Protocol | Policy

Facebook Papers: How the company grapples with its climate change deniers

Employees have been sounding the alarm on Facebook's role in climate misinformation for years. The company keeps studying the problem.

Facebook Papers: Facebook logo cracking

Leaked documents reveal repeated instances of climate change misinformation popping up in prominent places.

Protocol

Facebook has spent years resisting calls to outright forbid climate misinformation on the platform. The company has, instead, touted its Climate Science Center, which launched last year, as one antidote to the problem. But internal documents reveal that earlier this year, users surveyed by the company still largely didn't know the information center existed — and in the United States, were particularly dubious about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the information contained within it.

The documents were contained in disclosures made to the SEC and provided to Congress in redacted form by Frances Haugen's legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including Protocol, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress. Together, they reveal a company that is still seeking to understand the role it plays in climate denialism, even as its own employees have been sounding the alarm on Facebook's role in spreading climate misinformation for years.

One leaked report (report.pdf), from April of this year, details the company's findings from a survey of more than 5,000 people across eight countries. The survey's goal was, in part, to get a sense of how people perceived the climate information center, which the report's author describes as Facebook's effort to "combat misinformation about climate change."

But the company's own survey data, collected in February, showed that even among users who had visited the center, 66% had no idea it existed. That number was an even higher 86% for users who hadn't visited the center. And while users in Taiwan, Nigeria, India, Brazil and parts of Europe generally agreed that information Facebook provided to its users about climate change would be accurate and trustworthy, users in the U.S. were significantly more skeptical.

"The US is the only country that stands out negatively here," with regard to information accuracy, the report read. It also found that users in the U.S. were more likely not to believe in climate change overall than in those other countries and regions.

In a statement, Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister said the research "underscores the reasons why we've launched our Climate Science Center and has informed our approach to connecting people with authoritative information about climate change from the world's leading climate change organizations." Facebook stressed that the research was not designed to draw a causal link and that other research has also shown a higher prevalence of climate denial in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world.

One comment on the report from an unnamed Facebook employee also suggested that users who actually visited the center were less likely to believe in climate change than people who didn't visit the center. That comment didn't draw a causal link, either, and the poster cautioned that the data was collected from U.S. and European participants only.

Facebook told Protocol that particular portion of the study was based on a small sample size of 226 people in Europe and 493 people in the US, and said it's possible people who know less about climate change are more likely to visit the center to get information.

"Is that an attack we are prepared for?"

The author of the report also discovered that Facebook is a primary source of climate information for its users, which presented an "opportunity to build knowledge through our platform."

Facebook has continued to make changes to the center as it's expanded to new countries, including adding quizzes and features that debunk common myths, which the survey found users also had difficulty identifying. According to data Facebook released last month, the center now has 100,000 daily visitors and 3.8 million followers. But as with most forms of misinformation, Facebook has continually declined to remove most climate misinformation from the platform, a topic that has been the source of consternation internally for years.

The documents reveal repeated instances of climate change misinformation popping up in prominent places. In one undated internal post, an employee found that a video called "Climate Change Panic is Not Based on Facts" by the conservative group Turning Point USA was the second search result for "climate change" on Facebook Watch and had amassed 6.6 million views in a little over a week.

Another August 2019 document reveals an employee asking why typing "climate change" in Facebook's search bar suggests other searches including "climate change debunked" and "climate change is a hoax."

"If someone is using Facebook Search to deliberately sow doubt and slow down the public response to the climate crisis, they are using our service to jeopardize the lives of billions of people over the coming decades. Is that an attack we are prepared for?" the employee asked.

Two months later, according to the documents, another employee posted a question asking whether the company downranks posts that deny human beings have played a role in climate change. The employee pointed to one such post "denying climate change as man made," but Protocol was not able to see the post.

"Thanks for the question," another employee replied. "We don't remove misinformation except in very narrow cases in which we have strong evidence that the content may lead to imminent offline harm against people." Another comment in that thread explains that Facebook only downranks posts if they're rated false by third-party fact-checkers, a policy that continues today.

Facebook told Protocol that according to its internal research, climate misinformation makes up a small percentage of overall climate content across its apps. The company also recently announced a $1 million grant program to fund its fact-checkers' partnerships with climate experts and helps fact checkers find climate misinformation by using keyword detection to group content about a similar topic together for them.

