Africa: Facebook Algorithm Drives Sceptics Towards Climate Denial, Study Finds #AfricaClimateCrisis


Harare — If you are among the African adults who get their news through Facebook, you might be under the impression that scientific consensus surrounding human-made climate change is still a matter of debate. That’s totally inaccurate.

Climate change is real and man-made, human-produced pollution is causing it, and there is overwhelming scientific consensus that this is true.

A 2019 review of scientific papers found the consensus on the cause of climate change to be at 100%, and a 2021 study concluded that over 99% of scientific papers agree on the human cause of climate change. And yet that is not the reality that is reflected on Facebook.

A report released by Global Witness found Facebook’s algorithm amplified doubts rather than nudging people towards reliable information.

In their latest study, Global Witness simulated the experience of a climate-sceptic user on the social media platform. Within a few clicks, the algorithm recommended content that denied the existence of man-made global warming and attacked measures aimed at mitigating the climate crisis.

This isn’t new, Facebook has long been criticized for allowing misinformation about the climate crisis to proliferate on its platform.

In April 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted during a U.S. congressional testimony that climate disinformation is ‘a big issue’ on the platform. Facebook then promised to stamp out climate disinformation.

In an effort to combat this, Facebook said it would expand its climate science centre to provide more reliable information and launch a video series to highlight young climate advocates on Facebook and Instagram.

They also promised to expand their flagging of posts regarding climate with information labels linking to their climate science centre and announced a one-million-dollar grant programme to support organisations working to combat climate misinformation – a sum akin to about thirty minutes of company profits, according to Global Witness.

But critics say the new push has fallen short and allows vast amounts of climate misinformation to slip through the cracks.

A Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) study found the social media giant failed to flag half of posts that promote climate change denial.

Their report said an analysis of 184 posts pushing articles featuring climate denial content, published between May 2021 and January 2022, revealed 50.5% did not have any labels.

Meanwhile, the Global Witness experiment indicates that the Facebook algorithm directs climate-sceptic users to more disinformation affirming their beliefs and finding community amongst others who are disdainful of climate science.

Often a user is directed to worse information, and what begins as distraction and delay narratives, ends on pages espousing outright climate denial and conspiracy.

In other words, the findings suggest that Facebook could well be radicalising users who, once they arrive on anti-climate science pages are driven to more extreme climate disinformation.

Responding to the results, Facebook, now known as Meta, said that during the timeframe of the report, it hadn’t completely rolled out its labelling programme, something it said “very likely impacted the results”.

“We combat climate change misinformation by connecting people to reliable information in many languages from leading organizations through our Climate Science Center,” the firm said in a statement, adding that it also worked with a global network of independent fact checkers to review and rate content.

The repercussions of fake news regarding the climate crisis are dangerous now and in the long-run. It doesn’t only lead to distrust in the media and the spread of false or discredited science but also undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, the indisputable human influence on climate change, and the need for corresponding urgent action, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific consensus and in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The IPCC says disinformation is one of a number of issues preventing governments and the public from addressing climate change.

Its latest report, backed by 195 governments, emphasises misinformation around climate science “undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency”.