How A Nonprofit Spread Climate Misinformation to 100 Million People
They used millions of dollars from fossil fuel billionaires to make climate misinformation videos. Google and Facebook helped them reach 100 million people.
Fossil fuels improve air quality. Solar and wind energy are bad for the environment. Only 2% of climate scientists believe that humans and fossil fuels cause climate change.
This is the misinformation that PragerU, a conservative digital media nonprofit, spread to more than 100 million people over the last 7 years on Facebook and YouTube, according to an analysis by Distilled.
PragerU used Facebook and YouTube ads to get videos with false claims about climate change and clean energy in front of millions of people. Between 2018 and 2022, PragerU spent about $20 million on Facebook ads. The nonprofit spent $4.5 million on Google and YouTube ads in 2021 alone. Many of the videos they promoted contain misinformation that isn’t marked by either platform.
In October 2021, Google said it would prohibit ads for content that contradicts the scientific consensus on climate change. But in December 2022, PragerU was still running at least 6 ads containing climate misinformation. One ad reads “What is Climate Change? What Causes Global Warming?” The ad directs people to a video that claims “There are many reasons why the climate changes…and there is no evidence that CO2 emissions are the dominant factor.”
In addition to Facebook and Google, a pair of fossil fuel billionaires were key allies in the expansive disinformation campaign. In 2013, PragerU received $6.25 million in seed funding from Dan and Farris Wilks, who made billions when they sold their natural gas fracking company.
When the right-wing nonprofit launched its video series on climate change and energy, two members of the Wilks family were on the board of PragerU, according to an analysis of the nonprofit’s IRS filings in 2015.
PragerU has also reached millions of people with false and misleading information about clean energy. As of December the company was still running a Google display ad for its video titled “The Great Texas Freeze.” The video falsely claims that renewable energy was the only cause of the 2021 blackouts that killed hundreds. It’s received more than two million views across YouTube and Facebook.
Origins of a “mind changing business”
Dennis Prager and Allen Estrin started PragerU in 2009. From the beginning, the two men had an ambitious goal: Change the minds of millions of Americans. Prager, who had been a conservative radio host for the previous 25 years, has said of his nonprofit, “We are in the mind changing business.”
To change viewers minds, the nonprofit produces short videos on topics like climate change, politics, history, race, and gender.
PragerU specifically targets young audiences with their videos. In their 2021 annual report, they write:
“Young people are online 10 hours a day, every day. They have an insatiable appetite for content that engages their sensibilities in different ways. PragerU must now counter the left wherever it is dominating—from universities and K-12 to Cartoon Network, YouTube, and PBS Kids.”
In 2012, three years after starting the nonprofit, Estrin—a former screenwriter—stumbled upon a key insight. “It hit me. We were violating a basic Hollywood rule…You need to spend as much on marketing as you do on production,” he told the Daily Wire.
In Facebook and YouTube’s advertising platforms, they found a way to do that with unprecedented precision. Over the next decade, PragerU would spend tens of millions of dollars to reach young people on each platform.
In 2021 alone, PragerU spent $6.9m on Facebook advertising and $4.5m on Google and YouTube advertising, according to their IRS filings. Between 2018 and 2022, they spent nearly $20 million promoting videos on Facebook.
Fracking billionaires gave PragerU $6.25 million in seed funding
In 2012, PragerU was still a small nonprofit. That year, they brought in $523,785 according to IRS filings. Estrin knew promoting their videos could change the minds of millions of people, but he didn’t have the money to do it.
The next year, in 2013, PragerU received a $6.25 million grant commitment from Dan and Farris Wilks. The two brothers from Texas had recently sold their natural gas fracking company for $3.5 billion.
Farris Wilks has claimed that climate change is God’s will. “If (God) wants the polar caps to remain in place, then he will leave them there,” he said in 2013.
In 2015, PragerU launched a series of videos on climate change and energy. One video titled “Do 97% of Climate Scientists Really Agree?” features Alex Epstein, a consultant to fossil fuel companies, who falsely claims that only 2% of climate scientists believe humans cause climate change. The video has 6.1 million views on YouTube and Facebook.
In another video, “Fossil Fuels: Greener than You Think”, Epstein falsely claims that fossil fuels improve air and water quality.
According to PragerU’s Form 990s, two members of the Wilks family were on the board in 2015 and 2016 when they started publishing videos on energy and climate change.
