By Danielle Renwick
Last month, Facebook removed certain interests from its Detailed Targeting advertising tool “that relate to topics people may perceive as sensitive.” Advertisers can no longer target people based on interests in causes or organizations related to “health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion or sexual orientation.”
The change was a response to concerns about online abuse—the tools have been used to market military gear to far-right extremist groups and exclude certain minority groups from real estate ads.
But climate groups say the new policy limits their ability to connect with audiences, and gives fossil fuel companies an unfair advantage.
“They’ve pretty much stripped out any kind of climate targeting,” says Nathanael Baker, digital director at Spake Media House, an ad agency that represents climate groups. “We used to be able to find people who are interested in environmental protection and environmentalism—those [options] have evaporated.”
One way advertisers typically find receptive audiences is by identifying those who engage with similar organizations or products. For a climate advertiser like Baker, that meant looking for Facebook users who engaged with large environmental NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, or the Nature Conservancy, and targeting them. It also meant identifying users who were not likely to be receptive—like someone who lists “Rush Limbaugh” as an interest—and excluding them. Under the new rules, that’s no longer possible.
“We can’t connect with people who are into the big [environmental] brands, so it’s creating a place where the climate movement—because it doesn’t have corporate brands—is getting hindered,” he says. It’s not only increasingly difficult for climate groups to reach their intended audiences, it’s also become more difficult to avoid potential trolls. “Your message is also now blending in a much bigger pool that can own it and change it and make it a hornet’s nest,” he says.
The new rules also make it difficult for climate groups to tailor their messages. People who care about climate change are not a monolith, says Jon Ozaksut, a climate communications researcher at Yale University. “That means that there’s more than one message that needs to be told,” he says. “And [climate groups are] losing the ability to talk or to listen to these audiences individually through Facebook.”
What’s particularly frustrating for climate groups is that the new rules do not appear to apply to fossil fuel companies, whose advertising budgets far outstrip those of climate groups—and whose efforts to mislead the public about their purported transitions to clean energy are well documented.
“You can still target Shell and Chevron, but I can’t target Sierra Club and NRDC [the Natural Resources Defense Council],” says Cristian Sanchez, deputy data director for the Digital Climate Coalition, a network of climate groups. (Disclosure: Nexus Media is affiliated with Climate Nexus, which is part of the Digital Climate Coalition.) He says some terms, such as “solar energy,” are still available, but others that Facebook has deemed political, like “climate change,” are not.
“The implication is that climate change is a political issue rather than a scientific issue,” Sanchez says.
“These restrictions make it much harder for climate NGOs to get out counter messages to the fossil fuel industry,” says Jake Carbone, a researcher with Influence Map, a UK-based think tank. He says fossil fuel companies, with their larger budgets, already have an advantage. “But these sorts of rules that are not being applied in the same way to two sides, increase that inequality.”
A lot of fossil fuel advertising is political, says Faye Holder, also of Influence Map. “What we see here is the use of advertising as a very overtly political purpose, and that is to stop regulation,” she says. “These companies have a real vested interest in preventing climate policy.” Treating fossil fuel ads as nonpolitical “statements of fact” distorts the conversation, she adds.
Facebook’s move comes as fossil fuel companies and the public relations firms they employ come under increased scrutiny for greenwashing. A report out earlier this month found that despite a marked increase in terms such as “climate,”, “low-carbon” and “transition” in public communications, the world’s largest oil companies’ business models—ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP—continue to depend on fossil fuels “along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy.”
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, concluded that accusations of greenwashing are “well-founded.”
Facebook, too, has come under fire for allowing climate change misinformation to flourish over the years. The advocacy group Stop Funding Heat released a report last November finding that climate misinformation was viewed up to 1.4 million times each day, up 77% from the previous year. (As Grist noted, climate misinformation received about 10 times the amount of traffic as Facebook’s climate science hub.)
A recent review of 200 Facebook posts from leading climate denial publishers found that more than half were not labeled as misinformation, despite the company’s pledges to crack down on misleading content.
Facebook’s new rules don’t just affect climate groups, Baker says. Many of the interest groups that relate to labor unions, like the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, also no longer appear as options. Conservative interests, including the Heritage Foundation and Ivanka Trump, no longer appear, either.
In response to a request for comment, representatives from Meta pointed to company initiatives related to climate action, tackling misinformation, and tips on how organizations can “continue to reach … audiences after the removal of these categories.”
Holder, from Influence Map, says social media communities could use their platforms to level the playing field between climate groups and fossil fuel companies.
“Facebook has written specifically about arming the global community with climate science so they can take proper climate action, and yet this doesn’t really stack up with their own policy,” she says.
Holder says some European governments, led by the Netherlands, are looking into banning fossil fuel advertising altogether. “[That’s] the other avenue, that I’m sure social media companies would like to avoid—regulation from government,” she says.