Facebook’s plan to combat climate misinformation running rampant on its site is here. It is a... “climate science information center” of facts, figures, and news stories about the climate crisis that obscures the systematic changes needed to address climate change while peddling tips that mirror Big Oil talking points. The whole thing is a giant hand-wave to distract us from looking at the real solutions to climate change and the role Facebook is playing in corroding them.
Here is where I would usually say it is good Facebook is doing something about climate change. But the era of corporate malfeasants getting belly rubs is over. What Facebook is doing is akin to the National Rifle Association’s argument that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. In this case, Facebook is the arms dealer handing out guns to both sides.
Facebook’s announcement of the information center opens with the line, “climate change is real,” which is usually a precursor to bullshit. Congrats. Welcome to the party that scientists have been having for more than 100 years.
Many users who opened Facebook on Tuesday in the U.S., UK, and Germany were greeted with a chance to visit the climate science information center. The page contains information from trusted scientific sources, localized climate data trends, and, at least on Tuesday for this user, a prompt to share a photo of a place I want to protect from climate change with the hashtag #OurPlanetChallenge. If 100,000 users do it, Facebook said it would kick $100,000 to the Arbor Day Foundation.
The science is all well and good, but we are well past the era where science knowledge alone is going to solve anything. To paraphrase a friend of the blog and climate essayist Mary Heglar, all we need to do to understand climate change is look out the window. The fires in the West, relentless heat waves, and other crippling impacts of climate change leading to real-world suffering tell the story much more clearly than graphs showing local temperature trends.
More unsettling is that many of the solutions espoused on the page are garden variety life tips: turn off the lights, reuse things, and drive less. All great and things we should be doing, sure. But they are not going to address climate change, and highlighting them as the solutions plays right into the hands of the industry causing the crisis.
“The ‘solutions’ proposed in the information center are taken right out of the current fossil fuel playbook,” Genevieve Guenther, the founder of End Climate Silence, said in an email. “They are exclusively inadequate individual actions like recycling, turning off the lights when you leave the room, wearing your clothes longer, etc.”
Here is a good fact I didn’t find in Facebook’s science center: Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions.
Here are some solutions I didn’t see Facebook espouse: An engaged public that has a shared version of reality, politicians drastically curtailing the power of corporate monopolies from Big Tech to Big Oil, and a transformation of every sector of the economy.
Facebook is actively working against those goals, except (maybe) the latter. Its corrosive effect on democracy and shared truth is well-documented. I won’t go into it ad nauseam, but consider the past six days alone for Facebook with respect to the climate crisis and how the company contributed to dissolving reality.
With unprecedented fires raging across the West Coast, Facebook allowed the page Law Enforcement Today to post an unsubstantiated rumor that “antifa” had started wildfires that spread rapidly across the network. The company eventually limited the reach of the post after it had been shared more than 71,000 times. After more than 48 hours of public outcry, Facebook deleted it, though it’s unclear how many thousands of screenshots and private conversations continue to propagate the falsehood. The result of this climate misinformation has been at least two journalists threatened at gunpoint, some members of law enforcement encouraging vigilante violence even as agencies tried desperately to debunk the claim, and a number of people ignoring evacuation orders to protect their homes against antifa. This followed the exact same playbook as lies spread during the Australian bushfires earlier this year as well as the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the social media giant appeared completely unprepared.
Then there’s earlier this summer when Facebook overruled fact-checkers who labeled climate misinformation as misleading on the site, opening up a loophole for “opinion” pieces to be exempt from fact-checking. The company also gladly takes climate deniers’ money to use its platform to spread misinformation. The Heartland Institute is currently running two wildly misleading ads on the platform. Each cost less than $100, but they’re reaching more than 1 million people. Or consider Illinois Citizen for American Greatness, which spent somewhere between $200 and $299 to boost the myth that the Green New Deal will ban hamburgers earlier this summer.
Scientists, meanwhile, have been unable to advertise on Facebook without exposing themselves to greater risk. That’s because climate change is labeled an “issue” that requires pages that want to pay to expand their reach to input personal details. Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist, told E&E News in July that Facebook has labeled her basic climate education videos “political” and that she was concerned inputting her personal information could open the door to more harassment.
“Nothing in Facebook’s announcement changes that policy,” said Guenther, who recently had factual climate ads blocked. “So climate denial will continue to circulate freely, and climate science will continue to be suppressed, while ‘scientific information’ gets siloed off in some ‘center,’ which enables Facebook to seem like they care about climate change.”
That’s just the climate sphere. Don’t even get me started with [gestures wildly at everything]. The company has also fought regulation at every turn and sloughed off questions of its obligation to squelch misinformation.
To bring our arms dealer analogy full circle, Facebook has handed scientists a slingshot while giving deniers and people hellbent on preserving the status quo a fleet of F-18s. And the planet is in the crosshairs.