But experts say that's not good enough. "The Climate Science Center is only a small step but does not address the larger climate disinformation crisis hiding in plain sight," Charlie Cray, a senior strategist for Greenpeace USA, told Protocol. "As we've seen with the fires in Facebook's backyard, active hurricane season and water shortage in Arizona, the dangers of climate change are urgent, real and deadly. Just as Facebook has taken responsibility for its own carbon emissions, it must take responsibility to stop climate deniers from spreading disinformation on its platform."

Despite the pressure building up both internally and externally, the documents show that Facebook is continuing to scrutinize its options for addressing climate change denial on the platform, including conducting interviews with a transcontinental focus group of people who hold a range of views on the climate. The goal in part, according to the documents, was to analyze Facebook's role in shaping climate views and attitudes and understand how users experience climate misinformation and "what they think [Facebook] should do about it."

For some Facebook employees, it seems, the answer to that question is already clear.

Protocol | Workplace

Google contractor says she was fired for "ungoogley" behavior

According to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, "ungoogley" is Google's term for having a bad attitude.

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job after asking about pay.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job for "ungoogley" behavior after asking about holiday pay at a meeting with management, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board by a lawyer for the Alphabet Workers Union.

Tuesday Carne said in an interview with Protocol that she was fired after just nine days of working in the data contracting facility in South Carolina. Carne's termination letter (which Protocol reviewed) called her behavior at the meeting "unacceptable and 'ungoogley'" and claimed that her behavior was the reason for her firing.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

The fintech developers who made mobile banking as routine as texting or online shopping aren't done. The next frontier for innovation is open banking – fintech builders are enabling consumers to be at the center of where and how their data is used to provide the services they want and need.

Most people don't even realize they're using open banking services today. If they connected their investment and banking accounts in a personal financial management solution or app, they're using open banking. Perhaps they've seen ads about how they can improve their credit score by uploading pay stubs or utility records to that same app – this is also powered by open banking.

Keep Reading Show less
Bob Schukai
Bob Schukai is Executive Vice President of Technology Development, New Digital Infrastructure & Fintech at Mastercard, where he leads the technical design, execution and support of innovative open banking and fintech solutions, as well as next generation technologies to support global payment and data capabilities. Prior to Mastercard, Schukai’s work focused on cognitive computing, financial technology, blockchain, user experience and digital identity. He is also a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Protocol | Policy

Biden FCC nominee Sohn is walking a tightrope with Republicans

Gigi Sohn faces plenty of GOP opposition, but the longtime net-neutrality advocate is hoping to pick up a little Republican support as she deals with Democrats’ narrow margins.

Gigi Sohn’s work for net neutrality has become an issue in her confirmation hearings for the FCC.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn wouldn’t mind getting support from a Republican or two, and it’d certainly make her path back to the Federal Communications Commission easier.

During her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation on Wednesday, Sohn, a progressive favorite and longtime net-neutrality advocate, touted her commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices on the airwaves, her past fights for small conservative networks she personally disagrees with and her habit of socializing with those she battles on policy.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

Microsoft Teams is going after small businesses

Microsoft Teams Essentials offers longer, bigger meetings for a relatively small price tag.

Companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams.

Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Microsoft announced Wednesday that companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams — one of its most important products and a major player in work messaging and video chat, alongside Slack and Zoom. The product, called Microsoft Teams Essentials, aims to give small or medium-sized businesses a communication hub that costs less than its competitors'.

Microsoft will charge small businesses $4 per user per month for Microsoft Teams Essentials, while Zoom’s cheapest paid plan is $14.99 per user per month and Slack’s is $6.67 per user each month, when billed annually. The free version of Microsoft Teams still exists, as do the various other Microsoft 365 plans that include Teams. Teams Essentials offers longer meeting times, larger group meetings and more cloud storage.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about NTIA nominee Alan Davidson

If confirmed, the former Googler will play a key role in shaping the unprecedented expansion of broadband across the country.

Alan Davidson has been nominated to lead the NTIA.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — a traditionally somewhat-sleepy role that is taking on new prominence in the wake of the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

That law gives the NTIA authority to write the rules and oversee the distribution of $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grants to states, a duty that will require it to massively scale its internal resources. To lead the charge, Biden has nominated Alan Davidson, a well-known figure in Washington who has spent his career cycling through government, industry and advocacy groups. If confirmed, Davidson would have perhaps the most important role in guiding an unprecedented expansion of internet access in America.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories