If Donald Trump's presidency was good for one thing, it was waking Americans up to the threat of disinformation. We know now, without question, that people get hurt and die when powerful folks can spread falsehoods freely and intentionally for political purposes — whether it be about a viral pandemic or about the results of an election.
But there is still one strain of disinformation that Americans remain largely complacent about: disinformation spread by polluters and the politicians they fund. Social media companies are routinely letting oil industry climate change propaganda slip through the cracks even as they clamp down on other political lies.
I see it all the time while reporting for my newsletter, HEATED, which published evidence Tuesday that Twitter has been allowing the oil industry to run misleading ads designed to prevent political action on climate change. The ads, bought by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, falsely claimed, among other things, that limiting fossil fuel development would "hinder environmental progress" and that natural gas — a fossil fuel — is key to a "cleaner world."
The reality is that climate scientists nearly uniformly agree that the key to a cleaner world is reducing the use of fossil fuels (including natural gas) and replacing them with renewable forms of energy. The misleading nature of the ads wasn't what caught my eye, however. It was that Twitter allowed the oil industry to pay to spread misleading climate-related political propaganda while prohibiting anyone from doing the same to call out that propaganda.
Twitter banned all political ads in 2019, in part as a response to the Trump campaign's misinformation ahead of the presidential election. The effect, however, was that everyone was banned from promoting tweets about political issues — even climate change. And now, as recently as Tuesday, environmental groups have publicly affirmed that they can't pay to spread tweets fact-checking oil companies. Their tweets would be considered prohibited "political content."
On the flip side, Twitter doesn't consider it "political" when oil companies try to paint themselves as green. Instead, it's considered promoting "environmental stewardship." The reality, though, is that these oil company tweets are the newest phase of the industry's 40-year campaign to sow doubt about the severity of the climate crisis and persuade the public to oppose aggressive action. That's not just according to me, a reporter who's been covering oil industry climate disinformation since 2013. It's according to several researchers who specialize in fossil fuel industry communications. As Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist who studies oil industry advertisements at Drexel University, told me: "This is just another effort to manipulate public opinion to support options that the corporation wants."
Social media companies are struggling to effectively tackle the threat of climate propaganda and disinformation at the worst moment possible.
Twitter isn't the only social media behemoth I've found treating climate propaganda as second-rate disinformation and rejecting expert opinion about why it shouldn't. In September, HEATED reported that Facebook doesn't remove climate misinformation, even as it removes coronavirus- and election-related falsehoods. To justify the discrepancy, Facebook said that it removes only content that "poses an immediate threat to human health and safety" and that climate change misinformation "does not fall within that category."
But more than 100 professional health and medical groups disagree. "The health, safety and wellbeing of millions of people in the U.S. have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action," their call to action reads.
YouTube, too, is struggling with climate disinformation. According to a report last year, more than 20 percent of views for videos about "global warming" were for videos chock-full of scientific falsehoods. The site has now made inaccurate climate content "harder to find," Bloomberg reported last month. "But educators with factual videos still struggle to gain an audience on the topic."
It's unclear whether all this is because of naiveté, willful ignorance or psychological dissonance on the part of social media giants. What is clear, though, is that social media companies are struggling to effectively tackle the threat of climate propaganda and disinformation at the worst moment possible. With a new president committed to climate action and a slim Democratic majority in Congress, the U.S. is entering the most critical political moment for climate policy in our lifetimes. As Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, recently told Grist: "What we do in the next years and decades will affect the Earth for tens of thousands of years, if not longer."
What social media companies do or don't do about disinformation will be a huge part of the equation.
"Corporations — including social media platforms — need to take climate misinformation as seriously as they take election and Covid misinformation," John Cook, an assistant research professor at George Mason University who studies climate disinformation, told me. "A long-term problem like climate change cuts both ways — it may seem less immediate now, but it also means we'll be suffering the consequences of today's decisions for decades to come."