Updated on 2023-07-31 by Adam Hardy
Social media’s most powerful algorithm, the one driving climate denial on Facebook, creates streams of posts for Facebook users designed solely and without a single ethical consideration to maximise how long users stay and how many adverts they see”Stewardship of global collective behaviour” – US National Academy of Science article on the crisis in the digital attention economy. https://www.pnas.org/content/118/27/e2025764118. We humans just react to emotional triggers so reliably and so predictably that Facebook has not only been able to build a massive global advertising business on it, but it’s leveraged it to the maximum extent that Silicon Valley’s smartest engineers could manage.
The side-effect of this ad revenue-generating click-bait dog-whistle marketing funnel is that it exacerbates our personal echo chamber with fear- and hate-based emotionally laden news factoids, personal stories, urban myths, truths even, lies and everything in-between.
Boring old reality just gets left behind, unless it’s a “climate porn” post featuring disasters and apocalypse. Facebook really has won the race to the bottom.
The result is the massive spread of populist politics, the corruption of society’s information ecosystem, weakened social reaction to climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises, so in other words, disasters, catastrophes, suffering, loss of life and in Myanmar, genocide.
“As police and military began to crack down on the Rohingya (a Myanmar muslim minority) and push out anti-Muslim propaganda, fake news articles capitalizing on the sentiment went viral. They claimed that Muslims were armed, that they were gathering in mobs 1,000 strong, that they were around the corner coming to kill you.”The MIT Technology Review
Facebook advertising is also incredibly targeted, because Facebook is able to amass so much data on every user, with profiling based on people’s interests recorded from their scroll behaviour. This is Facebook’s business model.
A key consideration with any messaging service is what information the service provider collects and shares. Unfortunately, this is where WhatsApp came unstuck.
- Signal collects and holds the phone number for the device accessing the messages;
- Telegram collects and stores the phone number, along with the contacts and the device’s IP address.
These compare favourably with WhatsApp’s collection of detailed device information and behavioural data, including location tracking, purchasing information, payment details, and other details helpful in creating detailed user profiling for advertisers.From Hewlett Packard’s Tech Takes
Researchers first brought the dangers of Facebook to light back in 2013 and came together to create the Center for Humane Technology, to promote a digital world where our attention was not up for grabs to the highest bidder. They coined the terms “persuasive technology” and the “attention economy”. As well as academic research, they also made or helped make full length documentaries like the Emmy Award winning “Social Dilemma” and a great podcast series featuring some excellent big names.
The social impact isn’t restricted to big, polarised issues or the “culture wars”. It has an all-pervasive effect on the human psyche and one of the big issues I have is what impact it has on the teenage brains of my children. What parent wants their child’s decision-making to be grossly affected by the needs of big business in areas like body image, the environment, consumer choice, or even when to put their mobile phone down?
Probably the biggest issue to make people steer clear of Facebook has been the corporation’s service as a platform to bad actors who need cheap advertising with a massive reach to spread lies and disinformation for political or financial gain. Dark money from Russia leveraged the Facebook data illegally provided by Cambridge Analytica to target undecided voters in the UK Brexit referendum, and again in the 2016 US Presidential election. Such is the lobbying influence of Facebook and so weak are the politicians affected, this all remains unresolved despite damning evidence from investigative journalists.
Climate Denial on Facebook
Fossil fuel corporations and their lobby groups use Facebook for their highly deceptive greenwash advertising to prevent and delay the transition away from their products. Facebook advertising was for many years the single most effective advertising venue for marketing campaigns, although now the costs are beginning to even up with other platforms like TV, newspapers, Google etc. Alongside the adverts, fossil fuel corporations can promote climate denial and disinformation in regular articles and videos, which frequently get massive hit counts. This was called out so frequently that Facebook reacted by setting up a Climate Science Information Center and promised to fact-check dubious posts. Ironically these policy efforts have been criticised for hurting pro-climate groups.
2021 produced a tsunami of complaints and indictments of Facebook after the corporation fell out of favour with practically everyone by forcing a new set of abusive terms and conditions on their captive public. Suddenly everybody started taking the complaints seriously. Two whistleblowers came forward from the corporation detailing some of the outright exploitative practices that they witnessed, and provided insight into Facebook’s policy – or lack of it – in the light of what research uncovered about the platform’s negative impact in so many areas of society.
It is significantly the worst of the social media platforms. Not even Twitter is actually quite so bad, quite so cynical, according to the whistleblowers.
There are alternatives out there which the Center for Humane Technology endorses – Pinterest as an alternative for Instagram, Reddit for groups, Diaspora for Facebook, Signal or Telegram as an alternative for WhatsApp and Messenger.
As an organisation that campaigns for the climate, keeping our reputation unsullied by contact with Facebook would be satisfying, but unfortunately we need to reach out to people on the platform. The question is, how do we maximise outreach for ourselves, while minimising any sort of contribution? A futile task maybe.
