Facebook posts fake news about polar bears in «fact check» about climate

The dominating sosial media company Facebook has decided to extend the practise of limiting the spread of certain speech on the platform.

The new practise will follow the methods used during the 2020 US presidential election, and COVID-19. According to Bloomberg, Facebook will start labelling some posts that are climate-related. The labelling practise is rolling out, staring with the U.K.

Facebook will label posts that are deemed to contain «misinformation», and the post will link to Facebook’s Climate Science Information Center.

But, what is the information center and can we trust the information that is given?

Facsimile of Facebook’s «Climate Science Information Center», 1 March 2021

Evaluation of the claims about polar bears

As shown above, Facebook puts forward conclusive claim about the polar bear population trend.

By clicking the conclusive claim, we are shown a new page that apparently substasiates the claim. Facebook gives the claim further weight by giving source reference to a credible institution.

Facebook refers to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The institution publishes red lists of threatened species.

Facsimile of the detailing page that gives weight and source reference to the claim.

Facebook claims that polar bear populations are declining due to global warming. It further claims that it is a myth that polar bears are doing well, as they conclude that twice as many subpopulations are declining than are stable.

Is this the case, and what does the source (IUCN) actually say?

The referred to source does not support Facebook’s claims

Facsimile  of the refered to souce (IUCN). Facebook refers to this page to substatiate the claims about polar bears

The refered to source concludes that the polar bear population trend is uncertain. The web page is a summary of a research paper published by IUCN.

The web page further summarises a multiple of identified threats to polar bears, among others, urbanisation, human developement, industrialisation, oil and gas extraction, sea trade, hunting, tourism, pollution and changes in climate.

The research paper further details the trends of geographical subpopulations. It stresses the substatial unceratinty in estimating the population trends and writes the following:

The mixed quality and even lack of available information on each subpopulation means caution is warranted when establishing and reporting a single estimate of the number of polar bears across the circumpolar Arctic.

Fake claim that «twice as many populations» are declining

With respect to the population trend, Facebook puts forward a conclusive claim that is supposed to counter a common «myth» about the trends:

While some polar bear populations are currently stable, twice as many populations across the world are declining.

What does the referred to research actually say?

The research paper refers to the Polar Bear Specialist Group, PBSG. Text is shortened:

The PBSG summarized the best-available scientific information on the status of the 19 subpopulations of Polar Bears in 2014 (PBSG 2015) including an assessment of current trend (i.e., estimated change in population size over a 12-year period). The PBSG concluded that one subpopulation has increased, six were stable, three were considered to have declined and, for the remaining nine there were insufficient data to provide an assessment of current trend.

The source given to support Facebook’s claim actually proves the opposite. More than twice as many subpopulations where stable or increasing, than were declining in 2015. Nine out of nineteen subpopulations had insufficient data to be assessed.

What does updated estimates say?

WWF has published updated polar bear population trends from IUCN as of September 2019.

Researchers now estimate that the number of subpopulations that are decreasing has increased from one to four. Two populations are estimated to be increasing, and five populations are considered to be stable. Eight populations still have insuffient data to be estimated.

Thus, seven subpopulations are stable or increasing, while four are estimated to be decreasing. Therefore, Facebook’s claim is still unsubstatiated and proved false by updated estimates.

Further, WWF brings forward important remarks from the local communities that raises doubts about the population trend estimates that are deemed to be decreasing in Hudson Bay area:

However, local communities living among the polar bears note the opposite and report increasing numbers across Hudson Bay. This highlights the need for more monitoring and joint efforts to better understand what’s happening with these bears.

What has actually happened with the polar bears?

According to an article by the New York Times, it was estimated to be approximately 5.000 polar bears around 1966. The population was vulnerable due to extensive trophy hunting.

Because of the imminent threat of extinction, Canada, USA, Denmark, Norway and the Soviet Union agreed in 1973 to enact strict regulation of commercial polar bear hunting.

The research paper that the Facebook source refers to estimates that around 26.000 polar bears existed around 2015 (with a considerable margin of error – 22.000-31.000).

With respect to the best knowledge available about the development of polar bear populations, Verstat can publish a simble statistic that illustrates the development:

Summary

Facebook has evidence to claim that changes in climate can hurt polar bears, but fails to mention that this threat is one of many.

Facebook fails to mention that large scale trophy hunting was a main cause of the great reduction of polar bear populations during the 20th century. Strict regulation of commercial hunting has led to substatial increases in the global population since the 1970s.

Facebook does not have substatiated evidence to claim that twice as many polar bear subpopulations are decreasing, than are stable. Facebook’s one source proves that the opposite is true.

Updated estimates from IUCH in 2019 does not substatiate Facebook’s claims, and reaffirms that the opposite is true – that more subpopulations are stable or increasing, than are decreasing. WWF highlights the great uncertainty in estimating polar bear populations, and refers to local communities, living side by side with polar bears, that are claiming that populations that are estimated to be decreasing (Hudson Bay) are in fact increasing.

Polar bear populations have increased from approximately 5.000 around mid-1960s, to approximately 26.000 around mid-2010s.

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