Facebook failed to spot climate misinformation from some of its worst denialist offenders

Last year the company promised to attach informational labels to some climate content.

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Amrita Khalid
February 23, 2022 8:36 PM
A police officer unglues a "Letzte Generation" (Last Generation) activist's hand from the road during a protest against food waste and in support of an agricultural change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in Berlin, Germany, February 14, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Mang
Christian Mang / reuters

Facebook may be failing to tag a large amount of climate misinformation posted on its site, a study released today indicates. Researchers from the Center for Counter Digital Hate analyzed 184 exceptionally popular stories from what it identified to be the top ten publishers of climate change denial content in the world (a list that includes Russian state media, The Daily Wire, Breitbart and others). It found that roughly half (50.5 percent) of the stories failed to trigger Facebook’s information labels designed to flag coverage on climate change. Stories from such heavily trafficked news outlets should be the easiest targets for fact-checkers, suggesting that much more climate misinformation is evading Facebook’s screening.

Last year Facebook (which has since rebranded as Meta) promised to flag climate change coverage in a number of countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US. Such posts would be marked with an informational label that would direct users to the platform’s “Climate Science Information Center”, which contains information that debunks myths on the climate. The study’s authors began their research following Facebook’s May 2021 announcement that it would tackle climate change denial propaganda, and all articles included in the analysis were posted after that date.

Independent fact-checkers also flag climate change stories that are false, and Facebook adds a warning label and reduces distribution. "When they rate this content as false, we add a warning label and reduce its distribution so fewer people see it. During the time frame of this report, we hadn't completely rolled out our labeling program, which very likely impacted the results,” Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAllister told NPR.

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Facebook has made multiple efforts to scrub misinformation posted on its platform over the past few years, for topics like the 2020 presidential election, the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines. But as Engadget and other outlets have covered, a large amount of misinformation is still able to clear Facebook’s algorithms without proper labeling.

But nearly a year later, Facebook’s review system on climate change content is still missing the mark. I was able to post a number of different climate change stories on Facebook without hitting its algorithms, including articles entitled “Why the West Coast Heat Wave Has Nothing To Do With Climate Change” from The Federalist and “Alarmists: Global Warming Causes ‘Unprecedented Cold’ in Tajikistan”, published in Breitbart.

Facebook hasn’t been specific on what type of outlets or information is eligible for an info label. Engadget has reached out for comment, and will update when we hear back.

While there’s some evidence that suggests efforts by social media platforms to tag misinformation and hoaxes has worked to stop their spread, a large amount of misinformation still slips through the cracks. And unfortunately, additional research indicates that the absence of these warnings (the lack of a climate information label, for instance) increases the "perceived accuracy" of content.

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