Social Media a Sewer of Science Denial

October 9, 2020


According to a newly published Pew Research Center report 55% of U.S. adults now get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes” – an 8% increase from last year. About three-in-ten (28%) said they get their news “often,” up from 20% in 2018.

As the Pew Research’s reporters noted, “social media is now a part of the news diet of an increasingly large share of the U.S. population.”


Climate denial groups have used Facebook to spread disinformation to millions of people in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, according to a new report.

And they did it on the cheap.

The report by InfluenceMap, a London-based nonprofit that tracks climate lobbying, highlighted 51 climate disinformation ads that ran this year on Facebook. They found the ads were targeted to older men in rural areas and that they were viewed an estimated 8 million times.

All for the cost of $42,000.

InfluenceMap tracked nine groups that spread climate disinformation: PragerU, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the CO2 Coalition, Turning Point USA, the Capital Research Center, the Clear Energy Alliance, the Washington Policy Center, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

One of those groups, the CO2 Coalition, has told E&E News that it is using Facebook to reach an audience outside conservative media.

The findings prompted an outcry from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime climate activist. He told E&E News that Facebook is “somewhere between complicit and helpless” in stopping the spread of climate disinformation.

“This is the company in the last election that didn’t have any bells ring when political ads were being paid for in Russian rubles, so their capacity to make appalling, dumb decisions is pretty robust, and in this case they failed to screen out fraudulent propaganda,” Whitehouse said.

The InfluenceMap analysis also provided a window into the audience that climate denial groups are trying to win over, in this case older white men.

Broadly, the Facebook ads were targeted more to men across all age groups. They had the highest number of views per person in Texas and Wyoming.

The price was right, too.

For example, it cost three groups a little more than $1,000 to reach more than 2 million people with false claims, the group found.

In April, Turning Point USA paid less than $300 for an ad that said, “Climate change is a HOAX!”

It reached more than a million people, according to Facebook ad data.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has several former staffers in the Trump administration, spent less than $100 to reach up to 500,000 people with an ad that stated: “Hurricane season is here. Think manmade climate change is going to make severe weather worse? Think again.”

PragerU paid less than $700 to reach more than a million followers with the message that politicians and environmentalists are only in it for the money, Facebook data shows.

The ads are in line with the general strategy of these groups, which is to muddy the public’s understanding of climate change.

The InfluenceMap research shows the groups are trying to sow doubt around the institutions that conduct research on climate change, said Dylan Tanner, executive director of InfluenceMap.

It’s part of a larger lobbying scheme, which obfuscates climate science not only for lawmakers but for their constituents as well, he said.

“They use the targeting to reach the demographic that they think can sway the issue,” Tanner said in an interview with E&E News. “This is useful when there’s a particular electoral event happening.

“It’s not just the presidential,” Tanner added. “It’s the state elections for a number of different positions, and this is one of the issues on which the elections are being fought.”

The research came just weeks after Facebook announced a new plan to address the rapid spread of climate disinformation on its platform. In mid-September, Facebook said that it was “committed to tackling climate misinformation.”

The company set up climate science information centers to connect users with accurate climate research, a Facebook spokeswoman said.

“We prohibit ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers and we are investigating the findings of this report. We work to reduce the spread of climate misinformation on Facebook and we recently launched a Climate Science Information Centre to connect people with factual information from the world’s leading climate organizations,” Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns said in a statement.


Last week, Facebook announced that it is going to help. “As a global company that connects more than 3 billion people across our apps every month, we understand the responsibility Facebook has and we want to make a real difference,” the company said in a news release. To do that, Facebook announced a new feature called the Climate Science Information Center. It is a Facebook page containing climate change information from credible sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organization. It also contains a sampling of recent climate-related news, and a section for “actionable steps people can take in their everyday lives to combat climate change.”

Combined with the company’s efforts to reduce its own carbon emissions, Facebook said it hopes the Climate Science Information Center demonstrates “that Facebook is committed to playing its part and helping to inspire real action in our community” on climate change.

Scientists and climate advocates, however, have panned Facebook’s initiative because it does nothing to address the massive distribution of climate disinformation on Facebook. Further, Facebook’s Climate Science Information Center contains no information about the primary reasons the climate crisis exists: polluting companies, policy obstruction, and unchecked climate denial.

“I see it as a greenwashing exercise,” said John Cook, an assistant research professor at George Mason University who studies climate misinformation. “Facebook is polluting the information landscape by allowing misinformation to proliferate from their platform. And they’re trying to distract from the fact that they’re not doing anything to prevent it.”

Facebook is one of the planet’s largest purveyors of climate disinformation. According to CBS News, “A 2016 analysis found that the most popular climate change story shared on Facebook that year was a fake story that declared climate science a “hoax.” In 2018, a video that denied humans were responsible for global warming received more than 5 million views on Facebook.

In an emailed statement to HEATED and Popular Information, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the site’s new feature would help combat the misinformation problem. 

“The Climate Science Information Center won’t solve climate misinformation on its own, but coupling it with our global fact-checking program and over 200 climate experts who contribute to the information center will mean major progress,” he said. “Our goal is for Facebook to eventually become the most widely used source for reliable information about global warming and climate science.”

But according to Cook’s research, simply providing accurate information is not an effective solution to climate misinformation. For people to not be misled by climate denial, Cook’s research shows, they need to be explained “how misinformation works and how it misleads them.” “The whole concept of, ‘Hey we’re solving it by providing an information hub’ is not a scientific approach,” he said. “Providing science is not the best solution, according to the best science. ”

Facebook’s Climate Science Information Center ignores systemic solutions and emphasizes individual solutions like turning off the lights and buying local produce. Cook calls this approach “disturbing” because it’s the same tactic fossil fuel companies have used to delay climate action for years. “Facebook’s new page buys into that framing,” he said. “It pushes an unhelpful narrative that distracts from what is necessary to solve climate change.”

6 Responses to “Social Media a Sewer of Science Denial”

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    I’m annoyed that PragerU used my college tuition fees for that.

  2. Anthony William O'brien Says:

    There is so much that the mainstream media does not report, or under reports, it is not surprising people use social media to get news. And yes it is worth checking, there is so much bull on social media.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I’ve got my niece conditioned to ask me first about topics she used to swallow unchecked (vaccines, climate, GMO, COVID, etc.).

  3. funslinger62 Says:

    So glad I deleted my Facebook account in 2017.

  4. doldrom Says:

    I’m afraid the majority of younger people rarely/never consult news media unless the link is forwarded within somebody in their own social media group. If it’s not titillating or huge, nobody will forward it.

    As for Facebook’s ‘reach’, their own numbers are always grossly inflated — they need to sell themselves.

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