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.

Enterprise

Why foundation models in AI need to be released responsibly

Foundation models like GPT-3 and DALL-E are changing AI forever. We urgently need to develop community norms that guarantee research access and help guide the future of AI responsibly.

Releasing new foundation models doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

Illustration: sorbetto/DigitalVision Vectors

Percy Liang is director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a faculty affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI and an associate professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Humans are not very good at forecasting the future, especially when it comes to technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Percy Liang
Percy Liang is Director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a Faculty Affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Climate

The West’s drought could bring about a data center reckoning

When it comes to water use, data centers are the tech industry’s secret water hogs — and they could soon come under increased scrutiny.

Lake Mead, North America's largest artificial reservoir, has dropped to about 1,052 feet above sea level, the lowest it's been since being filled in 1937.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The West is parched, and getting more so by the day. Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir — is nearing “dead pool” levels, meaning it may soon be too low to flow downstream. The entirety of the Four Corners plus California is mired in megadrought.

Amid this desiccation, hundreds of the country’s data centers use vast amounts of water to hum along. Dozens cluster around major metro centers, including those with mandatory or voluntary water restrictions in place to curtail residential and agricultural use.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Workplace

Indeed is hiring 4,000 workers despite industry layoffs

Indeed’s new CPO, Priscilla Koranteng, spoke to Protocol about her first 100 days in the role and the changing nature of HR.

"[Y]ou are serving the people. And everything that's happening around us in the world is … impacting their professional lives."

Image: Protocol

Priscilla Koranteng's plans are ambitious. Koranteng, who was appointed chief people officer of Indeed in June, has already enhanced the company’s abortion travel policies and reinforced its goal to hire 4,000 people in 2022.

She’s joined the HR tech company in a time when many other tech companies are enacting layoffs and cutbacks, but said she sees this precarious time as an opportunity for growth companies to really get ahead. Koranteng, who comes from an HR and diversity VP role at Kellogg, is working on embedding her hybrid set of expertise in her new role at Indeed.

Keep Reading Show less
Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

Climate

New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Latest Stories
Bulletins