Climate Change Deniers Exploit Facebook Loophole to Spread Fake Science

Climate change deniers have spread misleading content on Facebook, exploiting a loophole offering exemptions for opinion content.

One group trying to take advantage of the social network's policy is the CO2 Coalition, a non-profit with ties to the Trump administration that has been locked in a dispute over fact-checking on Facebook since last year.

Members of the group—which argues carbon dioxide from fossil fuels will ultimately be beneficial for the planet—told E&E News they want to use the platform to reach a bigger audience, despite opposition from scientists trying to expose their claims.

"We're kind of like Donald Trump," CO2 Coalition executive director Caleb Rossiter told E&E News. "We're not happy with the treatment we're getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That's where our action is in larger part."

In recent months, content posted to social media by the CO2 Coalition has been pored over by a network of scientists working with Facebook to stop misinformation.

In August last year, a team of five scientists ruled an opinion article authored by Rossiter and another CO2 Coalition member was "highly misleading." It claimed climate models are "not valid scientific tools able to inform decisions about climate change."

The article, titled The great failure of the climate models, suggested that climate models showing warming from fossil-fueled increases in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were inaccurate, instead only showing "slight warming" taking place.

The Facebook-approved third party group of experts disagreed.

"The article makes a large number of claims which have long been known to be wrong," countered Victor Venema a scientist working at the University of Bonn, Germany.

"The main erroneous claim is that numerical climate models are wrong. Even if we would grant them that... it would still be clear that CO2 would warm the Earth."

Before being shared to Facebook, the op-ed had been published by The Washington Examiner. Fact-checking scientists from Climate Feedback criticized the article, saying it included false assertions and cherry-picked data to support their points.

At the time, the post on Facebook was marked as false and CO2 Coalition was stopped from advertising on the platform. However, after an appeal, the decision of the scientist fact-checkers was overruled and the non-profit was returned ad privileges.

Last September, The Wall Street Journal reported articles containing opinion or satire on Facebook would now be exempt from its network of fact-checkers. Appealing, CO2 Coalition said Facebook "used a partisan fact-check group to defame them."

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has been criticized in recent months for his decision not to fact-check ad content of politicians or elected officials in the U.S.

The news also comes after an academic study from researchers at George Washington University suggested fringe science, including anti-vaccination views, is more effective at attracting an audience on Facebook than legitimate sources of information.

The CO2 Coalition says "available scientific facts have persuaded Coalition members that additional CO2 will be a net benefit." It lobbies in favor of the "the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy."

One of the group's founders, William Happer, previously served as deputy assistant to the president and was a senior director of emerging technologies on the National Security Council between September 2018 and September 2019.

According to E&E News, CO2 Coalition has received more than $1 million from "energy executives and conservative foundations" since being formed in 2015.

"The only direct donations have been $5k each from two energy firms (Marathon and EOG Resources), comprising less than one percent of our donations," Ted Generous, who handles communications for CO2 Coalition, told Newsweek via email.

There are signs any push to exploit the Facebook exemption won't be easy.

Despite an apparent loophole, the CO2 Coalition found itself at the center of yet another enforcement by Climate Feedback last month. The scientists labeled the content of a 2018 video interview as false, meaning viewers were being served a warning.

Pat Michaels, a CO2 Coalition member and subject of the restricted interview, told E&E News he still intends to use Facebook to spread the group's messages.

"Facebook allows reach to a really broad and diverse audience," Michaels said. "I view it as a platform that just doesn't have me preaching to the converted."

In a "science and policy brief" released this month, Michaels complained about the new enforcement, describing Climate Feedback as a "scientific goon squad."

Andrew Dessler, one of the scientists who first fact-checked the CO2 Coalition's op-ed, told Popular Information the individual author should be allowed to voice opinions about climate policy, but there has to be a line when it comes to actual science.

"The earth is warming. Climate models have done a good job," explained Dessler, who is a professor at Texas A&M University. "That should be covered by fact-checking."

Facebook did not respond to our questions about the third-party fact-checking dispute, including the claim made by CO2 Coalition to E&E News that the employee who initially overturned the decision inside the social network was a conservative.

A spokesperson told Newsweek today via email: "The focus of Facebook's third-party fact-checking program is combating viral misinformation. There's an appeals process in place for publishers to appeal directly to fact-checkers to dispute ratings."

This article has been updated with clarification regarding CO2 Coalition funding and to include quotes from Ted Generous.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty