Facebook’s Science Denial Loophole

July 20, 2020

I hate Facebook.
It’s a sewer of lies and delusions – but it is where the people are, 7 times as large as Twitter, last time I checked.

So to push back on nonsense, I unfortunately, have to be there.

New York Times:

As Covid-19 spread across the globe early this year, Facebook went into action to combat potentially dangerous disinformation on its site. The company labeled and suppressed misleading content, removed disinformation and directed users to reputable sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

This swift action stood in sharp contrast to Facebook’s stance on another divisive and complex danger: climate change. That’s because, under the company’s guidelines, climate content can be classified as opinion and therefore exempted from fact-checking procedures.

The policy means that peer-reviewed science can be lumped into the same category as industry statements and even blatant disinformation. In September, for example, the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit group that says increased carbon emissions are good for the planet, successfully overturned a fact-check when Facebook quietly labeled its post as “opinion.”

In light of the recent advertising boycott against Facebook and the independent audit made public this month that faulted the platform for allowing hate speech and disinformation to thrive, we spoke to the company and several outside experts about its position on climate disinformation. Here’s what they had to say.

All opinion content on the platform — including op-ed articles or posts that express the views or agendas of politicians, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations — is exempt from fact-checking. This policy has been in place since 2016, according to said Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director. 

Facebook itself does not check content. Instead, it contracts at least 50 independent organizations that have access to posts flagged as potential disinformation by Facebook or users.

One of the platform’s climate change fact checkers is Climate Feedback, an organization that recruits subject-matter experts to analyze posts. The process can take weeks for a single article.

According to Scott Johnson, Climate Feedback’s science editor, fact checkers can also scrutinize posts that have not yet been flagged or classified by Facebook.

After a review, the fact-checking company can apply one of eight content warnings to the post. Labels include, “False Headline,” “Misleading,” and outright “False.” When content is labeled false or partly false, users receive a pop-up warning about the content if they click to share it. False posts are also ranked to appear lower in news feeds.

Deciding what’s opinion is at the discretion of Facebook, not the fact checkers.

In August, that policy attracted attention when the CO2 Coalition shared a Washington Examiner op-ed article that disputed the accuracy of climate change models. Climate Feedback labeled the post as “false.”

The CO2 Coalition appealed the decision and, according to Climate Feedback, Facebook responded by informing the fact checkers that the post was opinion content, and thus exempt from scrutiny by outside fact checkers.

“Placing statements that are verifiably false in an opinion section shouldn’t grant immunity from fact-checking,” Mr. Johnson said.

According to Climate Feedback, the op-ed cherry-picked facts and compiled them in a deliberately misleading manner. You can read the full fact-check here.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama who coordinated the administration’s climate policy, called Facebook’s opinion policy “a loophole that you can drive a Mack truck through.”

According to Mr. Stone, Facebook is most concerned with flagging or removing content that poses an immediate threat to human health and safety, including disinformation about the coronavirus or hate speech that incites violence. Climate change content, he said, does not fall within that category.

Below, example of a fact check from Climate Feedback.

Climate Feedback:

SUMMARY

This op-ed article published by The Washington Examiner (and republished by Zero Hedge) claims to provide evidence that climate models are not valid scientific tools able to inform decisions about climate change by focusing on a comparison with specific datasets from the upper atmosphere in the tropics.

Scientists who reviewed the article found that it is highly misleading, including a number of false factual assertions, cherry-picking datasets that support their point, failing to account for uncertainties in those datasets, and failing to assess the performance of climate models in an objective and rigorous manner.

See all the scientists’ annotations in context.

REVIEWERS’ OVERALL FEEDBACK

These comments are the overall assessment of scientists on the article, they are substantiated by their knowledge in the field and by the content of the analysis in the annotations on the article.

Stephen Po-Chedley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
This article focuses only on specific lines of evidence that climate models disagree with observations. In doing so, the authors ignore research that helps to reconcile differences between models and observations. The authors do not consider alternate datasets and time periods in which models and observations agree. Models are one tool for understanding climate change; their overall credibility does not hinge on one variable, in one domain, over a specific time period, with respect to a set of imperfect observations.

Carl Mears, Senior Research Scientist, Remote Sensing Systems (RSS):
The article contains numerous inaccurate statements, and “cherry-picks” evidence to support its assertion about model accuracy.

The article exaggerates the disagreement between the modeled and observed trends in the tropical lower troposphere. Depending on which satellite data set is used, the model-mean trend (1979-2017) in the tropical (30S to 30N) lower tropospheric temperature is 1.73 (RSS dataset) or 2.38 (UAH dataset) times larger than the trends observed by satellites, not 7 times as stated in the article.

The article asserts that the satellite and radiosonde temperature records are more accurate than the surface temperature record. I consider this to be unlikely (even though I developed one of the satellite records) as indicated by the smaller spread in trends in the surface record than in the satellite record.

The article asserts that the rate of sea level rise has not increased. Recent papers have clearly shown an acceleration in sea level rise, both in satellite altimeter data1 and in a sea level rise reconstruction based on tide gauges2.

Victor Venema, Scientist, University of Bonn, Germany:
The article makes a large number of claims which have long been known to be wrong. The authors’ ignoring of the counterarguments makes it clear that bypassing the scientific debate and going directly to the public is not helpful for a better understanding of climate change.

The main erroneous claim is that numerical climate models are wrong. Even if we would grant them that—or even if we did not have any models—it would still be clear that CO2 would warm the Earth, but we would know less-well how much it warms the Earth, and especially we would know much less about how this changes the rest of the climate system. (How this changes average and severe precipitation and in which regions, how this changes heat waves, the circulation, hurricanes, permafrost, etc.) The risks of climate change would thus be larger without climate models.

8 Responses to “Facebook’s Science Denial Loophole”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Climate Denial Spreads on Facebook as Scientists Face Restrictions

    The company recently overruled its scientific fact-checking group, which had flagged information as misleading

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-denial-spreads-on-facebook-as-scientists-face-restrictions/

  2. William Haaf Says:

    facebook needs another designatiion ‘opinions’ that disagree with current accepted science consensus . thus for challenges to say gravity etc – use the term:
    “dubious, lacks weight of evidence”..

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    About all I use facebook for is to post anti-faceboook articles. So I posted this.

  4. Anthony William O'brien Says:

    Trust Facebook, absolutely not. But I have been pointed to things which I never suspected, that turned out to be valid. Quite often Facebook is a day or so in front of the main stream media on some very big stories, particularly international ones.

    The mainstream media ignores so very much and is so biased in so many ways. Detailed analysis has been replaced by popularism. Sometimes it almost seems the media would ignore a story completely unless it had gone viral on Facebook first.

    Same with YouTube, some absolute garbage but some absolute treasures too. Want detailed information on Covid try the Medcram channel.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The politicians (or, at least, the political consultants) are much better at framing disinformation for the public than most scientists are at communicating information. And while the GOP is the most horrifically egregious about push-polls, doubt-mongering and insinuating smears, the Democrats have done some, too. I suspect one reason they don’t do more is that their constituency includes free-thinkers, fact-checkers and progressives who don’t hesitate to call them out.

  5. Sir Charles Says:

    Fakebook has a history of rightwing “fact checking”

    FB teams with rightwing Daily Caller in factchecking program
    https://theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/17/facebook-teams-with-rightwing-daily-caller-in-factchecking-program

    FB Policy Favors Climate Denial Group
    https://climatecrocks.com/2020/06/23/facebook-policy-favors-climate-denial-group/


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