How Meta Failed to Fight Climate Denial

This piece is part of Gizmodo’s ongoing effort to make the Facebook Papers available to the public. See the full directory of documents here.

The summer of 2020 proved to be a boiling point for Facebook on climate change.

The company had made efforts to insulate its users against the health-related hoaxes that had engulfed its platform as the pandemic began. Some seven million posts were axed between April and June, which did not go unnoticed. The apparent seriousness with which Facebook, now known as Meta, had responded to the global pandemic had, instead of seeming a success, merely cast a bitter light on its handling of climate change. For all of Facebook’s bloviating against the perils of becoming an online “arbiter of truth,” the company now seemed to be squarely in the business of deciding which areas of science deserved protecting, and which could be deemed baseless conspiracy theories.

The Facebook Papers show that as late as Fall 2021, Facebook workers struggled to justify the company’s position on the science of the warming planet, many aware that the few policies it did have in place were accomplishing next to nothing. One document shows the concerns of an employee who tried simply searching for “climate change” in the Facebook app. One of the top posts returned warned: “Climate Change Panic Is Not Based on Facts!” It was a video with 6.6 million views. After some chatter, employees realized that the system Facebook devised to gently nudge users toward more authoritative sources of information had no effect when users searched for videos. One remarked, “Seems like a big hole.”

The contrast between how the company dealt with the threat of covid-19 as opposed to climate change struck critics as ludicrous. Facebook had just announced a crackdown on misleading posts about the respiratory virus, pledging to remove any and all content posing “imminent physical harm.” In July 2020, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told The New York Times that disinformation on climate change did not fall into the category of content that posed an immediate threat to human health and safety.

Though that was the company line, one employee wrote, “According to the same kind of global experts we defer to on COVID-19 and vaccines, climate change is already causing harm today.” They added, “The fact that climate change is happening ‘slowly’ from a human perspective doesn’t mean it’s not an immediate and urgent threat.”

In internal documents published for the first time below, you’ll find figures from Facebook’s own investigations into the effectiveness of its big, public push to boost awareness around our current altered climate. The company billed its “Climate Science Information Center,” launched in the fall of 2020, as a dedicated space where, according to the company, its users would be urged to connect with “approachable information and actionable resources.” It was Facebook’s attempt to stymie the flood of climate change disinformation on its social network with a single recommended page displaying “common climate myths” and counterpoints.

A year later, the site was an unambiguous failure, according to Facebook’s own assessments. In the U.S. alone, two-thirds of users forgot the center even existed, the documents say. And that was just the ones who’d already visited the site. Among those who had not, 83% said they were not aware it existed. Worse, surveys showed that Americans were uniquely distrustful of information when they knew that it came from Facebook.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the documents and its efforts on climate change misinformation.

In our latest drop of the Facebook Papers, Gizmodo is publishing 18 documents that shed light on the internal discussions within Facebook on climate change. The papers, only a handful of which have ever been shown to the public, include a number of candid conversations among mid- and high-level employees; researchers, managers, and engineers with appreciably different views on the company’s moral obligations. But in one respect, there’s really no room for dispute: Facebook has proven it is a fertile ground for denialist propaganda. It is a platform through which a range of moneyed interests, whether for profit or political gain, are granted the means and opportunity to warp the public’s understanding of established scientific truths. Depending on whom you ask at Facebook, this overt manipulation is either a free speech issue, or the very definition of “opinion” now allows for disregarding findings supported by a massive body of peer-reviewed scientific literature on which there is near 100% consensus worldwide.

“Of course, there’s an opinion loophole for climate change denial,” one wrote in an internal presentation, critical of Facebook’s denials in the press. “We’ve even defended this distinction as recently as last week by saying that climate change misinformation does not pose ‘an immediate threat to human health and safety.’ So I think the real question is: how did we arrive at that determination?”

In November 2021, Gizmodo partnered with a group of independent experts to review, redact, and publish the Facebook Papers. This committee serves to advise and monitor our work and facilitate the responsible disclosure of the greatest number of documents in the public interest possible. We believe in the value of open access to these materials. Our previous publications have covered Jan. 6 and Donald Trump, Facebook’s ranking algorithms, and the influence that politics has on the company’s product decisions.

Mark Zuckerberg himself may have never had much faith in the Climate Science Information Center to begin with. By his own admission, he doesn’t believe in changing people’s minds by handing them unvarnished facts. He told stockholders in 2017 that the best way to help people “understand the full breadth of a topic is not to show them a counterpoint, but a whole range of different opinions.” Directly challenging people’s false assertions, he said, only entrenches them further.

At least some of his employees tend to agree. In an internal discussion, one employee, whose job title appears to be environmental program manager, asked their coworkers: “Is there something wrong with us having an open platform where people can post arguments for either side of an issue and then people make up their own minds for themselves?” Another fired back saying people persuaded by false information are not being convinced so much as manipulated.

