Bulletins

​Climate denial is dead on Facebook. What replaced it is more insidious. ​

"Energy independence" is no less braindead than saying sunspots cause climate change. But it's propagating across the social network largely free of fact checks.

Mark Zuckerberg gestures to the right while wearing a black crew neck shirt.

Facebook is facing a new climate misinformation problem.

Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

We've reached the point where flat-out climate denial is being stamped out. Newspapers have largely stopped quoting it and social networks and search engines have throttled its spread online. But the fossil fuel industry and its allies have found a new way to achieve the same ends of inaction: touting "energy independence." Protocol got an exclusive first look at an analysis by Media Matters showing how the meme based on a false premise propagates across Facebook with little or no oversight.


The analysis looked at the top 100 Facebook posts by interactions from September 2021 to April 2022 that spread climate and energy misinformation. A large portion of those posts focused on the idea of "energy independence" as a justification to drill for more oil and gas, yet only two of those were labeled for spreading misinformation.

The idea that the U.S. is woefully dependent on foreign oil and gas is, if we're being blunt, not true. The U.S. is a net exporter of liquid natural gas and oil (though the latter may shift this year). The concept that "energy independence" is tied to producing more oil and gas is also misinformation. To avoid heating the planet more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, a key climate guardrail, the International Energy Agency found last year the world needs to stop new fossil fuel exploration by the end of this year.

You wouldn't know any of this from the posts Media Matters identified, though. The drumbeat for more oil and gas extraction has kicked into high gear over the past few months as gas prices have spiked (this despite the fact that you can't just magically flip the oil switch and flood the market with cheap fossil fuels).

In a March 10 post highlighted in the report, Mike Rowe (yes, that guy— it's kind of his thing) said, "One minute, America was a net exporter of oil and natural gas. The next minute, we’re back to buying oil from despots and sheiks, with gas prices at an all-time high." Literally nothing has changed in the mythical "one minute" Rowe references. "Honest question," Rowe continues, "Why would we allow energy independence to slip through our fingers?” (We're not.)

The post has no fact-checking label and contains more misinformation and hand waving. But we're not going to spend all day talking about Mike Rowe here because there are other, even more egregious examples out there. A post by Media Research Center TV, a right-wing media watchdog, does have a fact-checking label for falsely claiming, "American energy independence has been lost under Joe Biden and the policies of the left." But it was still shared 29,000 times, reflecting the reality that even with moderation, misinformation is still pinging across Facebook.

"We have to have shared language around how we're defining misinformation, disinformation and malinformation," Allison Fisher, the director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters, told Protocol. "The wider definition that we're using includes anything that's trying to erode climate science or efforts to act on climate as misinformation. All of these achieve the same thing, though the intent can be a little bit different."

That intent is to delay action on addressing climate change by ending the use of fossil fuels. The longer misinformation about energy independence propagates, the greater the risk of it being treated as a political issue across the spectrum of left to right rather than a scientific one. That points for the need for more stringent fact-checking guidelines and even enforcement.

“This research and content illustrate that the policies that have been in place to address climate misinformation are inadequate,” Fisher said. “They’re just not working, either because they’re not being enforced, or they’re just inadequate to begin with.”

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