Despite Pledges, Hearings, Facebook Still Pushing Climate Disinformation

Several weeks of highly damaging stories and one name change later, the company currently trying to rebrand as “Meta” is deploying the same shopworn tactics of denial and misdirection.

Facebook has said it is taking major action on disinformation campaigns, but analyses published as the COP26 global climate summit convened in Glasgow paint a very different picture.

One such report concluded that not only has the social media platform done nothing to prevent new weaponized narratives from forming, it is still allowing the worst offenders to operate unhindered on its platform, per a new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

The “Toxic Ten” analysis  — one in a series identifying the most prolific and disreputable purveyors of weaponized lies and narratives — points out that (as with other highly politicized topics) more than two-thirds of the disinformation, which is then spread to billions of Facebook accounts without moderation, originates from just ten accounts, which it deems “superpolluters”:

1) Breitbart, the disinformation site once run by Steve Bannon
2 Western Journal, whose founder claimed President Obama is Muslim
3) Newsmax, a key promoter of election fraud conspiracies
4) Townhall Media, founded by the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation
5) Media Research Center, a “think tank” that received funding from Exxon
6) The Washington Times, founded by self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon
7) The Federalist Papers, a site that has promoted Covid misinformation
8 Daily Wire, one of the most engaged-with publishers on Facebook
9) Russian state media, pushing disinformation via and Sputnik News
10) Patriot Post, a secretive conservative site whose writers use pseudonyms

Collectively, these ten disinformation purveyors have a total of 186 million followers on social media platforms, and per the report they account for fully 69 percent of interactions on Facebook posts denying the reality of a catastrophically changing climate.

Despite the prevalence of such content and Facebook’s purported commitment to fighting corrosive climate disinformation, however, the report said that 92 percent of popular climate change denial articles did not receive an information label clarifying context or facts, and none of them at all received fact-checking labels. (For reference, Facebook has deemed our site “clickbait” and limited our visibility on the platform for years.)

Another, similar report was also released in the days leading up to the COP26 climate summit from environmental nonprofit Stop the Heat and watchdog group The Real Facebook Oversight Board. Its conclusions echo those of the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s analysis:

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 research and partnerships manager for Stop Funding Heat. Interactions per post in its dataset have increased 76.7% in the past year, the report found.

These reports also came as the fossil fuel industry is finally receiving scrutiny for its decades of nearly relentless disinformation campaigns against the American public that have effectively halted any meaningful progress toward climate change mitigation:

The U.S. has contributed more heat-trapping pollution than any country over time and has been the prime driver of global climate change. The national debate about how to address the problem has raged for decades, but progress toward a solution has been slow. Whenever presidents or Congress have introduced measures to slash emissions to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, they’ve been repeatedly derailed.

Most of those efforts involved outright denial that fossil fuel’s effects were harmful, gaslighting, smearing and threatening journalists, “greenwashing,” and attempts to distract the public from the realities around a warming planet:

In 1997, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the first international treaty to cut greenhouse gases. A sweeping 2009 bill to reduce emissions never came to a vote in the Senate because it did not have enough support and was doomed to fail. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, the only country to reject the agreement.

The same headwinds have stopped nearly every effort, including Biden’s, to make systemic cuts to emissions: a powerful fossil fuel lobby that has spent vast sums of money to influence lawmakers while simultaneously sowing public doubt about the science of climate change.The same headwinds have stopped nearly every effort, including Biden’s, to make systemic cuts to emissions: a powerful fossil fuel lobby that has spent vast sums of money to influence lawmakers while simultaneously sowing public doubt about the science of climate change.

Climate change and hybrid warfare (of which disinformation campaigns are a major part) are linked and interrelated in myriad ways, as toxic narratives can weaponize all the ills that a changing climate deliver, from fires, to floods, to global pandemics against vulnerable populations in a highly targeted way thanks to social media’s gathering of personality data and personalized algorithms. This turns climate change into not just an issue of environmentalism or economics; as the United Nations has stated, it means that a warming planet is also a global security crisis, and one not easily resolved:

Recent scientific evidence has reinforced, and in some cases exceeded, our worst fears about the physical impacts facing us. It has become increasingly clear that climate change has consequences that reach the very heart of the security agenda: flooding, disease and famine, resulting in migration on an unprecedented scale in areas of already high tension; drought and crop-failure, leading to intensified competition for food, water and energy in regions where resources are already stretched to the limit; and economic disruption on the scale predicted in the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and not seen since the end of the Second World War.

