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Facebook must end its friendship with climate denial before COP26

Sean Buchan, campaigner at Stop Funding Heat, and lead writer of their new report On The Back Burner: How Facebook’s Inaction on Misinformation Fuels The Global Climate Crisis, explains the background to the campaign and says action is needed now.

Misinformation is on the rise – or at the very least, our awareness of it is. According to Google, the term ‘misinformation’ is 3 to 5 times as popular this year compared to just 3 years ago. There have been well covered instances of online misinformation, from Covid-19 denial to Q-Anon, but a more subtle, insidious threat is growing in the run up to COP26: the spread of climate misinformation.

Climate misinformation, also known as 'climate denial', is the practice of spreading falsehoods about how humans as a species are causing fast and irreversible damage to our climate. It includes a range of claims, from the non-sequiturs (“if the planet is warming, how come it’s cold outside?”) to policy delay (“why bother? China will never act”) to the ad hominem and conspiracy (“don’t trust climate scientists, they’re all crooked”).

This activity causes real harm: the latest climate communication science covers how seeing misinformation like this delays climate action and changes people’s behaviours. And believe it or not, there are people and organisations that willingly spread this information for their own gain, who have increasingly been finding a home on Facebook.

How one Facebook advert prompted a full-scale investigation

In mid-2020, a small group of volunteers at Stop Funding Heat noticed something strange on Facebook’s advertising platform. An advert from the thinktank Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF) warned of “climate hysteria” and claimed to offer users “rational argument” and “the facts”.

Image of people dressed in red clothes with white makeup
Image from one of GWPF’s adverts. See the full extent of GWPF’s climate misinformation on the Facebook ad library (

We were not surprised by the content: the GWPF is known for its climate denial. What did shock us, however, was Facebook’s role in receiving money to spread this content on its platform. Given Facebook’s purported alignment with climate change action, surely this is something it would condemn?

Further digging unearthed a Facebook Page called Eco Central, with no website or easy traceability, which was spreading even worse falsehoods. Following attention from national coverage, the page has since been deleted.

In November 2020, the first full study on climate misinformation on Facebook was released, by the thinktank InfluenceMap. It found 51 climate denial adverts promoted in the USA over a six-month period, with an estimated 6 million accounts reached. This time, the climate denial was more obvious than ever – calling climate change “a hoax” and directly contradicting the science.

Screenshots of two posts on Facebook about climate denial
Screenshots of Eco Central paid-of Facebook advert, and another paid-for climate denial advert from the USA.

While this was happening, Facebook was releasing blogs and press interviews about its commitment to climate change and tackling climate misinformation. At this point curiosity got the better of us and we launched an investigation of our own.

On The Back Burner report exposes Facebook’s inaction on climate denial

After months of pain-staking research, the full weight of evidence is now before us – and it’s worse than we first imagined:

  1. Climate misinformation is not mentioned once in Facebook’s public policies.

  2. Facebook’s existing misinformation policies – on hate speech, Covid-19, vaccines and elections – are poorly implemented, with loopholes that are regularly exploited by bad actors.

  3. Facebook’s main solution for climate misinformation has no grounding in communication science. The ‘Climate Science Center’ is a stand-alone page that users can visit and receive all the facts about climate change science. However, those who visit that page are not necessarily the ones that have previously seen, or regularly see, the climate misinformation. When they are, they are still not ‘inoculated’ against the myth that they saw elsewhere on the site. Leading communication scientist John Cook says of this, “it’s like feeding a person poison while handing them a brochure about vegetables.” On top of that, even if it did work, it has only been rolled out to a handful of countries so far.

Facebook’s response to our investigation has been disappointing.

Instead of reading and responding to our findings, Facebook simply repeated its standard line:

“We combat climate change misinformation by working with a global network of independent fact checking partners to review and rate content.”

It claims the extent of climate misinformation is not that high – without supplying any evidence for the claim. It also says its Climate Science Center is doing a great job, again with no supporting evidence grounded in communications science.

The threat of climate denial looms large ahead of COP26

The COP26 global conference on climate change will soon take place in Glasgow. Yet, if anything, this problem on Facebook is worsening.

A study by Avaaz, published just after ours, found climate denial content in the US reached 25 million accounts over a 60-day period at the start of 2021. An upcoming study from Stop Funding Heat will build on this, with further evidence from the UK and abroad.

The spectre of climate misinformation looms large over meetings such as COP26. In 2009, during COP15 in Copenhagen, an email leak from a group of climate scientists in the University of East Anglia supposedly dealt a fatal blow to climate change science. The leak claimed to contain incontrovertible evidence of scientific malpractice and outright lying about human’s impact on climate change published in scientific journals. Actual study of the emails revealed that these claims were false - a total storm in a teacup. But that didn’t stop news stories from distracting from the important business at hand: getting multi-lateral action on climate change before it’s too late.

That was 2009. In 2021, those who would spread such falsehoods don’t need to leak to a friendly journalist at a newspaper: they can put whatever they want directly onto Facebook and the platform will, in most cases, allow it to spread it far and wide.

Our demands for Facebook

The IPCC’s latest report this August was a sobering read.

There is no clock ‘ticking down’: climate change is here, it’s killing hundreds of thousands annually, and it’s simply a matter of how severe an impact it will have on our species.

Genuine climate action requires powerful organisations like Facebook to double down on its commitments and, much more crucially, its actions to reduce climate change impact. Facebook is talking the talk, but not walking the walk. If Facebook really cared, it would do the following:

  1. Stop receiving money to directly advertise climate misinformation.  
  2. Add climate change to its Community and Advertising Standards.  
  3. Close the loopholes that allow climate denial and other misinformation to spread to millions.
  4. Share, openly and publicly, information about the extent of climate misinformation on its platform.

What action can you take?

We know that Facebook will only do what’s right once enough people let them know about it. If you feel strongly about this topic you can take the following actions:

  • sign the petition asking them to change
  • if you see a brand that you shop with advertising on Facebook, ask them to consider a boycott of advertising on the platform until it cleans up its act on climate denial. Send success stories to the team at Stop Funding Heat 
  • learn more about Stop Funding Heat and get involved via our website
  • read the On the Back Burner report, available from our website