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Gary E. Frank headshot

Social Media Still Lags in Fighting Climate Change Misinformation

By Gary E. Frank
climate change

When it comes to curbing the spread of disinformation about climate change, social media platforms are more opaque than transparent about their policies to combat the problem, according to a new scorecard released earlier this month by the nonprofits Avaaz, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace USA.

The scorecard, which is based upon the Climate Disinformation Coalition’s 27-point assessment of Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube, found that none of them adequately disclosed comprehensive policies to combat climate disinformation. Each company failed to release regular transparency reports on the scale and prevalence of climate disinformation on their platforms or on internal mitigation efforts.  The nonprofits also claimed that these social media companies are not providing enough rigorous details for any actions they may have taken toward repeat violators of their policies related to climate disinformation.

Misinformation is getting in the way of climate action

This lack of transparency is preventing climate experts, researchers and advocates from tracking the problem’s severity and curbing the spread of misinformation about climate change when there is little time for society to tackle effective climate action, say the three nonprofits.

Companies were ranked using a 27 “yes-or-no” question assessment, with 1 point allocated for each question. Facebook, TikTok and Twitter had the worst scores, receiving 9, 7, and 5 points respectively due to a lack of transparency and thorough detail on how these companies hold repeat offenders accountable.

The highest marks were achieved by Pinterest and YouTube, both scoring a middling 14 points. Pinterest’s score was boosted by the platform’s recent new policy rollout, which includes a climate disinformation definition in its community standards. Pinterest has also adopted climate expert-informed definitions of climate disinformation, while the scorecard concluded that Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter had not.

That none of the social media companies scored more than half the points available means they “failing miserably to protect users from harmful climate disinformation,” said Julia Masters, campaign manager of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth, in a public statement.

A clarion call for transparency on misleading climate change information

“This is unacceptable and should be a wake-up call for Big Tech to strengthen policies and introduce transparency measures to better address climate disinformation,” Masters said. “Pinterest has proved it’s possible to address climate disinformation in community guidelines, and it’s past time for other companies to follow suit.”

The scorecard follows on the heels of the United Nations’ latest climate report naming climate disinformation as a major threat to climate action for the first time.

“As fossil fuel industry-backed climate disinformation pollutes users’ social media feeds and fans the flames of the climate crisis, tech companies are leaving the public in the dark about their responsibility in the face of this emergency,” said Rebecca Lenn, senior director at Avazz, in a public statement. “It’s time for Big Tech to answer the years-long call from researchers, advocates, and lawmakers for full transparency on the scale of climate disinformation online and their policies to combat it.”

If Big Tech fails to act, Lenn said lawmakers must act to “mandate transparency and accountability from tech platforms – not just to clean up our feeds, but to help end the climate crisis.”

More calls for reform

The United Nations is among several multinational bodies sounding the alarm about the dangers of misinformation about climate change. In its latest report, the European Union Special Committee Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, emphasized the urgency of curbing climate disinformation and welcomed efforts to adopt a universal definition. Climate and anti-disinformation organizations such as Conscious Advertising Network and Stop Funding Heat have been calling for a global action to tackle the threat of climate misinformation and disinformation, including the adoption of a universal definition.

“Social media companies’ passive and inscrutable response to climate disinformation has allowed them to boost their numbers while driving us towards total planetary collapse. This must end now,” said Greenpeace USA Senior Strategist Charlie Cray in a public statement. “We need more transparency and aggressive action before any of the platforms can credibly claim to foster the norms of digital discourse that are essential to our collective survival.”

The prospects for curbing climate change disinformation in social media have been thrown further into flux by billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. To some observers, both Musk’s record on combating climate change disinformation and his commitment to free speech are mixed. Musk, who has received nearly $5 billion in government support since 2010, recently stated that he did not support the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation or government incentives in general.

Image credit: Yomex Owo via Unsplash

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

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