Facebook accused of failing to tackle misleading climate claims from fossil fuel majors
Oil and gas businesses and lobby groups collectively spent almost $9.6m on Facebook advertising in 2020, a new report has revealed, with the majority of these adverts either containing misleading information or promoting initiatives which are not aligned with climate science.
The report, published today (5 August), comes from London-based and climate-focussed thinktank InfluenceMap.
It outlines how the oil and gas sector posted at least 25,247 advertisements on Facebook’s US platforms in 2020, promoting their low-carbon projects, strategies or investments. These posts collectively garnered more than 431 million views and cost some $9.6m to deliver.
According to InfluenceMap, the top three spenders on advertising during the timeframe and on the channels assessed were ExxonMobil (more than $5m), the American Petroleum Institute ($2.65m) and OneAlaska ($329,680).
The sector’s advertising spend peaked between July and early November last year, the report reveals, with spending passing the $100,000 per day mark in September. This was ahead of the US’s Presidential Election, in which climate plans were a key sticking point in debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. InfluenceMap has stated that this “suggests that the industry uses Facebook advertising strategically and for politically motivated purposes”.
InfluenceMap states that barely any of the thousands of adverts promoted initiatives that were aligned with climate science – specifically, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark 2018 report on the difference between the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C and 2C pathways, and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) roadmap to net-zero by 2050. Both reports outline the importance of halving emissions this decade and bringing them to net-zero by mid-century, with the IEA roadmap stating that reaching these milestones will require an immediate halt to new fossil fuel exploration.
In many cases, the report reveals, adverts downplayed the true environmental impact of the sector through misleading claims or overstated the potential negative impacts of the energy transition on energy security, the economy and local communities.
Moreover, several advertisements encouraged readers to believe that reducing their own individual carbon footprint would be more important to tackling climate change than action from high-emitting businesses, despite evidence to the contrary from the IEA.
“The industry is using a range of messaging tactics that are far more nuanced than outright statements of climate denial,” the report states.
“Some of the most significant tactics found included tying the use of oil and gas to maintaining a high quality of life, promoting fossil gas as green and publicising the voluntary actions taken by the industry on climate change.”
Facebook has stated that it has taken action against some businesses and groups running pro-fossil-fuel ads, on the grounds of them being misleading or on the grounds of them being political, despite claims to the contrary by the organisations who paid for them.
A Facebook spokesperson said: "While ads like these run across many platforms, including television, Facebook offers an extra layer of transparency by requiring them to be available to the public in our Ad Library for up to seven years after publication.
“We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading, and take action against pages, groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false.”
However, InfluenceMap has maintained that Facebook is not doing enough to remove misleading adverts or ensure that they include a disclaimer stating that their environmental claims are politically motivated. It has accused the social media giant of failing to apply its own advertising policies to all of the adverts assessed.
“Despite Facebook’s public support for climate action, it continues to allow its platform to be used to spread fossil fuel propaganda,” Facebook’s former sustainability director Bill Weihl said. To his point, Facebook notably has a 2030 target for delivering a net-zero value chain.
Weihl added: “Not only is Facebook inadequately enforcing its existing advertising policies, it’s clear that these policies are not keeping pace with the critical need for urgent climate action.”
Weihl, who has also worked in sustainability for Google, now spearheads the ‘Climate Voice’ venture, which empowers staff at corporates to press their employers to accelerate climate action.
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.