This is not about narrow national security, but about collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world. And tragically, once again, it will be the most vulnerable and the least able to cope who will be hit first. There is no choice between a stable climate and the fight against poverty — without the first, the second will certainly fail.

The solution to the entwined threats lies in the same concept of “resilience,” which in both cases refers to how quickly a complex system can respond and return to its baseline after a disruption or an attack. The methods may look different in practice (and may even differ by region) but the underlying concepts are the same — in order to build resilient systems, the world first has to ensure that rampant socioeconomic inequality and austerity are a thing of the past, as populism and polarization inevitably follow on their heels, which in turn feed into a media environment rife with disinformation:

In polarised political environments, citizens are confronted with different deviating representations of reality and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between false and correct information. Thus, societal polarisation is likely to decrease resilience to online disinformation. Moreover, research has shown that both populism and partisan disinformation share a binary Manichaean worldview, comprising anti-elitism, mistrust of expert knowledge and a belief in conspiracy theories. As a consequence of these combined influences, citizens can obtain inaccurate perceptions of reality. Thus, in environments with high levels of populist communication, online users are exposed to more disinformation.

Another condition that has been linked to resilience to online disinformation in previous research is trust in news media. Previous research has shown that in environments in which distrust in news media is higher, people are less likely to be exposed to a variety of sources of political information and to critically evaluate those. In this vein, the level of knowledge that people gain is likely to play an important role when confronted with online disinformation. Research has shown that in countries with wide-reaching public service media, citizens’ knowledge about public affairs is higher compared to countries with marginalised public service media. Therefore, it can be assumed that environments with weak public broadcasting services (PBS) are less resilient to online disinformation.

There is even a phrase linked to hybrid threats that describes efforts to interfere with recovery or mitigation: “resilience targeting.”  This emerging body of research describes the relationship between disasters and the ability to recover from them as yet another opportunity to destabilize regions by leveraging climate change-related disasters which can foment anything from outright chaos to a sense of damaging uncertainty that can then be used to undermine any true progress:

In conducting assessments of post-conflict regions and reconstruction, a pattern emerged that suggested many actions taken during a conflict were designed not to target military units, or even civilians directly, but were intended to prevent communities from being able to recover from the conflict. By attacking or blocking access to critical nodes in essential systems, aggressors could exploit key vulnerabilities and actively target those factors that constituted resilience and the ability of systems to recover following a conflict. The specific tactics could vary, from sowing landmines in agricultural areas, destroying environmental or health infrastructure (for example, wastewater treatment facilities), or undercutting livelihoods, this practice of resilience targeting often occurred in civil wars and was tied to policies of ethnic cleansing.

Similar tactics are observed in hybrid warfare environments. Hybrid warfare strategies are often employed in asymmetric conflicts, where the less powerful actor takes advantage of the adversary’s vulnerabilities to create instability and disruption. As resilience is a key component of vulnerability, actively undercutting resilience of critical systems automatically increases associated vulnerabilities, whether the ability to withstand outside attacks, maintain political, social, and economic stability, or to recover following a disaster….

To put it in simpler terms, the best way to combat the disastrous effects of a quickly warming planet is to emphasize fairness, honesty, and egalitarianism across the board, and by fighting the effects of increasing socioeconomic inequality on a cultural and political level on a global level. It requires redefining the concept of “security” in human rather than geopolitical terms, fighting for transparency from elected officials, and pressuring lawmakers and corporations for better policies.

The first step toward building resilience to climate change and weaponized disinformation  campaigns is a commitment from social media platforms to live up to their promises to fight disinformation campaigns on every level, as to do anything less is to profoundly threaten global security. The first step to combating this worldwide problem is demanding that Facebook moderate disinformation campaigns on its platform — as it has repeatedly promised to do.