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Facebook says its third-party fact-checking partners “do review and rate climate misinformation, and there has never been a prohibition against them doing so,” in a response to criticism from Democratic senators. Facebook will continue its policy of exempting “clear opinion content” from fact-checking, the letter says. The senators are unsatisfied.
In the response, which was shared exclusively with The Verge, the tech behemoth says it does not consider all climate change content “opinion.” But opinion articles about climate change don’t receive fact-checking, a policy Facebook says it began in 2016.
“We asked Facebook leadership to close the loopholes that let climate disinformation spread on their platforms,” Senators Elizabeth Warren, Tom Carper, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Brian Schatz said in a statement. “Their response: we should trust them to make and follow their own rules and procedures, even if it results in the distortion of facts and the mass dissemination of falsehoods. The future of our planet is at stake, and there should be no company too big, too powerful, and too opaque to be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis. Facebook is no exception.”
Facebook has been accused of allowing climate denial to fester on its platform. Last August, it removed a “false” rating from an op-ed published by the Washington Examiner that cast doubt on the accuracy of climate change models. Initially, Facebook’s independent fact checker flagged the article as “highly misleading” because it included inaccurate information and cherry-picked data. But the CO2 Coalition, a non-profit group created by former Trump advisor William Happer, protested the rating.
Facebook ultimately caved, E&E News reported in June. According to E&E News, Facebook created a de facto loophole for opinion articles to escape fact checking. But Facebook says that this was the policy the entire time.
As a result of the dust-up, the senators wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on July 15th. They objected to the alleged loophole and demanded Facebook explain how the decision to change the rating was made. “The climate crisis and environmental degradation are not matters of opinion,” they wrote.
“Placing statements that are verifiably false in an opinion section shouldn’t grant immunity from fact-checking,” Scott Johnson, a science editor at one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers called Science Feedback, told The New York Times in July.
Facebook has told its independent fact-checkers that opinion content is not subject to fact-checking, the company said in response to the senators. (The company told The New York Times that the policy has been in place since 2016.) “However, when someone presents content based on underlying false information as opinion — even in the form of an op-ed or editorial — it is still eligible for fact-checking,” it added.
In their letter, the senators asked if disinformation around climate change is treated differently than fake COVID-19 posts — and if so, why. Climate change misinformation isn’t a priority for Facebook, Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director, told The New York Times in July. Instead, the company is most concerned with more immediate threats like hate speech or coronavirus disinformation.
Climate change is expected to lead to an additional 250,000 deaths every year between 2030 and 2050 because of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress, according to the World Health Organization.
The Democratic senators aren’t the only ones worried about the damage that lies about climate change could do. A majority of polled voters think Facebook should label opinion articles containing false information about climate change as false, according to a recent survey by the think tank Data for Progress.