Since then the nonprofit has produced 23 five-minute videos on climate change and the environment. Many of them, like “Are Electric Cars Really Green” and “Can We Rely on Wind and Solar Energy?” make false or misleading claims about clean energy. Others, like “The Truth About CO2” and “What They Haven't Told You about Climate Change,” make claims that contradict the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change.
According to an analysis by Distilled, the 23 videos have 108 million views on YouTube and Facebook.
PragerU used Facebook and Google ads to reach millions
For years PragerU has used Facebook and Google to promote its videos to young viewers. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, the nonprofit spent $19,952,885 on the platform between May 2018 and December 2022. Google doesn’t release data on its advertisers, but according to PragerU’s IRS filings, they spent $4.5 million on Google and YouTube ads in 2021.
In December 2021, PragerU spent $7,000 promoting its video titled “Do 97% of scientists really agree?” on Facebook. With that spending, the video reached more than 600,000 people. That same month, PragerU spent $5,000 promoting a video titled “The Truth about CO2.” The ad reached more than one million people.
In February 2022, Facebook announced it would no longer let advertisers promote videos related to “sensitive topics” like climate change. Since then, PragerU has pivoted to promoting videos that claim renewable energy is unreliable and bad for the environment.
In December 2022, PragerU spent $4,000 promoting one of their videos featuring Mark Mills, a fellow at Manhattan Institute. Fossil fuel companies have given Manhattan Institute millions of dollars in donations to spread climate misinformation. In the video, Mills claims that in order to power modern society in the future we’ll need fossil fuels. “If you think we can get it all from wind and solar, dream on,” he says.
In October 2021, Google announced that it would “prohibit ads for content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”
But according to an analysis by Distilled, PragerU’s climate misinformation videos are still being promoted on the platform.
One ad currently running on the platform reads, “What Causes Global Warming?” The ad takes users to a video titled “Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?” The video claims “There are many reasons why the climate changes…and there is no evidence that CO2 emissions are the dominant factor.”
Two other ads read “Climate Change - What Do Scientists Say?” and “Is the Climate Crisis Real - The Truth Unveiled.” Both ads take users to the same video claiming there is no evidence that CO2 causes climate change.
As of December 2022, six Google ads were still promoting the video. It has been viewed 13.9 million times.
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Dennis Prager has been working to indoctrinate people for much longer than most analysts recognize. In the late 1970s he was the director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish organization in Los Angeles. Founded by Shlomo Bardin with a strong focus on jewish identity and the State of Israel, the Institute ran a camp for young Jews interested in Judaism. I was encouraged to attend this camp as a young college graduate and decided to sign up. I had no knowledge of Dennis Prager, who had recently taken over the directorship from the founder.
This was one of the greatest mistakes of my life. Prager is a true fundamentalist who used his position to indoctrinate young people regarding "facts" like: (1) jewish monotheism is the only true faith, (2) that you should kill Nazis if possible (before they kill you), and (3) that it is only white/western traditions that have advanced humanity. He used daily lectures to beat these ideas into his captive audience, brokering no debate and disrespecting all dissenting opinions. The camp's culture was highly controlling and structured, which contributed to breaking down attendees to allow them to be "re-educated."
I escaped this episode mostly unscathed, although painfully wiser, and went on to become an environmental scientist and climate change educator (www.andrewgunther.com). In 2011, I was astonished (although in retrospect I should not have been) to find Prager as a point man in the climate-science denial movement, and an article he wrote was brought to my attention by my family. I did my best to refute his ignorant proclamations in a letter to the LA Jewish Journal (https://jewishjournal.com/letters_to_the_editor/98270/).
For years I've been trying to get in front of conservative audiences to provide a nonpartisan presentation about climate science, but its very difficult unless you are Katharine Hayhoe (a fact I have discussed with her). I was once interviewed by a gentleman who vetted speakers for his conservative group, and he asked me to review a video he had just watched about problems with climate science. As you might have guessed, it was a PragerU video (this one starring William Happer) that was full of slickly-presented misinformation.
Thanks for your work on this topic. II was glad to hear on the Volts Podcast that you are going to be making a video about Prager University. While it may be difficult to influence their operations given the massive private funding and long experience with distributing BS, we must not acquiesce in the face of their deceptive nonsense. Your story about your brother is proof that it is worth the effort.