In fact, I just deleted my personal Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp apps completely from my mobile phone and shut down those accounts. It was difficult because the social pressure to stay in the literal peer groups was intense – my subconscious fought against it, for sure. It has reduced my powers of communication noticeably, and cut me off from the contacts who didn’t follow up on my “I’m outta here but don’t lose touch” message, but was it worth it? I think the answer isn’t there yet, but I suspect it will be yes. As people who are climate-aware are all slowly coming to realise, to tackle the climate crisis, we are going to have to turn the world upside down. Let’s start with the climate denial on Facebook.
As a final word on the subject, we should expect advances in AI to worsen the problem significantly. While AI brings some jaw-dropping advantages, it also brings some threats that could undermine any progress it brings and worse. In fact the people at the Center for Humane Technology have been asked by AI software developers and project leaders to get the word out that a new crisis is brewing. 50% of people surveyed in AI-related development, research and roll-out consider that we as a civilisation are facing odds of 1 in 10 that we wipe ourselves out through uncontrolled deployment of AI which causes phenomena such as “reality collapse”. I think it’s started already.
EcoCore is on a mission to combat climate change (including obviously, countering the denial out there) – if you want to help, please get involved.
The Center for Humane Technology website: https://www.humanetech.com/
The rise of conspiracy theories and socially destructive polarisation of debate has led to this – “21 million Americans say Biden is ‘illegitimate’ and Trump should be restored by violence, survey finds” https://theconversation.com/21-million-americans-say-biden-is-illegitimate-and-trump-should-be-restored-by-violence-survey-finds-168359, reiterated in CBS News 60 Minutes here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/social-media-political-polarization-60-minutes-2022-11-06/
The “Toxic Ten” key publishers of climate disinformation – a list compiled by the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate – includes organisations with links to foreign governments or with ties to fossil fuel giants. “When you put it all together, you’ve got these two industries, Big Oil and Big Tech, and they are the two industries that pose the greatest threat to the survival of our species,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/11/02/facebook-climate-change-misinformation-breitbart/
Facebook and Google are paying millions of ad dollars to bankroll clickbait actors, fuelling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world – the tragic case of Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/11/20/1039076/facebook-google-disinformation-clickbait/ with similar symptoms showing in wealthy countries https://www.theguardian.com/media/2022/jun/15/local-papers-lose-out-to-facebook-as-uk-towns-become-news-deserts
A list of the top ten tactics used by the fossil fuel industry to keep the climate change genie in its bottle: https://naacp.org/resources/fossil-fueled-foolery-20
Social-media platforms failing to tackle abuse of scientists: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00207-2
Michael Mann’s definitive guide to the present day climate denial: Michael Mann – The New Climate War: Book Review
The top ten denialisms that would debunk global warming: Top Proven Climate Denials for Everyday Use
Zeynep Tufekci (next) describes the unintended side-effects of an originally innocuous part of the advertising industry:
This next one is a link to a TED talk which a dark money provider behind Britain’s Brexit campaign is trying to get taken down – the journalist was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her work:
The fossil fuel industry has spent millions of dollars promoting gas on Facebook and paying influencers on Instagram to champion it: https://www.channel4.com/news/revealed-facebook-received-millions-for-ads-promoting-fossil-fuel
Trollbots swarm twitter with attacks on the climate science in lead up to major COP https://insideclimatenews.org/news/16092019/trollbot-twitter-climate-change-attacks-disinformation-campaign-mann-mckenna-greta-targeted/
A timeline of trouble: Facebook’s US privacy record and regulatory fines: https://guild.co/blog/complete-list-timeline-of-facebook-scandals/
Facebook’s climate of denial – Heated details the worst climate disinformation and Facebook’s response: https://heated.world/p/facebooks-climate-of-denial
Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed that it enables global political manipulation and has done little to stop it: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/07/29/1030260/facebook-whistleblower-sophie-zhang-global-political-manipulation/
Facebook whistleblower hearing: Frances Haugen calls for more regulation of tech giant – as it happened https://www.theguardian.com/technology/live/2021/oct/05/facebook-hearing-whistleblower-frances-haugen-testifies-us-senate-latest-news
Why do we believe things that aren’t true? Humans do not know enough to justify almost anything they believe, unless they are experts in whichever field it concerns. We believe we understand when we merely trust others’ input. The sense of understanding is contagious – these are insights from psychology. https://www.tedxmilehigh.com/unmasking-ignorance/
Diaspora user feed: https://diasp.org/stream
You’ve decided to quit Facebook. Here’s how to migrate your online life elsewhere: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/12/leave-facebook-alternatives/
Pink Floyd turn down a very attractive offer from Facebook https://ultimateclassicrock.com/roger-waters-facebook-deal/
Other vulnerabilities of the Facebook corporate model: Pro-EU Bulgarians to stage protest against Facebook moderator
Facebook reaches 100% renewable-energy milestone (although it would be great if they also took the issue of data efficiency seriously to reduce the amount of useless data transfer and storage): https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-renewable-energy-commitment-100-percent-milestone/
How to cut out a lot of Facebook’s surveillance by running Facebook only on the Firefox browser with this plugin: “Facebook. Well contained. Keep the rest of your life to yourself.”
Whatsapp comes in last of the instant messaging apps for security: from the XR Rebel Toolkit
And something humorous:
How to build an internet that doesn’t suck: https://joanwestenberg.medium.com/how-to-build-an-internet-that-doesnt-suck-675f4b4c7039