In their recent report, Four Days of Texas-Sized Disinformation: Social Media Companies Threaten Action on Climate Change, Friends of the Earth exposes the pivotal and dangerous role of social media in the spread of climate change disinformation. Social media companies—namely Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—have repeatedly refused to effectively moderate this issue or take action against repeat offenders. Unfortunately, this has given the fossil fuel industry’s anti-climate public relations campaigns a new lease on life, as they offer a safe space for the worst climate disinformation to spread easily and rapidly.
Friends of the Earth presents a case study of the social media-fueled disinformation surrounding the Texas blackouts in February 2021. As extreme winter storms and record-low temperatures caused rolling blackouts in the state, various social media platforms became vehicles for the spread of mass disinformation, in particular the false claim that the power outages were actually due to wind energy systems failure.
To make matters worse, an image surfaced of a helicopter attempting to de-ice a wind turbine with chemicals. In actuality, the out-of-context photo was taken in Sweden in 2014, and in no way related to the events seven years later and half a world away. However, with the caption suggesting that green energy failure caused the blackouts, the tweet became a viral sensation. In the span of less than a month, this image proliferated through other social media platforms, online newsletters, and television news outlets, finally reaching the climate-denying and conspiracy-minded representatives in Congress.
Right-wing social media amplifiers, conservative news outlets, and fossil fuel-funded interests jumped on this opportunity to exploit social media in the mass spreading of disinformation. In the two days following the initial blackouts, Fox News and Fox Business falsely blamed renewable energy for Texas’s blackouts 128 times. Not only that, but at least five elected officials used the wind turbine narrative to reinforce their bias against climate solutions. This campaign was strategically designed to undermine the credibility of sustainable energy—the blame was placed on renewable power and climate solutions at large as an excuse for the failures of fossil fuels in Texas. In actuality, it was Texas’ outdated and isolated fossil fuel infrastructure combined with historically low temperatures that were the ultimate culprit of the crippling outages.
What’s most concerning about social media as the new misinformation tool of the 21st Century is that truth spreads slowly while lies fly. Although there was a strong response from mainstream and local media outlets debunking these falsehoods, it has been found that tweets promoting the Texas claims received higher engagement totals than those disproving them. It was also discovered that only 0.9 percent of the false posts extending the wind turbine narrative on Facebook could be verified as having been fact-checked by the company. This means that less than one percent of the most popular (most viral) posts on Facebook that referenced the wind turbine photo or lie were fact-checked.
These underwhelming fact-checking statistics are a testament to how influential and dangerous social media outlets can be in developing, advancing—and most importantly—spreading outright climate lies. Fossil fuel interests have found new mechanisms for promoting falsities without being beholden to any kind of effective filter the way more traditional, established media outlets are.
To ensure what becomes “viral” are the real and solutions-oriented information that we do need to share with our social networks, social media platforms must be regulated and their monopolistic concentration broken up. And organizations in the climate justice movement are not waiting for Congress to take action—they are taking it straight to the headquarters of social media companies. The Union of Concerned Scientists and others are part of a coalition putting the heat on Facebook to do a better job fact-checking content. Read more about their detailed demands and get involved here.