Fossil fuel companies have known about climate change since 1966, and for almost as long, they’ve been buying TV, radio and newspaper ads trying to make sure you don’t. Decades later, lies about climate change haven’t disappeared; they’ve just gone digital.
Almost half of people in the U.S. regularly get their news from social media, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. Those social networks are often chock-full of lies. Social media companies like Facebook have claimed to be combating false information on climate change, but their efforts are inadequate to the challenge, according to a new report by the environmental non-profit groups Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, and Greenpeace USA. In order from best to worst, the report ranked the platforms as follows: Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and, lastly, Twitter.
Researchers analyzed and ranked the five big social media companies on how effectively and transparently they address fake news about climate change on their platforms. They found that, although some platforms are better than others (Pinterest came out on top), all five of the companies had major lapses in their transparency surrounding climate disinformation and their strategies for enforcing policies against it.
“This leaves researchers, advocates, and lawmakers powerless to judge whether [these companies] are acting responsibly in building and regulating their own platforms,” said report author Rebecca Lenn, a senior advisor at Avaaz, in an email to Gizmodo. These social media leaders are, “largely leaving the public in the dark,” she added.
Without transparency on how much climate disinformation is swirling around on these platforms, it’s almost impossible to adequately address it, the report points out. “Companies conceal much of the data about the prevalence of digital climate dis/misinformation and any internal measures taken to address its spread,” the report reads.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for Twitter said, “We recognize more can be done on services like Twitter to elevate credible climate information, and we’ll have more to share in the coming months on related efforts.” The spokesperson added that the company prohibits advertisers from spreading climate misinformation, which was clarified publicly in a company blog post on Friday following the publication of the report and this story.
A TikTok spokesperson said the company works with accredited fact-checkers to evaluate videos and limit the spread of climate misinformation. A Pinterest spokesperson said it uses a mix of machine learning and human review to evaluate posts flagged through its dedicated climate misinformation reporting panel. YouTube said its search and recommendation systems promote authoritative sources on climate change. A Facebook spokesperson pointed to the company’s third-party fact-checking program and a Nov. 2021 blog post about ‘Empowering People With Information About The Climate Crisis’.
In the 1980s, think tanks spearheaded coordinated climate change disinformation campaigns. These groups, funded by Big Oil bucks, started and propagated many of the most common myths about climate change, like the belief scientists are largely exaggerating its consequences or that rising temps are unrelated to the burning of fossil fuels. Now, superspreader accounts pumping out false information have taken their place.
“Social media is a crucial vector for the spread of climate change denial, climate skepticism and climate dis- and misinformation,” Samuel Woolley, a computational propaganda researcher at the University of Texas, said in a phone call with Gizmodo. He was not involved in the report. Lies about climate change often get overlooked as the focus goes towards flashier hate and political disinformation campaigns. “[It] seems to take back a backseat, which is, frankly, really worrying, because the science on climate change is incredibly clear.”
To arrive at their rankings, the researchers devised 27 yes-or-no questions assessing the different social media companies’ practices, and looked through all of the publicly available community guidelines, terms of service, press releases, and self-assessments from each company regarding misinformation (and climate change misinformation specifically). They asked, “Is the platform clear about the process by which content is verified as dis/misinformation?” and “Does the platform reduce the distribution of misinformation in algorithmically sorted content?”
In addition to the general findings of harmfully opaque policies and enforcement, the report also noted fun tidbits: neither Youtube nor Twitter prohibit disinformation from being directly recommended to users (something that other research has also highlighted). And that none of the five social media companies specifically address climate disinformation in their own reports (even though all of them publish either quarterly or biannual assessments of misinformation on their platforms).
Further, the researchers found that even though the social networks have misinformation policies, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube don’t necessarily enforce those policies against advertisers. Plus, it’s unclear how repeat misinformation violations are categorized or enforced at Facebook, Pinterest, and Tiktok.
The report pointed out one positive, though: Both Youtube (via Google) and Pinterest have publicly available policies specifically focused on reducing climate change dis/misinformation, and both companies consulted climate change experts to develop those policies.
The new report calls on social media platforms to change their ways, or for the law to make them. “It’s time for these companies to answer the years-long call from researchers, advocates, and lawmakers for full transparency on the scale of climate disinformation online and their policies to combat it. If they won’t, then lawmakers need to step up and mandate transparency and accountability from them,” said Lenn.
And Frank Kelly, a researcher at the University of Cambridge who led a 2022 Royal Society report about online scientific misinformation, generally agreed that the rise of disinformation extends beyond just the social media sites themselves. In a video call with Gizmodo. Kelly, who wasn’t involved in the new research, said that policy makers, tech companies, and even the scientific community share responsibility. “We shouldn’t expect there to be a silver bullet,” he added.
The Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act, a bill that was introduced in the U.S. House in February, would be a first step towards mandated tech company transparency around disinformation if passed.
For some experts though, more still needs to be done. “This is an unfathomably large problem,” said Woolley, the University of Texas researcher and author of a book on the subject of online propaganda, who wasn’t involved in the new report. “[These companies] have talked about using AI, they’ve talked about hiring more human moderators, but as a researcher in this space, it’s clear that they’re still attempting to build the plane while the plane is being flown,” Woolley added. To really address climate disinformation, he believes social media companies will likely have to go back to the drawing board.
“They have to think about the systems, the recommendation and algorithmic systems, that underlie their platforms,” Woolley said. “There has to be a redesign of many of many of the elements of these platforms, with human rights and democracy and science in mind, rather than with pure capitalism and control.”
Update 4/22/2022, 11:57 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional content from a Facebook spokesperson and a Twitter blog post.