Meta made millions last year on advertising that greenwashes fossil fuel companies and spreads disinformation about climate change, according to a new report. And outright climate denialism exploded on Twitter in 2022, according to the analysis published today by a coalition of environmental groups and researchers.
They identified fossil fuel-linked entities that spent about $4 million on Facebook and Instagram ads around the time of the United Nations’ climate change conference in November. Those ads disparage the transition to clean energy that’s necessary to slow climate change, the report says, while portraying oil and gas companies as unlikely environmental champions. Meanwhile on Twitter, the hashtag #climatescam has seen a meteoric rise since July of last year.
The findings show “a stark comeback for climate denial” and “negligence from Big Tech companies who not only continue to monetize and enable, but in some cases actively recommend, such content to users,” the report says. Neither Meta nor Facebook responded to a request for comment from The Verge.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think tank funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that tackles extremism and disinformation, was the lead author of the report. Friends of the Earth, The University of Exeter Seda Lab, and the Union of Concerned Scientists were among several other groups that contributed to the report.
It scrutinizes 850 advertisers on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram between September 1st and November 23rd. That was a critical time for global climate action; world leaders had gathered at the UN climate conference in Egypt in November. The hope was that they would hammer out stronger agreements to slash greenhouse gas emissions — but there was ultimately little progress made on that front. The fossil fuel industry had sent a flood of their own delegates to the negotiations — and the new report shows that they also had a big presence online around the time of the conference.
The Heartland Institute, a think tank that attacks widely accepted climate science, ran a misleading ad in November that said: “New poll debunks the 97% consensus claim about #climate change.” Of course, there is a mountain of evidence and overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that human activity is causing climate change.
Energy Citizens, a front group for the American Petroleum Institute, ran the most ads during the timeframe studied. It largely focused on stoking fears that transitioning to clean energy threatens America’s “energy security.” On the contrary, extreme weather events — which are exacerbated by climate change — have led to more power outages in the US. And research shows that oil, gas, and coal development need to be phased out to prevent such climate disasters from reaching a new level of severity.
America’s Plastic Makers, meanwhile, spent $1.1 million on climate-related ad campaigns. It pushed the myth that recycling solves the plastic waste problem. Plastic is actually pretty difficult to reuse; just 9 percent of all the world’s plastic waste is recycled. Nevertheless, the fossil fuel industry has tried to lean more on its plastics business lately to hedge against clean energy cutting into its profits.
Oil and gas companies might appear to be changing their tune when it comes to acknowledging climate change — but they’re still promoting narratives that could derail climate action, the report cautions. It found ads from oil majors selling purported solutions to climate change. But the tactics they push, like capturing carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks, actually keep countries dependent on oil and gas and are no replacement for cleaner energy sources.
The new report also confirms previous studies into the rise of climate misinformation on Twitter. The hashtag #climatescam came “out of nowhere” in July, the report says, spiking from very little engagement to hundreds of thousands of mentions by the end of the year. The term still pops up as a top suggestion on Twitter when users search for the term “climate.”
“The source of its virality is entirely unclear, and reemphasizes the need for transparency on how and why platforms surface content to users,” the report says. To be sure, all kinds of foul content have exploded on Twitter since Elon Musk’s takeover — from hate speech to fake accounts. Scrolling through #climatescam is often full of lies like defining climate change as “the made up catastrophe the globalists/socialists use to instil [sic] fear and guilt to tax, regulate, and remove our freedoms while pretending to be saving the planet.”
Why does this still matter after years of studies that have exposed rampant climate misinformation across social media platforms? The failure to crack down on content that rejects widely accepted science risks derailing real-world action that could prevent climate-related disasters from growing worse.
“The situation is hugely concerning and needs a coordinated response everywhere, from Big Tech to its regulators,” Jennie King, head of climate research and response at ISD, said in a press release. “At this pivotal juncture, tackling climate disinformation is an essential part of climate action.”
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