Michael Khoo is co-chair of the climate disinformation coalition at Friends of the Earth, and co-founder of UpShift Strategies. Phil Newell is Associate Director of Science Defense at Climate Nexus, a nonprofit climate and clean energy communications group. Deb Lavoy is a technologist and co-founder of Reality Team.
The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirm that “climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people,” urging that if we phase out fossil fuels quickly, we can stabilize the climate. The report released in February on adaptation notes “[r]hetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk and urgency, and dissent.” Today’s report on mitigation describes how “opposition from status quo interests” and “the propagation of scientifically misleading information” are “barriers” to climate action and have “negative implications for climate policy.”
Regular exposés reveal how intentional disinformation is spread on social media platforms, seeding falsehoods on everything from the expansion of renewable power, to the honest assessment of Texas power outages, to the causes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes, right wing personalities tried to blame environmental activist Greta Thunberg).
While the majority of Americans believe in climate change and want action to address it, companies such as Facebook, Google/YouTube, and Twitter enable the spread of disinformation to wide audiences, preventing progress. Vested interests increasingly use social media to flood the narrative, while the platforms profit. Disinformation is now a guaranteed byproduct, if not a central part, of social media companies’ business models.
Climate change disinformation is not new- it has a long history dating back to 1970s’ ad campaigns run by oil and gas companies, if not further. To hide its agenda, the fossil fuel industry created a web of shell companies and coalitions to fund “climate change counter-movement organizations.” Big Oil copied Big Tobacco, hiring the same lawyers and front groups to spread disinformation meant to block regulation. Funding for climate denial grew from $357 million in 2003 to $808 million in 2018. Along the way, the industry learned to use social media to gain new audiences to advance its fringe views.
In February 2021, a Texas-focused climate disinformation campaign aimed to deflect blame for deadly power failures during a historic snow storm. This campaign illustrates how the disinformation ecosystem fanned the flames, as a single social media post became an official talking point. As massive infrastructure failures were killing hundreds, a Twitter user named “Oilfield Rando” posted an image of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine, blaming renewables for the catastrophe. The image was a lie. It was from 2014, and from Sweden, but it quickly went viral anyway. In just four days, networks of professional climate deniers pushed it from Twitter to Facebook to Fox News to a talking point out of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s mouth. Thanks to Facebook, and despite its fact-check promises, 99% of the false posts remained up and without so much as a warning label.
These sorts of efforts pay off. Research in the science journal Nature confirms that climate disinformation reduces climate literacy, increases social polarization, and can lead to a complete rejection of accurate information. It reinforces silence and cultivates distrust in scientists. The vast majority of this harmful content comes from a very small, highly coordinated network of actors. They expertly navigate the social media platforms that help amplify their content, giving it a false sheen of credibility, relevance, and importance. A whopping 69% of climate disinformation traffic on Facebook comes from just 10 accounts.
Disinformation is not the only thing preventing climate action. The previous U.S. president still calls it a hoax and social media companies’ ability to reach users has been oversold–which has fed into some hype and distrust in the overall problem of disinformation.
But disinformation functions like industrial-scale advertising–on which the fossil fuel industry spends millions a year on Facebook alone. In this model, the ads and disinformation are not intended to change individual decisions, but to create an environment of perpetual uncertainty, driven by false problems and distrust in real solutions. And it is this narrative that is amplified by social media companies, whose algorithms reward false content, and who give free passes to high-profile deniers.
Disinformation is a complex problem, but some aspects have very simple solutions. Social media companies can choose to stop giving the small group of disinformers a giant, algorithmically charged bullhorn to saturate the public with disinformation. We saw the effectiveness of this strategy when Twitter removed Donald Trump after he praised the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Zignal Labs documented that his removal led to a 73% drop in election-related disinformation. Whether it’s climate or COVID, a few bad apples are spoiling the bunch.
There are emerging methods to debunk or pre-bunk disinformation. These are becoming more impactful and more cost-effective. Unfortunately, they are not yet funded at a scale to compete with the fossil fuel industry. And no inoculation strategy will ever be as effective as preventing intentional disinformation on platforms in the first place.
Social media companies have employed the traditional corporate PR approach of shifting responsibility to individuals for not being educated enough to detect disinformation. “The individual humans are the ones who choose to believe or not believe a thing,” Facebook CTO Andrew Bosworth told Politico’s Ina Fried last year. The companies offer new programs that promise to help factual information to compete with the disinformation, but in the realm of climate they are half-hearted.
For instance, Facebook launched the Climate Science Information Center in 2021 to help outcompete bad information with good, but analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue during the COP26 climate summit showed that disinformation vastly overwhelmed the content from Facebook’s Center. If there were any evidence this strategy works, Facebook would shout that from the rooftops. Instead, Facebook gives vague platitudes with no real numbers on the overall percentage of disinformation that has—or hasn’t—been stopped. Twitter launched Birdwatch to make users responsible for policing bad content, but it has also not been successful in that end goal. It is worth noting, however, that Twitter’s moderated climate “Topic” has actually spawned a reasonable climate conversation. That’s what happens when you keep the bomb-throwers out of the debate room.
There is now an historic opportunity to protect the public from the companies that drive disinformation. Facebook has repeatedly been caught lying to Congress. Google/YouTube made public promises to reduce the monetization of climate disinformation—promises that researchers exposed as inadequate. Whistleblowers like Frances Haugen provided incontrovertible proof within 10,000 leaked documents that Facebook is well aware of the harms it causes. Its executives consistently choose to ignore recommendations from their own internal teams to reduce those harms, because implementing the recommendations would affect growth and profit, or limit the reach of Republicans. The public winds are shifting for big tech companies.
There are many regulatory options that could be used to rein in this wild-west dystopia. Social media companies–like most other industries–could disclose safety risks and injuries suffered as a result of their products. For platforms like Facebook that have been used to facilitate genocide in Myanmar, this is an essential and obvious step. The U.S. Congress is considering multiple policy options to demand transparency and accountability. The European Parliament is on the verge of passing the Digital Services Act—which will require tech company reporting and risk assessments—as well as adopting climate disinformation policies. Courts in France have already advanced a transparency lawsuit against Twitter. One sign of this inevitability is that many social media companies are starting to take voluntary, if inadequate, actions on climate disinformation.
Three simple policies for tech companies would start them on a real path to accountability and reform:
1) Establish, disclose, and enforce policies to reduce climate change and other forms of disinformation;
2) Release all details on the current labeling, fact-checking, and algorithmic ranking systems; and
3) Disclose regular reports on the scale and prevalence on the platform and mitigation efforts taken internally. The leaked Facebook files confirm that such data collection exists and has detailed climate denial.
From the election integrity to trans rights to climate change, we’ve seen that disinformation has the ability to divide and harm us all. The only path to progress is to do the reverse: unite and demand social media companies disclose their data and be held accountable for their role in perpetuating this existential threat.