Facebook’s decision to remove fraudulent posts about covid-19, but not deliberately manufactured hoaxes designed to raise doubts about climate change, led environmentalists—and eventually the press—to question whether it had knowingly created a loophole just to placate powerful interests. Oil and gas industry trade groups have thrown millions into Facebook ads, pumping out deceptively framed attack ads designed to halt any momentum towards meaningful climate policy.

Facebook’s response to this blatant contradiction in its enforcement left some of its employees furious. As pressure mounted both inside and out, Facebook rolled out more solutions aimed at shooing away its critics. But as time went on, even its promise to start labeling misleading climate posts seemed fulfilled only part of the time. “There may be rules, but the rules are just for show; no one is enforcing them,” the nonprofit Center For Countering Digital Hate wrote in November, finding that only 8% of misinformation shared by Facebook’s top ten sources of climate conspiracy theories carried the “warning” labels promised by the company.

In November, a climate change activist group published the results of a study based on a dataset of 48,700 Facebook posts. It estimated that climate denial content received upwards of 1.3 million views a day. Only 3.6 percent of misinformation identified by the group had been fact-checked. In another document previously made public by Gizmodo, a Facebook worker seems to confirm what many researchers have claimed as fact all along: That Facebook’s fact-checkers are barely able to skim the surface and mostly slow to react. Content that should be flagged, the employee said, regularly falls through the cracks. On the rare occasion misinformation is actually caught, it’s usually after racking up lots of engagement.

Research indicates that, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, even being briefly exposed to conspiracy theories about climate change can reduce confidence in the global scientific consensus. Misinformation has the power to discourage people from getting politically involved, and from taking personal steps to become more socially and environmentally conscious. Ultimately, the question is not whether Facebook’s failure to act responsibly in this moment is leading to lasting harm, but how extensive and permanent is the harm we know it’s causing.

Climate-Related Platform and Product Updates

A post updating employees about the performance of the company’s Climate Science Information Center and related efforts internationally.

A post announcing the upcoming launch of the Climate Science Information Center, and giving employees access to fool around in it before it opened to the public.

A post from May 2021 announcing the launch of an internal Climate Team.

Climate-Related Internal Research Projects

A post announcing a new research initiative designed to “understand the spectrum of climate beliefs” across different Facebook users in different countries. First two interviews: one person in Texas who doesn’t believe in climate change and one in Oklahoma who does.

Results of a 2021 survey meant to assess the “knowledge, attitudes and practices” of people who do and don’t have access to the company’s Climate Science Information Center. The big takeaway: people in Western markets (like the US) are “less likely” to believe what they’re reading in the hub, and are less likely to even be aware it exists—even among those who have [already] visited.”

Papers Discussing Climate-Related Search Results

Two 2019 posts raising concerns about climate change misinfo cropping up in people’s search results. Author discusses concern around anti-climate change activists “Google Bombing” FB searches, essentially flooding the zone with misinformation results, so much so that false information appears as auto complete when users search “climate change.” A commenter notes those results don’t “explicitly violate policy,” and climate content isn’t being flagged in search, period.

A 2021 post from an employee on the “search integrity team” trying to keep climate change misinfo from bubbling into users’ search results, specifically asking for “guidelines” to help better algorithmically detect climate content. They get some! Turns out the company can kinda learn, albeit slowly.

Two 2021 posts raising flags about the prominent climate misinfo cropping up in Facebook Watch. Sources like Turning Point USA and noted climate skeptic John Stossel both appear front and center in original poster’s search results.

A 2020 post where one employee asks why searches for “climate change” in Watch turn up an empty page. Turns out this was deliberate (kind of)—a commenter confirms that the Policy team requested climate videos be blocked in the main feed due to “concerns” ahead of the upcoming Climate Science Information Center launch, but that block spilled into Watch by mistake. They fix things.

A 2020 post announcing the formation of a new group to “coordinate and manage” responses to allegations of climate change misinfo in Facebook Search. Worth noting: Higher-ups pushed for “high quality” climate search results after outlets like Vox/NYT started posting critical pieces about FB’s stance on climate change, according to the document.

Miscellaneous Papers

A post where one employee offers some ideas for ways folks working for the company can shrink their carbon footprint—and encourage the company to do the same.

A bit of sarcastic banter that also demonstrates how some employees consider Facebook’s role in the climate crisis.

A compilation of slides from one 2020 Yale study into how deeply young adults care about the warming planet. Quite deeply, it turns out!

A compilation of employees debating amongst themselves how the company should—or shouldn’t—intervene into the climate misinformation that’s increasingly rampant. It gets spicy.

Another 2019 post, this one asking aloud whether the company has any policies regarding climate denial, specifically the denial of humans’ role in climate change. Debate ensues—not about the policies themselves, but about what “climate misinfo” even means in the first place.

A post where an employee pats the company on the back for its climate efforts—particularly the fact that”Facebook operations are supported by 100% renewable energy” and “we reached net zero emissions for our offices and data centers” as of 2020.

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