Facebook continued to run an advertisement for a conservative media company disputing the link between climate change and Australia's bushfires for days after the false claims were debunked by the platform's own fact-checking partner.
One of Facebook’s largest advertisers, PragerU, spent between US$2,500–3,000 on promoting a post sharing a video, titled "Fires in Australia: the Left vs the Facts", that had been flagged for containing false information. The ad was initially spotted by Atlantic Council's digital forensic researcher Kanishk Karan.
The ad was seen by more than one million users in the United States when it ran between Jan. 7 and 12, according to Facebook’s Ad Library.
The incident shows that while the social media giant says it is working to remove misinformation about the fires, it is continuing to accept money in exchange for aiding the spread of false information.
The video — which begins with footage of actors Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Aniston talking about the bushfires at the Golden Globes — falsely claims arsonists are responsible for half of Australia’s bushfires, and "not climate change".
It also features debunked claims from an article published in The Australian newspaper that used misleading figures to overstate the role of arson in the bushfires.
The video, of which there are two slightly different versions, was also posted separately in non-sponsored posts on PragerU’s Facebook page a total of six times between Jan. 8 and 17, where it has been cumulatively viewed more than 6.5 million times.
All but one of these six video posts were flagged by Facebook’s independent fact-checking partner Climate Feedback as containing false information in a Jan. 8 review.
But despite this finding, Facebook continued to promote the advertisement for four days after the review. The advertisement then became inactive — which means the content wasn't being shown to users but could be reactivated at any time — but was not removed until Jan. 28 following inquiries from BuzzFeed News.
A Facebook company spokesperson didn't answer questions about why the ad was allowed to run after the video it promoted was flagged for false information, but confirmed that the ad would be rejected in the future if an attempt was made to reactivate it.
Judd Legum writes the Popular Information newsletter, which has shown how users have spread false claims through Facebook advertising. He said the social network’s system for screening ads with false information is working very poorly.
"Each [new] ad needs to be rechecked even if it contains an already debunked claim," Legum told BuzzFeed News. "And it’s also unlikely to be checked at all because there aren’t enough fact-checkers."
BuzzFeed News has also seen two additional examples of Facebook ads promoting content denying the link between Australia’s bushfires and climate change.
Advertisements from the Bob Zadek Show and CO2 Coalition Facebook pages — both of which have significantly smaller follower counts than PragerU — received fewer impressions for smaller spends.