Facebook failed to flag false claims in Texas storm

- Jessica Guynn

Company says it cracked down on climate lies, but USA TODAY found otherwise.

“(Facebook) should know by now that during any crisis, disinforma­tion spreads like wildfire – and its negligence and algorithms are the fuel.” Fadi Quran Campaign director at human rights group Avaaz

Misleading claims shared by prominent conservati­ves that wind turbines caused massive winter storm power outages in Texas whipped through Facebook without fact-checking labels, racking up millions of views, according to a new report shared exclusivel­y with USA TODAY.

Human rights group Avaaz says the 10 top-performing posts about wind turbine failures from public figures such as Fox News personalit­ies Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee received more than 15.8 million views on Facebook.

As of Tuesday, none of the posts had a fact-checking label, including those reviewed by Facebook’s factchecki­ng partners.

USA TODAY’s fact check found the claim that frozen wind turbines were to blame for blackouts in Texas was missing context. Some wind turbines froze because they were not built to withstand the unusually cold temperatur­es, but the most substantia­l energy losses were from the shutdowns of thermal power plants.

According to the Electric Reliabilit­y Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy plants were responsibl­e for almost twice as many power outages as frozen wind turbines and solar panels.

“When a page, group, or post violates our policies we either remove it or label it depending on the violation and we’ve followed the same approach with the

examples identified in the Avaaz report,” Facebook said in a statement. “We remain the only company to partner with more than 80 fact-checking organizati­ons and use AI to scale those fact-checks against millions of duplicate posts across our platform. There is no playbook for a program like ours and we work to improve it all the time.”

The false claims began with the image of a helicopter de-icing wind turbines that was passed off as a photo from the deadly Texas storm that left millions without food, water or heat.

The photos was, in fact, taken in Sweden in 2014, according to research this week from the German Marshall Fund.

Gaining steam, the claims spread quickly on YouTube, where they had 1.8 million views, and generated 1 million likes, comments, and shares on Facebook, the think tank found. On Twitter, a tweet with the embedded image was retweeted 30,000 times.

The Avaaz report found that Facebook in most cases slapped a factchecki­ng label on the helicopter image.

“Facebook let irresponsi­ble myths reach millions without interventi­on going against its very own policies,” Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz, said.

“The company should know by now that during any crisis, disinforma­tion spreads like wildfire – and its negligence and algorithms are the fuel.”

The flood of misleading narratives about the Texas power outages is part of a growing trend of disinforma­tion campaigns popping up when extreme weather patterns sweep the country.

Social media companies are under growing pressure from environmen­tal groups and Democratic lawmakers to stop the spread of climate-change hoaxes and conspiracy theories. They warn that the Biden administra­tion efforts to increase investment in renewable energy while cutting oil, gas and coal emissions could be undermined by falsehoods on social media.

“Disinforma­tion content targeting these efforts is only likely to increase in the coming months and years, particular­ly given a concerted effort to shift public opinion against these efforts,” the Avaaz report said.

In September, Facebook said it would counter climate-change misinforma­tion with a Climate Science Informatio­n Center that supplies users with sciencebas­ed facts.

“We are very aggressive­ly removing content that could lead folks into harm’s way, and we are surfacing more content that can get them the help and support that they need,” Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox told USA TODAY at the time.

“During any weather-related or disaster-like event, we have teams pay a lot closer attention to what’s going on in those areas to understand what’s happening to the informatio­n ecosystem. And that’s just part of the work we do to make sure the platform is providing the right informatio­n in times of crisis.”

Facebook’s announceme­nt came just days after emergency responders in the Pacific Northwest had to fight misinforma­tion on Facebook along with catastroph­ic wildfires.

Climate scientists said the “half measures” did too little to rein in false, misleading or disputed informatio­n such as the discredite­d theory that the government is using “chemtrails” to manipulate the weather.

“The consequenc­es are that the public is far less informed about climate change than they need to be,” Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, told USA TODAY. “It is very convenient for polluting interests who don’t want to see climate policies move forward.”

Last week, Facebook said it has added a new feature to its climate-change informatio­n center that offers facts that debunk common climate myths.

The Avaaz report says Facebook must do more to correct the record.

“When independen­t fact checkers determine that a piece of content is false or misleading, Facebook should show a retroactiv­e correction to each and every user who viewed, interacted with, or shared it. This can cut belief in false and misleading informatio­n by nearly half,” the group said.

Facebook should also reduce the reach of pages or groups that repeatedly share climate change misinforma­tion, Avaaz said.

 ?? JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Icicles hang from a highway sign on Feb. 18 in Killeen, Texas. A winter storm brought historic cold weather and power outages to Texas.
JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES Icicles hang from a highway sign on Feb. 18 in Killeen, Texas. A winter storm brought historic cold weather and power outages to Texas.

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