Climate Change and Digital Advertising

Climate Science Disinformation in Facebook Advertising

October 2020

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What They Say

Please use this URL when citing this report.

See coverage in The Guardian, The Independent, The Washington Post, Daily Mail, Grist, Gizmodo and AFP.

Calling out the climate misinformation issue on Facebook is crucial because the company's limited attempts to deal with the problem are failing to keep pace with powerful tactics like micro-targeting. It's yet another attempt by Facebook to say "we're doing some good", when the problem continues, mostly unabated.

Bill Weihl, former Director of Sustainability, Facebook, and Founder of NGO ClimateVoice

For decades, polluter interests sowed false doubt and peddled lies to block climate action, screening themselves behind dark-money front groups. InfluenceMap’s new report exposes the powerful role Facebook plays in enabling these disinformation campaigns. Facebook talks a good game on climate, but it makes money spreading climate denial and disinformation.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), United States Senator for Rhode Island

InfluenceMap’s devastating report reinforces and reveals how Facebook lets climate deniers spread dangerous junk to millions of people. We have repeatedly asked Facebook to close the loopholes that allow misinformation to run rampant on its platform, but its leadership would rather make a quick buck while our planet burns, sea levels rise, and communities – disproportionately Black and Brown – suffer. Facebook must be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), United States Senator for Massachusetts

Introduction

Facebook has a wealth of information on its 2.7 billion monthly active users, presenting advertisers with unparalleled opportunities to promote a brand or message in a highly targeted and effective manner. Over recent years there have been growing concerns at the influence and reach of social media platforms in swaying public opinion on key issues such as COVID-19 and climate change. On the 14th of September 2020, Facebook launched its Climate Science Information Center, stating it is “committed to tackling climate misinformation” through its existing fact-checking program.

New research from InfluenceMap reveals that even under the current program and the new Climate Science Information Center, anti-climate groups are using Facebook’s advertising platform and unique targeting abilities to spread disinformation, intentionally seeding doubt and confusion around the science of climate change. This research reveals and breaks down the presence, messaging strategies, and spread of climate disinformation ads on Facebook's platforms in the US.

Overview of Results

  • InfluenceMap found 51 climate disinformation ads, running in the US during the first half of 2020, on Facebook’s platforms.

  • In total, the 51 ads gained 8 million impressions over the 6 month period.

  • If indicative of the last five years, this equates to over 70 million impressions on climate disinformation ads since the Paris Agreement.

  • Only 1 of the 51 ads identified by InfluenceMap had been taken down by Facebook. The rest were allowed to run for the entirety of their scheduled time.

  • The distribution of the ads tended towards males, rural states, and people over the age of 55.

  • This research shows climate disinformation is being propagated by well-known groups such as PragerU, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute among others.

  • Collectively, the groups identified by InfluenceMap as using Facebook advertising to spread climate disinformation have a total revenue of around $68M per year. The ultimate source of this funding is often opaque.

The Prominence of Topics and Arguments in Climate Disinformation Ads

Utilizing Facebook's advertising tools, anti-climate groups are using a range of disinformation strategies to sow doubt and confusion around the science of climate change. The most common strategy, in the ads identified by InfluenceMap's research, is to attack the credibility of climate science and climate science communicators. Click on the wheel to focus in on a topic.

Size represents the number of ads in which the argument appears. Multiple arguments can appear in one ad.

Gender and Age Distribution of Climate Disinformation Ads on Facebook

Furthermore, these groups are taking advantage of Facebook’s powerful targeting tools to reach specific audiences. Facebook allows advertisers to target ads using user information such as age, gender, location, education, and interests.

InfluenceMap's research finds climate disinformation ads are being shown more to older age groups and to males across all age groups. Explore the data with the interactive graph below.

Impressions by gender and age

Regional Distribution of Climate Science Disinformation Ads in US

Climate disinformation ads are being heavily distributed in rural US states, particularly Texas and Wyoming. A growing body of research following the 2016 US election suggests the urban-rural divide has become an increasingly important factor in predicting electoral and public policy outcomes. Hover over the figure to see how many impressions per thousand people climate disinformation ads received in each state.

Impressions per a thousand people

Prominence of Topics in Climate Science Disinformation Ads by Age Group

InfluenceMap's research also suggests that the advertisers are using targeting to tailor their messaging to specific audiences. In ads shown predominantly to 18-34 year-olds, arguments contesting the predicted future consequences of climate change were most common, while people aged 55+ were more likely to be shown ads contesting the causes of climate change.

Size represents how common a topic is in ads shown predominately to the relevant age group

Sources of disinformation

Climate disinformation is being propagated on Facebook’s platforms by groups with often opaque funding. Collectively, the groups identified by InfluenceMap as using Facebook advertising to spread climate disinformation have a total revenue of around $68 million per year, based on their latest tax filings. However, the ultimate sources of funding for the climate disinformation ads identified on Facebook’s platform in this analysis remain largely unknown.

The Advertisers Spreading Climate Disinformation

Data on the 9 advertisers identified by InfluenceMap's research as spreading climate disinformation in the US using Facebook advertising are shown below.

Name
(with Link to Example Ad)
Total Political and Issue Ad Spend, Jan-July 2020 ($k)Number of Climate Disinformation Ads Found & Dates RunTotal Revenue ($k)
PragerU1,79027
(02/01/2020 - 01/10/2020)
18,600 (2018)
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy3644
(21/02/2020 - 06/03/2020)
11,321 (2018)
Turning Point USA1421
(23/04/2020 - 28/04/2020)
11,008 (2018)
Life: Powered (Texas Public Policy Foundation)599
(20/01/2020 - 25/06/2020)
13,665 (2018)
Capital Research Center292
(19/05/2020 – 19/06/2020)
2,943 (2018)
Washington Policy Center131
(19/03/2020 – 31/03/2020)
3,337 (2018)
Clear Energy Alliance*71**
(10/06/2020 – 16/06/2020)
NA*
Competitive Enterprise Institute51
(09/01/2020 – 14/01/2020)
6,398 (2017)
CO2 Coalition15
(14/01/2020 – 04/02/2020)
572 (2018)

* A foreign LLC (limited liability company) is a company initially formed in one state which has since registered to do business in another. In the US, private companies including foreign LLCs are not required to disclose their financial information

** This ad was removed by Facebook before planned campaign end