Statement for the Record U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Hearing on Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior? October 28, 2020
Facts vs. “Fact-checkers”: Facebook’s Censorship of
Climate Science and Energy Economics
Submitted by Dr. Caleb Stewart Rossiter
Executive Director, CO2 Coalition
Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cantwell, and Members of the Committee: Thank you for bringing attention to the important topic of censorship by technology and social media entities who, because of their reach into our daily lives, operate as both formal private corporations and informal public trusts.
I was a congressional staffer and a statistics professor, and now I direct the CO2 Coalition, an alliance of 60 distinguished climate scientists and energy economists. For the past year our non-profit educational group, like many others in this area, has been subjected to censorship by Facebook.
We’ve had posts labeled as false and hence blocked from sharing, and, after making a scientifically detailed case to Facebook, had them unlabeled and unblocked. We’ve been shadow-banned, meaning that both labeled and unlabeled posts have been limited in their distribution, and then un-shadow banned. We’ve been denied the ability to advertise our group and promote our posts, and then, after appeal, permitted to advertise and promote.
All of this back and forth adds up to a full-time job, but we simply must do it, because of the importance of Facebook as the world’s new bulletin board.
Let me make it clear that I sympathize with Facebook.
I am sure that
Facebook never expected that people would use its bulletin board to post
hateful comments and call for violence against ethnic groups and religions.
Facebook has the right as a private company to do something about those things.
I am sure that Facebook never expected posts telling people the wrong rules for voting or discouraging the use of long-proven AIDS treatments or vaccines. As a professor whose mission was to teach students how to analyze claims rather than rely on others’ analyses, I’d prefer that Facebook let readers use their own judgment and common sense rather than censor such claims. After all, freedom of speech is always preferable, and so for these claims that clearly fall within constitutional bounds, caveat emptor.
The buyer, the citizen, must always look skeptically upon all claims until they can be analyzed. This is true whether the claims are in a poster, a post, or a peer-reviewed journal, whether they are made by your neighbor, a politician, or a scholar. It is up to all of us to know and use techniques to separate the dross from the gold.
However, I also believe that Facebook has the right to address as it sees fit its concerns about harm being done in these areas.
And further, I think it’s fine for Facebook to permit climate alarmists and alternative energy enthusiasts to use posts and promotions to make a case that science and economics, in my opinion, show is incorrect. This case is the dual narrative that we all know so well: carbon dioxide emitted as a byproduct of fossil fuels is a net danger to society, and we can make a cost-free transition away from those affordable, reliable fuels that account for over 80 percent of global energy.
But Facebook made its first false step when alarmists began to demand censorship of those of us who point out the evidence for the contrary case. We publish studies showing the net positive impact on our economy and our health of both fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We publish studies describing the current technological and financial barriers to replacing fossil fuels with intermittent “renewable” wind turbines and solar panels and their storage batteries — none of which, by the way, are even remotely renewable, since they rely on fossil-fueled mining, transportation, refining, construction, and back-up power for down times.
Rather than let these dueling narrative duke it out and allow readers to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence provided, last year Facebook tried to appease the backers of the climate crisis narrative, and ended up being captured by them. You cannot sate the appetite of an anaconda by giving it just a taste of your foot. It always wants more.
Facebook’s key mistake was placing open debate about the past, present and future state of the complex arena called “climate change” into the category of hate speech, incitement to violence, and misinformation about voting and medicines. But the scientific and economic debate about climate change has good arguments on both sides, and it benefits rather than harms society. This debate is precisely the sort of thing the internet does a good job on, helping people find data, analysis, and conclusions that they may not have considered.
The Structure of Climate Censorship at Facebook
Here’s how climate censorship happened, once Facebook gave its foot to the anaconda by agreeing that the debate should be moderated like hate speech:
- Facebook had already turned its day-to-day censorship decisions over to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ International Fact-Checking Network.
- The Poynter Institute was founded by the Tampa Bay Times and operates the left-leaning PolitiFact.
- An alarmist, partisan group called Climate Feedback worked for years to get itself certified as an unbiased source on climate issues by Poynter, so it could join its “fact-checking” network.
- By 2019, Climate Feedback had succeeded, and issued its first censorship decisions.
How do we know that Climate Feedback is alarmist and partisan? Because it was founded and funded by long-time climate alarmist Eric Michelman for the express purpose of promoting the climate crisis narrative. Indeed, Climate Feedback is tech mogul Michelman’s third foray into shutting down a debate that he said, well before he created Climate Feedback, “is settled.”
The debate is settled? But this debate covers literally everything from A to Z, from atmospheric heat dynamics to zooplankton, with cloud formation, polar bear appetites, forest management, sunspot cycles, land subsidence and sea-level, hurricane and drought measurement, assumed parameters for mathematical modeling, Hadley air circulation cells, ocean heat transfer, CO2 retention rates in the atmosphere and seas, materials science, electricity generation and transmission, and much, much more in between. It’s sort of a study of everything, and everything in it is complex and constantly changing, so that our data and conclusions today might well be different tomorrow.
