Facebook misled investors about battling climate and COVID lies: SEC filings

Facebook misled investors about battling climate and COVID lies: SEC filings
Anthony Quintano from Westminster, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Frontpage news and politics

In complaints to the U.S. government, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen accused the tech giant of misleading investors about combating climate and Covid-19 misinformation, The Washington Post revealed Friday.

Haugen has gained international attention for speaking out in the press and testifying to Congress. The former Facebook employee is represented by Whistleblower Aid, which filed the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaints earlier this month.

The newspaper's reporting on redacted copies of the documents sparked demands for reforms at the social media network and its parent company, which rebranded as Meta last year in the face of widespread criticism.

"Frances Haugen's SEC filing shows yet again that Facebook cannot be trusted and needs Congress to step in to stop the spread of disinformation," said Michael Khoo, co-chair of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth.

As the Post's Cat Zakrzewski reported:

One complaint alleges that climate change misinformation was prominently available on Facebook and that the company lacked a clear policy on the issue as recently as last year, despite Facebook executives' committing to fight the "global crisis" during earnings calls. A second, companion complaint argues that while Facebook executives were publicly touting their efforts to remove harmful Covid misinformation, internal documents "paint a different story." The complaint cites internal company communications about the spread of vaccine hesitancy in comments and internal surveys that showed the proliferation of Covid misinformation on the service.

"Facebook appears now to be spreading disinformation about its disinformation," declared Khoo, noting that in an October 2021 letter, Nick Clegg, then-vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook, "told the Climate Disinformation Coalition that there is only a 'small amount' of climate change disinformation on the platform."

Clegg, who was previously the U.K.'s deputy prime minister and led the Liberal Democrats party, was promoted this week to head of global affairs at Meta—a role that will put him "at the level" of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Similar to Clegg's letter, Meta spokesperson Drew Pusateri "said that misinformation makes up a small amount of climate change content in the company's apps, and that it spikes periodically, such as during extreme weather events," the Post reported Friday. "He said the company has taken steps to make it easier for fact-checkers to find climate content."

Pusateri also highlighted the company's efforts to remove vaccine misinformation and elevate "authoritative information" on public health and climate, adding that "there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to stopping the spread of misinformation, but we're committed to building new tools and policies to combat it."

However, activists and experts are not impressed. The Post explained that "the company adds information labels to some posts about climate change, and it reduces distribution of posts that its fact-checking partners rate as false. But it generally does not remove those posts, as it does with certain false claims about vaccines and the coronavirus."

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told the newspaper that the company's approach is "disturbing."

"Unmitigated climate change is projected to lead to far greater numbers of human fatalities than Covid-19," said Mann, known for debunking climate lies, including in recent testimony to Congress. "The fact that they're treating greater threat with so much less urgency and care is problematic."

Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn tweeted Friday that "Facebook hasn't even taken the most obvious step to combatting climate disinformation: banning fossil fuel advertising. They don't allow tobacco or firearms ads—so why allow fossil fuels?"

According to Khoo at Friends of the Earth:

Whether it's fueling the insurrection, trans-youth bullying, teen body image issues, or climate denial, Facebook's algorithm enables the small fringe to tear apart our communities and our values. When last year's winter storm decimated Texas residents, a few fossil fuel-backed voices falsely blamed frozen windmills, and we documented how that narrative exploded on Facebook.

Congress must now step in and require the type of safety reporting that is found in industries from car manufacturers to agriculture. It must force Facebook to disclose its data on platform safety and extremism, with ecosystem-wide reports on disinformation harms.

"Facebook amplifies fringe views like climate denial," the campaigner added, "and we must stop it from letting a radical minority overpower the majority."

At least some federal lawmakers are already paying attention to the company's conduct, as three Democratic senators made clear in a December letter to Zuckerberg.

"Disinformation that downplays the crisis or rejects climate change threatens the potential for humankind to act collectively to pull itself back from the brink," they wrote. "Your content moderation decisions can either galvanize an effort to save our plant or quash it."

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