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Social media companies haven't learned how to address climate disinformation

Technology companies like Twitter and Facebook have been unable to stop disinformation campaigns and greenwashing from flooding their platforms, according to a recent study.

A new report released today by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the 20+ member coalition Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) analyzed the reach of a range of climate disinformation around last year’s international climate conference in Glasgow, COP26.

With the tactics of climate deniers identified, the study's authors hope to drive policies that nations can implement ahead of the next round of climate negotiations slated for later this year in Cairo. The idea is to head off any attempts at greenwashing or climate denialism in the face of the clear threat that climate change presents to humanity.

“Our analysis has shown that climate disinformation has become more complex, evolving from outright denial into identifiable ‘Discourses of Delay’ to exploit the gap between buy-in and action” said Jennie King, Head of Climate Disinformation at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in a statement. “Governments and social media platforms must learn the new strategies at play and understand that disinformation in the climate realm has increasing crossover with other harms, including electoral integrity, public health, hate speech and conspiracy theories."

Across social media, a few conservative pundits and political actors conflated climate change with other cultural hot button issues to -- in the words of the study's authors -- "violate multiple content moderation policies in tandem".

For the most part, the study found that Twitter and Facebook ignored the policy violations.

While Twitter had a higher volume of misinformation and greenwashing, Facebook's algorithms meant that more people engaged with disinformation on its platform.

In fact, Facebook's algorithm drove more exposure to climate disinformation than to its own Climate Science Center, the report found.

"This shows that far from addressing the problem, [social media] platforms are amplifying the voices of a small community of actors spreading climate disinformation," said European Parliament member, Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, in a statement. "We must do more to address climate disinformation at the European level. If urgent steps are not taken to tackle climate disinformation head on, our collective work towards reaching the climate goals is at risk of being undermined.”

Social media companies need to define climate misinformation in the terms of service; enact better standards and enforcement policies for running messages that clearly undermine the science around climate change; and better identify climate misinformation through GIFS and meme-based content, the study's authors suggest.

They also recommended better labeling for old or misleading content and the enforcement or introduction of policies against repeat offenders who continue to disseminate debunked information on the social platforms.

“We will not be able to stop climate change if all conversations are flooded with disinformation,” said Michael Khoo, co-chair of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth U.S., who provided US expertise in partnership with CAAD. “Governments must require social media companies to be transparent and accountable about the harms their products create, as they do with every other industry from airlines to cars to food processing. We should not continue this endless game of climate denial whack-a-mole.”

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