August 5, 2021

Facebook says it cracked down on climate change lies. Then came false power outage claim during Texas winter storm

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.

“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.