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 fact-checking 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.
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“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, but 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 fact-checking 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 science-based 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 at the time. “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.