Facebook ads that ran across Facebook with the platform’s full support despite being chock-full of debunked climate-adjacent conspiracies. While we can speculate on why Zuckerberg and company’s have a barely half-assed stance on the topic until now, all available evidence points to what we knew all along: misinformation is clearly making them a whole lot of money. And at a time when climate denial is plummeting, it’s giving purveyors of misinformation just enough of a toehold to hang on.
“[Facebook ads from these groups] are cost effective and the outcomes are clearly effective,” InfluenceMap executive director Dylan Tanner said. “They’re only going to become more common.”
But before we talk about the ads themselves, we need to talk about Facebook’s role here. While the company’s top brass often point out that political ads of all sorts contribute less than 1% of the funding for Facebook’s multibillion dollar ad empire, those funds actually make up close to 60% of all the political ad dollars being spent across the web, according to recent estimates. During the current electoral cycle, we’ve seen political groups dump just about $796 million dollars onto the platform, while spending a little under $244 million on advertising through Google’s pipes during the same period.
There’s a few reasons for Facebook’s chokehold, but one of the biggest boils down to targeting. Its biggest rival in the ad spend-space, Google, spent the latter half of last year completely gutting the way politicians could use its products to target potential voters. Old go-to’s like using voter records or data gleaned from search terms were suddenly out, leaving politicians and political groups supporting them with age, gender, or the zip code as the only metrics they could use when trying to sway the electorate. In contrast, Facebook left most of its targeting tech unscathed in the lead up to the 2020 race, which might explain why it’s become the politician’s platform of choice.
Of the roughly 250,000 pages that Tanner’s team found listed in Facebook’s ad archive—which chronicle political ads as well as ads about issues like climate and immigration—95 pages were flagged by the environmental publication Desmog as hawking some sort of climate science misinformation in the past. From that pool, Tanner’s team found 51 ads that they classified as running some sort of disinformation meant to distract hapless Facebook users from the climate hellscape that we’re currently living through.
In some cases, these ads even ran during Facebook’s press junket about its misguided “climate information center” as well as immediately afterwards. As Tanner put it, these ads were largely targeted at a lot of folks who “may not be inclined” to check out that climate center in the first place.
Facebook, for its part, did catch one of those ads before it ran, but the remaining 50 were allowed to run their course without any oversight. Over the first half of the year, those ads ended up reaching no less than 8 million Facebook users across the country. Meanwhile, when Tanner’s team tallied up the grand total spent on all 51 ads, they found the platform was netting $42,000 dollars over their six month run. That’s chump change compared to what, say, oil giants like Exxon might be dumping into Facebook’s pockets, but still significant enough to raise some eyebrows.
In general, the bulk of these ads could be lumped into one of two groups. The most common route these ads took were just questioning or flat-out denying the consensus on the science behind climate change. The second most common message was just asking the reader whether climate change is, you know, actually caused by humankind’s foibles, or if it’s just something that was bound to happen anyway.
The targets of these ads can be largely summed up as—and I’m paraphrasing here—“rural grandpas.” During this six-month span, states like Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho were flooded with ads, while more urban states like New York and Connecticut were largely untouched. And while folks retirement-aged or older seemed to make up the bulk of the people that were targeted with these ads, men who were in the sweet spot between 55 and 64 years old got the bulk of them. Second place, naturally, went to men who were 65 or older. These are the folks that were targeted with ads like this one from PragerU that pushed points about how our climate hasn’t changed much over time (it has), or this ad from Turning Point USA that just boldly declares “CLIMATE CHANGE PANIC IS NOT BASED ON FACTS.” (Tell that to anyone who has had to breathe California’s toxic air recently.)
“It’s classic political advertising: you reach your demographic and you create the narrative you want so they can influence the election—or at least the electoral process,” Tanner said.
While ultimately these advertisers are the only ones who know what strategy they’re working toward here, it’s clear why this would be the demographic of choice. Folks in the regions and age brackets targeted by misinformation have lower rates of climate science acceptance than the general population.
The way Tanner explained it, these Facebook ads weren’t meant to sway a young voters into becoming pro-oil. They’re about maintaining the status quo: a gentle nudge to keep an already skeptical demographic exactly where they are, by reminding them that, after all, “climate change is just a belief,” and “the science isn’t clear,” he added.
If nothing else, you kinda have to give Facebook credit for seemingly failing, again and again, to do the bare minimum when it comes to reigning in the myriad climate hoaxes teeming on the site in general. But especially right now.