The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Breitbart has outsize influence over climate change denial on Facebook, report says

A new report suggests 10 publishers, including RT and the Federalist Papers, are responsible for nearly 70 percent of interactions with climate change misinformation on the platform

Delegates gather during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. A new report out Nov. 2 shows that a small number of publishers are responsible for the majority of interactions on climate denial content. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Breitbart is the most influential producer of climate change denial posts on Facebook, according to a report released Tuesday that suggests a small number of publishers play an outsize role in creating content that undermines climate science.

The far-right news and commentary site is one of just 10 publishers responsible for nearly 70 percent of interactions with climate change denial content on Facebook, according to a study by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), shared exclusively with The Washington Post. This group of publishers, nicknamed the “Toxic Ten” by the CCDH, includes organizations with links to foreign governments, such as RT, as well as with ties to fossil fuel giants, such as Media Research Center.

The report includes a broad range of climate disinformation, including articles that undermine the existence or impacts of climate change or misrepresent data in ways that might erode trust in climate science experts.

This includes a Breitbart story published in March that suggested the Green New Deal, proposed legislation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, would likely result in mass lockdowns if passed into law.

“Every major environmental figure [and] climate activist has praised the COVID lockdowns as essentially a model for what we should be doing with climate,” the article reads.

Breitbart, a Trump-aligned website once run by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, has long held a close, controversial relationship with Facebook. The social network in 2019 faced criticism for including the website as a participant in its “News” tab, which curates authoritative national and local news stories and, in some instances, pays publishers. (The Washington Post was among the participating outlets).

A Facebook whistleblower in October told The Post on the condition of anonymity that Facebook executive Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush administration official, once defended a “white list” that exempted Breitbart and other select publishers from Facebook’s ordinary rules against falsehoods. Kaplan told The Post there has “never been” a white list that exempts publishers, including Breitbart, from the company’s misinformation rules.

Breitbart, the Federalist Papers and Media Research Center did not respond to requests for comment.

The study comes amid increasing political concern about the catastrophic impact of climate change, as global leaders gather in Glasgow for the United Nations-brokered COP26, described as a last chance for nations to hammer out a unified plan to significantly cut greenhouse gases.

While the report doesn’t provide a comprehensive look at all misleading climate change content promoted on Facebook, it has the potential to inspire political action as the CCDH has historically captured policymakers’ attention. The nonprofit’s March “disinformation dozen” report about top spreaders of anti-vaccine content was repeatedly cited by the White House along with numerous lawmakers in Congress, and it was used as a proxy for questions about the role of social media in aggravating vaccine hesitancy.

“When you put it all together, you’ve got these two industries, Big Oil and Big Tech, and they are the two industries that pose the greatest threat to the survival of our species,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the CCDH.

Voices from around the world on what’s at stake at COP26

Earlier this year, Facebook promised to start adding informational labels to some climate posts, much like it does with election or coronavirus posts. But CCDH researchers found that of the posts they surveyed containing climate misinformation, just 8 percent carried Facebook’s informational label.

The company contests the sample size of the CCDH’s report, which looked at about 7,000 climate change denial articles published between October 2020 and October 2021 and observed more than 700,000 interactions on these posts, a sample Ahmed called “robust” enough “to derive representative findings of trends.”

In a statement, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone called the methodology “flawed,” arguing that the study represents just 0.3 percent of the “over 200 million interactions on English public climate change content from Pages and public groups over the same time period.”

Facebook similarly pushed back on the structure of the CCDH’s disinformation dozen report, arguing it was based on “narrow data” that wasn’t representative of the hundreds of millions of posts that people shared about coronavirus vaccines on Facebook.

Callum Hood, the CCDH’s head of research, said this data about climate change denial, collected using NewsWhip, which gathers information from Facebook’s API, or application programming interface, is the best available to outside researchers, given the closed nature of the Facebook platform.

On Monday night, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, touted the company’s commitment to addressing climate change, announcing an expansion of its climate change-centered informational labels to more than a dozen countries and plans to offer its climate science information center to more than 100 countries. Clegg added that Facebook reduces distribution of posts that its third-party fact-checkers say are false and recently activated a feature to make it easier for its partners to quickly find content related to COP26.

For years, Facebook has faced pressure to issue a broad ban on climate misinformation, but it has focused instead on boosting authoritative content on the issue. In September 2020, the company announced the creation of a “Climate Science Information Center” to connect users with science-based information, similar to a center it launched promoting authoritative information about the coronavirus. In February, Facebook announced it had started adding labels to some climate posts in Britain, directing people to the center. It expanded those labels in May to several countries, including the United States.

Twitter’s new strategy to fight climate lies: Give users accurate information first

Yet amid these changes, posts that deny the existence of climate change were still attracting an audience on the Facebook. One November 2020 post from the Federalist Papers, a conservative news site, falsely says the Biden administration’s commitment to climate action is “all based on a lie.” It linked to an article saying climate scientists shouldn’t be believed.

It’s difficult to set up a query about climate change denial that would give a comprehensive view of all the problematic content on Facebook, said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank that studies foreign policy and disinformation. The CCDH compiled its selection of articles using combinations of search terms, like “climate” and “alarmism,” or “global warming” and “fraud,” according to the study’s methodology. Such a query could miss some of the articles about anti-climate science circulating on Facebook, according to Schafer, who added that making “sweeping” conclusions using a small subset of content would make him “nervous.”

“It just seems it’s a very tough world to wrap your arms around,” he said. “There’s just a lot that you are not going to capture there.”

Ahmed said in a statement that the CCDH focused its research on the “most harmful commonly-circulated terms and tropes of climate denial,” adding that many of the “mechanisms used to drip feed confusion and denial into the climate debate” are not accessible because of Facebook’s closed API.

In a statement, Anna Belkina, RT’s deputy editor in chief, said the publication doesn’t “shy away from tackling the global concern of climate change, nor would we disregard the variety of views essential to a healthy public discourse on its effects.”

Environmental experts say posts promoting the idea that climate change is a hoax could be an impediment to garnering public support for regulations to reduce carbon emissions. Such falsehoods could be “highly corrosive” to efforts to craft necessary public policy, said J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University.

“Even just slowing down our actions and keeping us in the status quo is deadly,” he said.

Facebook told the White House to focus on the ‘facts’ about vaccine misinformation. Internal documents show it wasn’t sharing key data.

The report additionally takes aim at the ways publishers financially benefit from climate change denial content. The researchers estimate that during the past six months, the eight publishers that carry Google ads in this group have generated $5.3 million in Google ads revenue — earning the sites $3.6 million and Google $1.7 million.

Google announced in October that it would prohibit publishers and YouTube creators from monetizing content that “promotes climate change denial,” company spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. But it hasn’t taken effect yet. The company has previously enacted similar bans on advertising against harmful debunked claims or pandemic misinformation.

The report is already sparking backlash on Capitol Hill, amid growing scrutiny of the role that Facebook plays in amplifying disinformation and divisive content.

“Facebook and other social media companies make money when they send users down rabbit holes of climate change denial,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement to The Post about the report. “That’s a very dangerous business model for the future of the planet.”

It’s also caught the attention of policymakers in Europe, who said the report should be a “wake-up call” to social media companies.

“They need to abide by their own policies and stop profiting from misinformation, which could literally end up costing the Earth,” said Lord Jonny Oates, spokesperson for energy and climate change for the British Liberal Democrats who served as chief of staff to Clegg when he was deputy prime minister.

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.