In the midst of the second-hottest October in human history, a question popped up on an internal Facebook message board. “Policy for Misinformation - Climate Change Denial?”
The question sparked a discussion, including with an employee arguing that Facebook allowing climate denial posts to run unchecked on the platform made sense because the science around a specific type of ulcer once shifted. The post, available here, is part of a tranche of documents released by whistleblower Francis Haugen’s legal team that Gizmodo and other outlets have received access to. (You can see what we’ve turned up so far.) The names of “low-level” Facebook employees are redacted, so it’s unclear who specifically engaged in the debate over climate change denial content. But the chats are illuminating in just how hands-off Facebook has been with climate denial, and how even within a company committed to net zero emissions by 2030, a laissez-faire attitude about perpetuating denial still reigns in some corners.
The internal logs are from 2019, a year before Facebook opened its climate science information center page for business. The initial post features an employee asking what Facebook does to deal with misinformation:
I’m writing to find out if we have a policy regarding Climate Change denial, specifically human involvement towards climate change. Is this covered in our misinformation enforcement of inform treatments and downranking? I’m wondering because this is science-based we think differently about how this is treated to opinion-based fact checking.
The post goes on to link to a Facebook post that copy-and-pasted a climate denial article from radio host Hal Turner, who has been labeled a “white supremacist true believer” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The employee speculates this copy-and-paste approach may have been used to “get around” Facebook throttling traffic to the post.
A response to the query notes that Facebook doesn’t “remove misinformation except in very narrow cases in which we have strong evidence that the content may lead to imminent harm against people offline,” but that the company does downrank misleading content and uses third-party fact-checkers. Another response notes that “copy-pasting the text of a link to get around URL enforcement is an interesting one - we haven’t seen that too much before.” In response to questions from Earther, a representative for Facebook wrote in an email the URL itself “was rated false by two of our fact-checking partners,” but the rating applied to the actual URL and not the copy-paste approach flagged in the discussion.
Climate change is already harming people offline. A growing body of attribution research for extreme events shows how rising greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the odds and intensity of heavy waves, heavy rainfall, wildfires, and a host of other environmental calamities. A study published last year, for example, found the Australian bushfires in 2019-20—fires that sparked just months after the October 2019 internal Facebook discussion—cost the country $1.5 billion in healthcare costs. Another line of research showed the weather that stirred the fires, which killed at least 34 people and 3 billion animals, was 30% more likely due to global warming.
Have insights into Facebook’s climate misinformation strategy? You can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is one of the countless examples of real-world harm already occurring due to the climate crisis. The political system has failed to come to grips with this damage in large part because misinformation has made the necessary actions nearly unattainable. A separate internal thread in 2019 seems to acknowledge this reality, with a post noting, “If someone is using Facebook Search to deliberately sow doubt and slow down the public response to the climate crisis, they are using our service to jeopardize the lives of billions of people over the coming decades. Is that an attack we are prepared for?”
Why would Facebook allow denial to exist—and in some cases flourish—on its platform is perhaps an ad dollars and cents issue. But as the October 2019 thread reveals, some within the company are also inclined to teach to the controversy. A response to the initial post reads:
It seems problematic to treat scientific consensus as the definitive truth for the purpose of suppressing content that disagrees with it.
Scientific consensus is occasionally overturned. It wasn’t too long ago that everyone knew stomach ulcers were caused by stress and excess stomach acid. The idea that they were caused by microbes was debunked in 1954. If Facebook had been around at that time, we might have faced pressure to stop crackpots from spreading their debunked claims. ... Today, however, we know stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria. ... The Nobel Prize came after many years of pushing back against scientific consensus.
“My immediate reaction is that this is the ‘skeptics as Galileo’ claim that climate deniers have sometimes appealed to in an effort to position themselves as the victim of authoritarian suppression of ideas,” Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard research associate and director of Climate Accountability Communication at the Climate Social Science Network, said in an email. He went on to note that “climate scientists’ views are based on decades of peer-reviewed evidence and reasoning. Climate deniers’ views are not.”
Indeed, the Hal Turner post that sparked the discussion misrepresents NASA’s findings and the preponderance of evidence that humans are heating the planet by burning fossil fuels. Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard who has written one of the seminal texts on climate denial and also worked with Supran, said that Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton actually deployed a similar argument “that scientists had a consensus about eugenics. Therefore we should not believe what they say today” about climate change. She wrote an opinion piece in 2005 rebutting Crichton, which rings true in light of the Facebook discussion today. Just because “group X of scientists, decades ago, may have been wrong about Y, does not mean that [a] different group, today, addressing a different issue, are likely to be wrong now,” she wrote in an email.
The Facebook Climate Science Center popped up in 2020 in response to some of the criticisms of how the company was dealing with climate science on the site. The center provides people with facts about climate change and was updated recently with quizzes and a $1-million influx of cash to beef up fact-checking. But it does nothing to remove denial on the platform.
“We combat climate change misinformation by connecting people to reliable information from leading organizations through our Climate Science Center and working with a global network of independent fact checkers to review and rate content,” Facebook said in an emailed statement. “When they rate this content as false, we add a warning label and reduce its distribution so fewer people see it. We also take action against Pages, Groups, and accounts that repeatedly share false claims about climate science.”
This story is based on Frances Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including Gizmodo, the New York Times, Politico, the Atlantic, Wired, the Verge, CNN, and dozens of other outlets.
Correction, 10/26/21, 5:38 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect it was the second-hottest October on record, not the hottest. (That ignominious title belongs to 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree.)
Update, 10/26/21, 8:40 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with comment from Facebook.