Facebook drives climate sceptics down disinformation rabbit hole, finds study

Facebook’s algorithm amplifies climate doubters rather than nudging people towards reliable information.

That’s the view from a report released on Wednesday by Global Witness, an international human rights organisation.

When researchers simulated the experience of a climate-sceptic user on the platform, within a few clicks Facebook’s algorithm was recommending content denying the existence of man-made global warming.

The report also said that much of this content deployed culture war tactics to polarise debate around climate change and demonise environmental movements.

In April 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted during a congressional testimony that climate disinformation is ‘a big issue’ on the platform and to counter it created its ‘climate science centre’ — an information hub designed to ‘connect people with science-based information on climate change’.

Facebook also supposedly expanded their flagging of posts regarding climate with information labels linking to their climate science centre and announced a $1,000,000 grant program to support organisations working to combat climate misinformation.

That’s a sum equal to about thirty minutes of company profits.

Global Witness’ investigation found despite the platform’s promises to mitigate climate disinformation, Facebook’s algorithm continued to recommend pages with content that claimed the climate crisis is a hoax.

Other types of content recommended included those that suggest rising temperatures are part of natural cycles, environmentalists are alarmists, climate scientists are biased, warming models are inaccurate and mitigation solutions won’t work or are otherwise bad for society.

The study was done using two hypothetical users: one, a climate sceptic ‘Jane’ and ‘John’ who followed established scientific bodies. Researchers then tracked what Facebook’s algorithm suggested to both accounts.

The content suggested to ‘Jane’ included denying man-made climate change, pages calling it a ‘hoax’ and attacking measures to mitigate its effects. For example, posts the ‘green movement’ of ‘enslaving humanity’ and calling the United Nations ‘an authoritarian regime with less credibility than Bugs Bunny’.

Researchers had Jane’s account ‘like’ these Facebook pages spreading climate disinformation, with at least 14,000 followers, like ‘I Love Carbon Dioxide’. Over a period of about two months, Jane was recommended more conspiratorial and anti-science content as a result said researchers.

Of all the pages recommended to Jane’s account, only one was free of climate-change disinformation of which two-thirds did not contain a warning label pointing towards Facebook’s climate-science centre.

Meanwhile, John’s account began by liking the page of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations scientific body and in contrast to Jane, was consistently shown reliable science-based content.

Just like Jane, researchers said that Facebook was sending millions of users down disinformation rabbit holes.

The IPCC says disinformation is one of a number of issues preventing governments and the public from addressing climate change.

‘Our systems are designed to reduce misinformation, including climate misinformation, not to amplify it. We use a combination of artificial intelligence, human review, and input from partners – including fact-checkers – to address problematic content,’ a Meta spokesperson told BBC.

‘When they rate this content as false, we add a warning label and reduce its distribution so fewer people see it,’ they added.

The research contradicts these claims and called on governments to step in and legislate against the power of Big Tech to shape our realities in dangerous and divisive ways that threaten to derail progress toward tackling climate change.

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