Facebook and Google accused of hosting climate misinformation adverts during COP26

Facebook has not adapted processes rapidly enough to detect and stop new climate denial tactics, a new report is arguing, while Google is, separately, under fire for placing dozens of sponsored articles with climate misinformation, against its own commitments.

Facebook and Google accused of hosting climate misinformation adverts during COP26

Common misinformation tactics include claiming that the global temperature increase is not happening

Facebook is the subject of a new report from US-based nonprofit Avaaz, which found that five publishers who regularly produce content predicated on climate misinformation placed 136 posts promoting this content between April and mid-November this year. Collectively, these promoted posts clocked up more than 61 million views. Most of them (88%) were not flagged by Facebook with a fact-checking label.

The publishers assessed in the study were PragerU and Turning Point USA, as well as individual writers John Stossel, Bjørn Lomborg and Alan Jones. Common approaches from these sources were to deny any evidence for adverse effects of man-made climate change, or to cite misleading or disproven statistics.

According to the study, some of the publishers increased their social media advertising spend for climate misinformation in the run-up to COP26, and during the two-week UN climate summit.

Avaaz’s senior advisor Rebecca Lenn said: “Despite Facebook’s promises to tackle this problem, the vast majority of posts are going unlabelled. Worse, the company is still profiting from ads that promote climate misinformation to thousands of users. We can’t count on Facebook to keep up with the evolving tactics of today’s climate sceptics.”

The NGO is working with other organisations to lobby for policymakers in the US and Europe to set out new mandates for tech and social media platforms. These would include a shared definition of climate misinformation; a comply-or-explain mandate for not hosting sponsored climate misinformation posts and enhanced disclosure requirements.

Facebook, which is rebranding to Meta, has stated that it rejects sponsored posts when an “independent fact-checking partner rates them as false or misleading, and take action against pages, groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false”. It maintains that, by keeping adverts in a public library for up to seven years, enabling studies like Avaaz’s, it is adding “an extra layer of transparency”.

Past accusations

This is not the first time that Facebook has been criticised for its approach to tackling climate misinformation on its platforms.

Last September, the firm launched a dedicated digital space where users can access “factual and up-to-date” information on climate science, modelling the tool after its Covid-19 information centre. This move came after criticism from green groups, journalists and thought leaders.

October 2020 saw InfluenceMap releasing its first report using data from Facebook’s Ad Library, revealing that at least 51 advertisements promoting climate denialism were posted by US-based users in the first half of 2020 and were viewed by millions of people.

A separate InfluenceMap analysis, published in January 2021, revealed that tech giants collectively allocated just 4% of their annual lobbying resources to efforts to combat climate change. Facebook’s activity was assessed alongside Apple’s, Amazon’s, Microsoft’s and that of Google’s parent firm Alphabet.

At COP26 itself, more than 250 organisations and individuals supported a new call to tackle climate misinformation online, including Paris Agreement architect Laurence Tubiana, WWF, Sky, Virgin Media O2 and Ben & Jerrys. Recipients of the call to action included Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit. 

Spotlight on Google

The new Avaaz study comes shortly after Google Ads was accused, by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), of running at least 50 climate denial articles from 14 publishers between 9 November and 8 December. These articles have garnered almost 49,000 interactions on Facebook, the CCDH claims.

This is in spite of a Google commitment, made just weeks ahead of COP26, to immediately halt the acceptance of advertising spend for posts spreading climate denial. Announced in October, the policy stated that Google would “prohibit ads for, and monetisation of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change”.

Posts flagged included articles from Breitbart calling the global temperature a “hoax” and calling climate science reports “groundless scare stories”.

Google has stated that staff have now “reviewed the pages shared with them” by the CCDH and “have taken appropriate enforcement actions”.

The CCDH’s chief executive Imran Ahmed said: “Climate change denial is a cynical strategy that seeks to delay the action needed to prevent ecological disaster. In making its initial announcement, Google appeared to recognise that it has played a part in making climate denial a profitable business, and yet it has not followed through with real action.”

Google’s statement maintains that its new policy is “industry-leading” and will be upheld. It states: “When we find content that crosses the line from policy debate to promoting climate change denial, we stop serving ads on that page or site.”

Sarah George

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