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Facebook Profited From Climate Misinformation Even After Vowing to Fight It, Report Shows

Inaccurate and misleading ads—which were bought by right-wing lobby and nonprofit groups—were viewed by eight million U.S. users during the first half of 2020. 

Activists with the group Extinction Rebellion protest outside Google's UK headquarters in London on October 16, 2019. The demonstrators want social media companies to do more to combat climate denial. (Photo: Ollie Millington, Getty Images)

Extinction Rebellion activists protesting outside Google's London offices on October 16, 2019 demand social media companies do more to fight climate change denial. (Photo: Ollie Millington, Getty Images) 

Millions of U.S. Facebook users have viewed dozens of climate disinformation ads paid for by shadowy right-wing groups this year, a think tank revealed Monday.

A study by InfluenceMap found that during the first half of 2020 at least eight million people in the U.S. saw 51 Facebook ads containing false claims about global heating. The ads were highly targeted, with people in rural states and men—especially over age 55—much more likely to see them than women. 

"We have repeatedly asked Facebook to close the loopholes that allow misinformation to run rampant on its platform, but its leadership would rather make a quick buck while our planet burns."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren

While oil companies continue to fund groups that deny the reality of the human-caused climate crisis, the ads analyzed by InfluenceMap were not paid for by fossil fuel corporations. Rather, they were purchased by conservative lobby and nonprofit groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, PragerU, and Turning Point USA.

In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department rolled back regulations governing 501(c)(4) organizations, ending a requirement that such groups disclose information about their donors. This allows them to buy ads without telling the public who is behind the messages.

According to The Guardian, some of the ads—which cost a total of $42,000—were still running in October. Messaging in them included titles such as "Climate Change Is a Hoax," "Climate Change Panic Is Not Based on Facts," and "Make No Doubt About It: The Hysteria Over Climate Change Is to Sell You Big Government Control."

Facebook ran these ads despite announcing last month that it was "committed to tackling climate misinformation," in part by creating a Climate Science Information Center "to connect people with science-based information." The social media giant said it was modeling the initiative on its Covid-19 Information Center, which according to Grist has slapped misinformation warnings on some 50 million posts containing inaccurate information about the pandemic. 

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The information center came after activists protested what they called a "climate loophole" that allowed Facebook to overrule its own fact-checkers and label climate misinformation as "opinion," and be published on the site. 

In July, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led lawmakers in urging the company to close the loophole. Warren reacted to InfluenceMap's report by saying it "revealed how Facebook lets climate deniers spread dangerous junk to millions of people."

"We have repeatedly asked Facebook to close the loopholes that allow misinformation to run rampant on its platform, but its leadership would rather make a quick buck while our planet burns, sea levels rise, and communities—disproportionately Black and Brown—suffer," she added. "Facebook must be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis."

Former Facebook sustainability director Bill Weihl, who now works at the NGO ClimateVoice, said in a summary of the report that "calling out the climate misinformation issue on Facebook is crucial because the company's limited attempts to deal with the problem are failing to keep pace with powerful tactics like micro-targeting."

"It's yet another attempt by Facebook to say 'we're doing some good,' when the problem continues, mostly unabated," added Weihl.

The InfluenceMap report comes a day after Facebook announced it would fight the dissemination of electoral misinformation by banning political ads—after Election Day. On Tuesday, the company also said it would ban all accounts, pages, and groups associated with QAnon—three years after the right-wing conspiracy theory began. 

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