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Facebook Loophole Allows Climate Deniers to Spread Misinformation

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Facebook Loophole Allows Climate Deniers to Spread Misinformation
President Donald Trump welcomes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Sept. 19, 2019, to the Oval Office of the White House. Official White House Photo by Joiyce N. Boghosian

Update, June 29: This post has been updated to include a comment from Facebook.

Facebook is coming under fire again for aiding climate change deniers. The platform opened a fact-checking loophole that allows misinformation to spread widely, even with opposition from scientists.


CO2 Coalition, a non-profit with ties to the Trump administration and funded in part by climate-deniers Mercer and Koch, is at the forefront of the latest dispute, Newsweek reported.

The conservative group believes that climate change fears are overblown and that burning more fossil fuels will ultimately help the planet. They have increasingly used Facebook to reach a bigger audience, E&E News reported, and Executive Director Caleb Rossiter said that the current "battle" over climate-related posts serves as a microcosm in the overall "war" over how to reach an audience outside of conservative media.

"You can reach so many people both with your posts and your advertisements," Rossiter said in the news report. "We're kind of like Donald Trump. We're not happy with the treatment we're getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That's where our action is in larger part."

While the most recent commotion was triggered by a viral column Rossiter wrote in the Washington Examiner, Facebook already had a complicated history with climate deniers and fact-checking.

In May 2018, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg hired a right-wing think tank known for climate misinformation to "figure out whether Facebook displays a liberal bias," Think Progress reported. In July of the same year, Zuckerberg took additional steps towards allowing misinformation on his platform, saying that "while he won't block fake news from appearing on his site, his fact-checkers would stop it from spreading widely," the news report said.

In a dilution of that "check-and-balance," Facebook hired fact-checkers with conservative biases and a history of climate misinformation in fall of 2017 and again in April 2019.

Climate scientists were encouraged when Facebook partnered with Science Feedback last year in an expansion of their third-party fact-checking program to bring in teams of Ph.D. climate scientists to verify the accuracy of content and to lessen the platform's role in driving viral misinformation, a Science Feedback release stated.

That optimism was short-lived.

In August 2019, five Science Feedback scientists reviewed a Washington Examiner column by CO2 Coalition's Rossiter and Patrick Michaels. The column, titled The great failure of the climate models, called climate models showing warming and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels "inaccurate," Newsweek reported.

All five scientists agreed that the piece "cherry-picks data and misleads readers" and tagged it as "biased" and "inaccurate" for Facebook. The piece was blocked from sharing as "false" and the coalition was prevented from running ads, reported E&E News.

Then came the loophole.

Facebook re-labeled Rossiter's piece as "opinion," allowing it to fall under a new fact-checking exception that overruled the climate scientists' "false" finding, reported E&E News. It became shareable, promotable with advertising and went viral.

The news report claimed a "conservative Facebook employee" can be credited with opening the door for the coalition and groups that attack mainstream climate science to leverage the "opinion" label to avoid fact-checking and spread misinformation.

CO2 Coalition, which requested the successful change, is celebrating the outcome. Rossiter noted to E&E News that after the "false" label was removed from his climate models piece, the coalition was allowed to buy ads again. They have since done so, with messages distorting climate change and claiming that they are "saving the people of the planet from the people who claim they are saving the planet." Those ads have received more than 50,000 impressions, Facebook data shows, as reported by E&E News.

The coalition and similar groups will look to Facebook to get their message to a larger audience because traditional news media "rarely seek comment on climate science from groups that reject consensus research," Rossiter said, the news report added.

Andrew Dessler, one of the five Science Feedback climate scientists who originally fact-checked CO2 Coalition's article, criticized Facebook and other social media for exempting "opinion" articles from even basic fact-checking.

"It's a powerful way to misinform people, since these groups can't win in the actual scientific arena, so they only can win in these media environments where they can pay to promote stuff," Dessler told E&E News. "It allows people to live in a bubble where you don't ever have to confront ideas that you don't want to deal with.

In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told EcoWatch, "Our long-standing guidance to the independent fact-checkers has been that clear opinion content is not subject to fact-checking on Facebook; unsurprisingly, that includes opinion editorials." The spokesperson explained, " As our policy states clearly, if publishers want to dispute a fact-check rating, they are to do so directly with the fact-checker. Facebook's third-party fact-checkers can rate climate-related content; there has never been a prohibition on their doing so."

Additionally, Facebook posted a company blog Thursday titled Providing People With Additional Context About Content They Share. A "context" button, first created in 2018, "provides information about the sources of articles in News Feed," the blog said, and is meant "to ensure people have the context they need to make informed decisions about what to share on Facebook." Notifications will include "timeliness" and "information about the source of the link."

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

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The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

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