The scale of climate misinformation on Facebook is “staggering” and “increasing quite substantially”, a new analysis of hundreds of thousands of posts has found.
A report released on Thursday by the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an independent watchdog group, and environmental nonprofit Stop Funding Heat, analyzed a dataset of more than 195 Facebook pages and groups. Researchers found an estimated 818,000 posts downplaying or denying the climate crisis, which have received a combined 1.36m views every day.
The study’s release coincides with the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow and it urges governments to seriously consider the role of climate misinformation on social media in derailing the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is where the ambitions of Cop26 and the revelations of the Facebook Papers collide, with our data showing Facebook is among the world’s biggest purveyors of climate disinformation,” researchers said.
The study analyzed 195 pages known to distribute misinformation about the climate crisis using Facebook’s analytics tool, CrowdTangle. Of those, 41 were considered “single issue” groups. With names like “Climate Change is Natural”, “Climate Change is Crap” and “Climate Realism”, these groups primarily shared memes denying climate change exists and deriding politicians attempting to address it through legislation.
Those that were not “single issue” groups included pages from figures like the rightwing politician Marjorie Taylor Greene, which posted misleading articles and disinformation about the climate crisis.
This “rampant” spread of climate misinformation is getting substantially worse, said Sean Buchan, the researcher and partnerships manager for Stop Funding Heat. Interactions per post in its dataset have increased 76.7% in the past year, the report found.
“If it continues to increase at this rate, this can cause significant harm in the real world,” he said.
A spokesman for Facebook took issue with the methodology of the study, suggesting not all posts flagged in the report represented disinformation.
“We’re focused on reducing actual climate misinformation on our platform, which is why we partner with a global network of factcheckers and reduce the distribution of anything they rate as false or misleading and reject any ads that have been debunked,” he said.
Facebook previously stated it continues to counteract the spread of misinformation by flagging climate information and referring users to its Climate Change Science Center, which contains data from credible sources on the climate crisis.
On Tuesday, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, announced that the center would expand to include more countries and information labels, which it adds to posts about the climate crisis for additional context.
By Facebook’s own count, the Climate Change Science Center receives about 100,000 daily visits globally – a fraction of the number of users who view climate misinformation, according to the study. Facebook has 2.9 billion monthly active users.
As the Cop 26 climate summit continues, activists are calling on the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the EU Congress to pass legislation targeting Facebook’s massive power in light of its inability to stem climate misinformation.
“Facebook cannot and will not police themselves,” the Real Facebook Oversight Board said in a statement. “We need real, independent, transparent outside oversight and regulation and an investigation into all of Facebook’s activities – including the dangerous spread of climate disinformation.”
Misinformation on Facebook – about climate change and other issues – is largely driven by a small number of sources. The study released Thursday found 78% of the information came from just seven pages, all of which were flagged one year ago in a previous report. Facebook has previously declined to remove the pages.
Facebook has long been criticized for the spread of climate misinformation on its platforms. In May 2021, progressive non-profit Avaaz reported an estimated 25m views of misinformation related to climate science and renewable energy within just 60 days in the US.
The latest study comes days after a separate report this week showed just 10 publishers are responsible for 69% of digital climate change denial content on Facebook, including more than 6,983 articles in the past year denying the climate crisis.
The problem is exacerbated by the unequal way in which Facebook moderates its content around the world, Buchan said.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, recently revealed that 87% of Facebook’s spending on misinformation goes to English-language content, despite the fact that only 9% of its users are English speaking.
“That is a very high percentage, and it means there is a whole load of Facebook users being left out,” Buchan said. “There are whole populations who enjoy the Facebook service, and that Facebook is profiting from, while not actually taking care of them.”