Are social platforms complicit in climate change misinformation?

When Australia-based climate activist Belinda Noble tried to promote a Facebook post containing the words “climate change”, she was unable to do so. On the social media platform, paid boosting of political content is sometimes limited depending on where the user is located, or may require a lengthy authorization process. In Noble’s case, his attempts proved futile because the term “climate change” was seen as political, forcing him to find creative ways around the problem.

Noble is the founder of Comms Declare, an Australian campaign that encourages marcomms agencies to pledge not to work with fossil fuel companies. And publicly publishing scientific facts about climate change is part of what his campaign needs to do. Yet, she laments, big fossil fuel companies continually use major social media platforms to further their “greenwashing efforts.”

“I can’t promote any ads that contain the word ‘climate change,'” she says. “I have to go through all kinds of hurdles to order in order to advertise around it. But I can promote an ad that [promotes] coal or gas.”

As an example, Noble cites an “appalling” campaign by mining company Adani, which is behind a hugely controversial coal project in Queensland that climate activists and Indigenous communities have rallied against. . Since the middle of last year, the company has run a campaign called I-Can that focuses on actions kids can take to fight climate change, including eating less fast fashion and eating less meat.

“Adani is about to open one of the biggest coal mines in Australian history, and they are starting to export coal through a brand new coal mine,” says Noble. [campaign] goes on Facebook. But debate on climate change, or anything that mentions climate change [backed by] science and facts, does not pass. Climate change shouldn’t be political, it’s a fact. And I think you should be able to talk about climate-related facts without it being politicized.

Last year saw the launch of Eco-Bot.Net, an AI system designed to expose climate change misinformation and corporate greenwashing on social media, particularly during COP26. The system flags potentially laundered content on social media and, after verification by its internal team of journalists, the data is visualized online.

For example, in the United States, the system found some 958 advertisements from fossil fuel companies between January and October last year that contained climate misinformation for lobbying purposes. Together, these posts generated around 20 million impressions on social media. The data also showed that Twitter and Facebook are the dominant platforms spreading environmentally laundered and misinformed content.

Are the platforms complicit?

During a congressional hearing last year, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg admitted that climate misinformation was a “big deal”. A Bloomberg An analysis has pointed out that millions of climate change ads continue to be approved on the platform despite growing pressure from climate groups to regulate content more effectively.

As a way to silence critics, Facebook in 2020 launched its Climate Science Clearinghouse to provide facts and shine a spotlight on verified climate content. This center is available in over 100 countries and reportedly received 75 million visits last year. In early 2022, the company says it began adding information labels to some climate change posts, directing users to the center.

And in 2021, Facebook launched its Climate Misinformation Grant, a US$1 million investment channeled into organizations tackling climate misinformation. The subsidy may be a laudable idea, but US$1 million is only a tiny fraction of what the company continues to pocket from fossil fuel companies. For example, in Australia alone, Shell spent up to 500,000 Australian dollars ($362,000) on a month-long campaign promoting its net zero goals.

A Meta spokesperson said Asia-Pacific Campaign that all climate-related ads it allows to run be included in its library of public announcements for everyone to see, which it says provides “greater visibility for these ads than TV or newspapers”.

Twitter, meanwhile, reviews the content of ads, including climate change denial, under its Inappropriate Content and Quality Strategies. These policies prohibit content that the platform deems dangerous, misleading, distasteful or misleading. And in June 2021, it introduced a climate change for people to find credible information about climate change on Twitter.

A Twitter spokesperson says Asia-Pacific-Campaign that more can be done to improve the credibility of climate information: “Our teams are considering ways to better serve the global conversation on the climate crisis, including through tools that surface and make reliable information and resources more readily available. And, through our sustainability work, we continue to evolve our approach to mitigating the damage of the climate crisis.

However, data from Eco-Bot.Net shows that companies such as Alliance, Chevron and British Airways continue to add greenwashed content to Twitter.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn uses a set of professional community policies to combat false or misleading information, including climate misinformation. A spokesperson says Asia-Pacific Campaign that it takes a number of steps to protect members from the spread of misinformation, including automated techniques coupled with human reviews.

On the contrary, Duncan Meisel, founder of Clean Creatives, says fossil fuel companies tend to lean on LinkedIn to reach more elite audiences, or people who are more likely to be shareholders in a big company or do part of a financial institution that would be eligible to vote in an election.

Meisel says social media platforms’ relationship with fossil fuel companies is tricky and evokes a catch-22. While platforms rely on fossil fuel companies for their results, users also rely on social media platforms for climate news or news about companies complicit in climate change. And when users access the platforms, they are greeted with paid advertisements by fossil fuel companies designed to mislead.

“It really undermines the core mission of the platforms in a way that is problematic and needs to be addressed,” Meisel says. “There is an element of free speech that also comes into play when it comes to who should be allowed to post. But especially when it comes to paid advertising, I don’t think there is a freedom of speech argument to make. If you think it’s very important that ExxonMobil be allowed to spend US$10 million to influence shareholder votes, I’d say they can interact with their shareholders in many ways, they don’t need to use a paid platform to do so.

What can agencies do?

Two agency executives talk Asia-Pacific Campaign that the buck should stop with the agencies when it comes to promoting laundered content on social media. Pete Lin, CEO of We Are Social for North Asia, says agencies play an important role in delivering ethical content, and it’s up to agencies to separate facts from “smoke and mirrors”. He adds that social media users are getting more and more sophisticated at detecting greenwashed content, so why should companies even “both bother to fake it”?

“There is an ethical line that you have to toe as an agency leader because often times if you try to push it too far people will know it’s a diversion. No one would actually want to work for you or help you in this effort,” says Lin.

He adds that social media platforms outside of China have yet to strike a balance between free speech and misinformed content. People don’t want to be restricted on online platforms, but when given complete freedom, it exposes the platforms to becoming tools for subversive people who want to use it for evil purposes. Lin says China’s strict content model of “working with a system” is more mature than what is being deployed in the West, as he claims the Chinese system is “eliminating justice”.

Andréanne Leclerc, Asia social and performance manager at Ogilvy, says that while the balance between freedom and control is certainly not easy, agency leaders should frequently refresh their teams on the social media code of conduct, identify areas where there are potential risks, and developing guidance for clients on do’s and don’ts. At the macro level, education and collaboration between customers, agencies, platforms, organizations and governments are also essential.

“In my opinion, there are general ethical communication practices like being honest, socially responsible, or using data appropriately that apply to social media,” Leclerc says. “If we look at social media platforms, some are considered more ethical than others – better privacy, level of democracy or oversight”.

On the other hand, one of the benefits of brands and businesses using social media is that it allows for direct and immediate feedback, which can act as a self-monitoring measure on the part of brands.

“This [aspect] is encouraging because ESG communications require a two-way dialogue between brands, consumers and stakeholders. Additionally, consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable for what they say and do,” says Leclerc.

She adds that regulators also have a role to play: “A combination of tactics such as bots, a team of fact checkers and a flagging system where people can flag content to check would be some of the measures. that the platforms must implement as part of their CSR.

Teresa H. Sadler