By Harvey Joyce
Social media has become one of the most powerful tools we have in society. That is why Facebook’s troubling history with misinformation and fake news could potentially have devastating consequences on the environment.
With an audience of almost three billion users, Facebook has a big responsibility to provide the globe with accurate, credible information. However, with the controversy and misinformation surrounding the recent American presidential elections, vaccines, and now climate change, many are accusing Facebook of facilitating and profiting from false propaganda to meet the needs of the highest bidder.
In a recent report by the think tank ‘InfluenceMap’, they report how major fossil-fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil have increased their social media advertising on Facebook intending to manipulate the perception of climate change policies. This is because increased regulation would reduce the demand for oil and gas from companies such as Exxon.
The report found that the oil and gas sector has spent over $9.5 million on advertisements that had been viewed over 430 million times. Many of these adverts contained misleading or false content purposely created to influence the public’s opinion on the environment.
Many of the advertisements created false narratives on the use of oil and gas. For example, that oil and gas help local communities and their economy, that fossil fuels are green and ‘part of the solution’ regarding climate change, prompting the affordability and reliability of fossil fuels as well as suggesting that oil and gas maintain America’s energy independence. These were purposefully targeted at certain demographics to influence their opinions.
The report also shows how these adverts have been strategically deployed during key political moments during the 2020 American presidential election such as the day after President Biden unveiled a $2 trillion plan on tackling climate change and the environment as well as the weeks before Election Day. The geographical distribution of these advertisements also targeted states with high levels of oil and gas production such as Texas, New Mexico, and Alaska as well as important swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
While Facebook states they are dedicated to the mitigation of climate change, many politicians argue that Facebook is not adequately enforcing policies that prevent these misleading adverts. Many of them have avoided removal on the basis that they are ‘opinion-based’ and therefore protected by the right to free speech.
Mark Zuckerberg has defended Facebook’s decision not to remove political advertising that may contain misinformation as he believes it is censorship and that his executives do not have the democratic prerogative to decide what is allowed to be said.
Many American politicians have criticised this response stating that “Allowing the spread of climate disinformation on Facebook is wholly inconsistent with your company’s June 2020 claims that it is ‘committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook and Instagram’ – and represents another unfortunate example of Facebook’s refusal to fully combat the deliberate spread of misinformation”.
Whilst political cycles come and go, climate change misinformation will have a long-term impact with devastating repercussions. Facebook needs to be held accountable when informing its billions of users on consumer choices as well as only allowing accurate, credible information on its platforms. Many agree that Facebook also needs to create stricter policies to deter oil and gas companies from exploiting their advertising system and to promote corporate responsibility. This is the only way they can hope to keep the public’s ever-waning trust.
Image: Avaazorg via Creative Commons.