FACEBOOK USERS who show an interest in climate scepticism are being driven towards more – and often increasingly extreme – climate disinformation content by Facebook’s algorithms, reveals a new investigation by Global Witness.
The investigation report was published on 28 March, the day the UK communications regulator Ofcom warned that almost one in three UK internet users are unaware that online content may be false or biased.
Global Witness simulated the user experience of an individual liking pages such as “Net Zero Watch”, an organisation countering climate policies and linked to the UK Conservative MP Steve Baker. It found that immediately after liking this page, the user was recommended ‘Climate Depo’, a US based outlet run by Marc Morano and part of Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a group that calls human-induced climate change “a myth”.
In an overwhelming majority of cases, a similar pattern continued throughout the simulation, leading the user to see content that includes climate change is a hoax, that describes the UN as an “authoritarian regime” that has less credibility than “Bugs Bunny” and accuses the “green movement” of “enslaving humanity”. Often as the simulation went deeper Facebook began to recommend other conspiracies, such as chem trails which claim that condensation left by planes contains chemical agents that control the weather.
In total 18 pages were recommended in the simulation, with only one not containing any climate disinformation. Two-thirds of the pages were exclusively dedicated to climate disinformation.
Mai Rosner, Digital Threats to Democracy Campaigner at Global Witness, said: “Facebook has repeatedly said it wants to combat climate disinformation on its platform, but our investigation shows how worryingly easy it is for its users to be led down a dangerous path that flies in the face of both science and reality. Facebook is not just a neutral online space where climate disinformation exists; it is quite literally putting such views in front of users eyes.
“The destruction of our planet is not up for debate but the amplification of climate disinformation risks getting us stuck in inaction and division, that delays the urgent policies we need to combat the climate crisis. People whose homes have been destroyed by wildfires and floods need no reminding of just how real the climate crisis is.
“The climate crisis is increasingly becoming the new culture war, with many of the same individuals who for years have sought to stoke division and polarise opinion now viewing climate as the latest front in their efforts. Big tech giants have a responsibility not to propagate climate disinformation. By doing so they are contributing to a more dangerous and polarised world.”
The findings come despite Facebook promising to crackdown on climate disinformation on their platform, having set up a “climate science centre” designed to “connect people with science-based information on climate change”. Users should be directed to the centre via flags on climate related content, yet of the content Global Witness analysed from recommended pages, around only one in five climate disinformation posts possessed such a flag. Responding to the investigation, Facebook told Global Witness that “for several months after we announced the initial experiment of informational labels in the UK, we did not completely roll out our labelling programme.”
Following these findings, Global Witness is calling on governments to legislate against the power of big technology corporations to shape our realities in dangerous and divisive ways, that threaten to derail progress toward tackling the greatest challenge we face collectively. At the same time, says Global Witness, all social media platforms such as Facebook should produce transparent plans to show they are taking climate disinformation seriously, as well as monitoring and reporting on the spread of such views on their platforms.
Meta (owners of Facebook) responded that they take their “responsibility seriously” and that their “systems are designed to reduce misinformation, including false and misleading climate content, not to amplify it.” They also acknowledged that reducing misinformation required ongoing investment.
In the UK, Ofcom’s study revealed that 30 per cent of adults who go online (14.5 million) do not even consider the truthfulness of online information. A further six per cent – around one in every 20 UK internet users – believe everything they see online.
Also in the study, seven in 10 UK adults (69 per cent) said they were confident in identifying misinformation, but only two in 10 (22 per cent) were actually able to correctly identify the signs of a genuine post, without making mistakes. There was a similar pattern among older children aged 12-17, with 74 per cent confident, but only 11 per cent able.
Similarly, around a quarter of UK adults (24 per cent) and children (27 per cent) who claimed to be confident in spotting misinformation were unable to identify a fake social media profile in practice.
* More information on the Ofcom study here.
* Read The climate divide: How Facebook’s algorithm amplifies climate disinformation here.