These topics literally cover the waterfront … and the atmosphere-front, the agronomy-front, the space-front, and many more fronts. And that’s just for the physics, not even for the even less certain and less predictable economics. Subsidies and pricing are crucial and ever-changing, and a slight alteration in reasonable future discount rates can change the CO2 emissions cost/benefit ratio in even the most alarmist damage models from negative to positive in a flash.
Facebook has turned its fact-checking in climate and energy over to a partisan group devoted to censorship, not scholarship. They don’t fact-check whoppers by the alarmist side, just studies cited by skeptics. We win our protests to Facebook because Climate Feedback’s reasoning is typically superficial and often just plain wrong, and contradicts the data even as compiled by the UN climate change body.
The former president of the American Association of State Climatologists, Patrick Michaels, and I wrote a detailed, scientifically-referenced response to Facebook that soon got the false label reversed on our 2019 critique of mathematical climate models for running three times too hot compared to the actual data. Our letter is almost identical in form and argument to responses in 2020 to similar Climate Feedback censorship, which were written by environmental writer Michael Shellenberger, Dr. Michaels again (after a televised appearance on Fox’s Life, Liberty, and Levin), and climate statistician Dr. Roger Pielke Jr.
All of us authors agree, and have told Facebook: Climate Feedback is biased, sloppy, and often just flat wrong. For example, in its “fact-checks,” the group blatantly contradicts the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s finding that there has been no statistically significant increase in rates of sea-level rise, hurricanes, droughts, and floods during the carbon emissions impact era that began with the dramatic industrialization after World War II.
Facebook has decided that there is some objective “truth” about analysis and opinion about the past, present, or future of the literally millions of issues that I have noted cover the complex fields of climate science and energy economics. Facebook recently created a Climate Science Information Center to dispense this truth to its users, apparently universally. Ironically, the site features links to the UN climate body, many of whose findings and data are denied by Climate Feedback in its politicized censorship decisions.
My question for the Committee and for Mr. Zuckerberg is: Why is Facebook treating varying analyses and opinions in this crucial area of public policy, one of great complexity and uncertainty, as if they were incitement to violence or hate speech? Why do we need fact-checking in the climate field?
Facebook has not provided an answer to date. However, two recent letters to Facebook by leading public figures make the case. These letters call on Facebook to do even more, and completely ban my organization and other skeptics. Why? Because we have convinced some in the public to reject the alarmist view of carbon dioxide as dangerous, and that has stymied policies like an end to fossil fuels that would protect public health:
- Four senators, including one member of this committee, asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to ban us because “climate change is an existential crisis” that is as dangerous to humanity as non-vaccination or the spread of COVID-19. Facebook works to restrict “misinformation” on these topics, and so should on climate change as well. “The climate crisis and environmental degradation are not matters of opinion,” write the senators, and publicizing any view contrary to that claim “puts action on climate change at risk.”
- Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, and representatives of 17 environmental lobbying groups also asked Facebook’s Oversight Board to ban us. They believe that “by allowing climate misinformation to go unchecked, Facebook is actively putting the health and well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color at risk.”
Mr. Chairman and Madame Ranking Member, I have testified before Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature recently, explaining in detail why these claims are incorrect. Fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions provide an overwhelmingly positive net benefit to public health, compared to a Green New Deal policy of banning them.
In fact, it is
well-intentioned but misguided action on climate change that are damaging human
health, from California, with its high energy prices and investment in
“renewable” energy rather than forest management, to Texas, with its failed,
rate-raising effort by the city of Georgetown to achieve net-zero emissions of
CO2. And real people die when “fracking” is banned. According to a
study for the National Institutes of Health, the reduction in heating costs due
to this important technology saves
11,000 Americans’ lives every year. When fuel prices
are high, people cut back on heating, leading to increased deaths from respiratory diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis.
Even more tragically, U.S. policy today blocks African nations from building the power plants they need to expand access to electricity from its current one-third. African lives matter, and universal electrification would take a big bite out of the 439,000 African the World Health Organization estimates die every year from indoor air pollution from cooking with wood and animal dung.
Without access to Facebook, our CO2 Coalition and other groups would be less effective at publicizing these facts, and the deadly Green New Deal might in fact be implemented. So, for the benefit of sound deliberation and public health, please ask Facebook why debate about climate and energy cannot be adjudicated in the court of public opinion, rather than by Climate Feedback.
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This statement was submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Hearing on Examining Section 230’s Usefulness: Has the Digital Age Surpassed It? October 28, 2020.
For more information on the hearing, go to https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/10/committee-to-hold-hearing-with-big-tech-ceos-on-section-230