September 30, 2022

Fake green: The fossil fuel industry is spinning a complex web of lies and misinformation on social media

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The largest airlines, car brands and fossil fuel companies have turned to social media to try to improve their reputation with disinformation, according to a new report from Harvard University. The report, commissioned by Greenpeace, involved going through text and images of over 2,300 posts by European companies this past June and July, and the main conclusion can be summed up in one word: greenwashing.

Fake Green: The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Spinning A Complex Web Of Lies And Misinformation On Social Media
Image credit: Flickr / John Englart.

“Social media is the new frontier of climate deception and delay,” Geoffrey Supran, Harvard researcher and study author, said in a statement. “Our results show that, as Europe was experiencing its hottest summer on record, some of the companies most responsible for global heating stayed silent on social media about the climate crisis.”

Greenpeace described the report, called Three shades of green(washing), as the most thorough analysis of recent greenwashing by fossil fuel companies on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook. They used established social science methods to track brands’ social media activities and analyze text and images.

“This report shows that many of these companies devote more online airtime to sports, good causes, and fashion than to their multibillion-dollar fossil-fuelled operations,” Greenpeace campaigner Amina Adebisi Odofin said in a statement. “This clear sports and woke-washing is boosting the sales of climate-wrecking products.”

Findings include that only one in five “green” car ads sold a product – the rest just presented the brand as green. Also, one in five oil, car, and airline company posts used social causes, fashion and sports (collectively known as misdirection) to distract attention from companies’ core business roles and responsibilities, Greenpeace said.

Two-thirds of card, oil, and airline companies’ social media posts focused on “green innovation” in their business operations, which the authors say represents different types of greenwashing. Car brands were the most proactive on social media, on average creating twice the output of airlines and quadrupling that of oil and gas firms.

Only a handful of posts made explicit reference to the climate crisis, despite Europe’s recent record-hot summer. Specific imagery was also used to strengthen the message of greenwashing. Many posts featured female, non-binary and non-Caucasian people, as well as young people, sportspeople, experts, celebrities, and nature, Greenpeace said.

Examples of greenwashing include an Instagram post by Lufthansa where a plane blends into the body of a shark swimming in the ocean – highlighting a coating modeled off shark skin applied to the plane’s body to improve airflow. Tweets by Air France promoted their use of biofuel, despite such fuels only account for a small fraction of overall fuel used.

Fossil fuels’ greenwashing

Last year, Greenpeace and 40 other organizations in Europe launched a European Citizens’ Initiative petition calling for a law that bans fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the European Union. Hundreds of scientists have also signed a letter calling advertising and PR agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies.

A few countries have already taken the first steps to get rid of certain forms of fossil fuel advertising. France approved last month legislation that bans ads for most energy products related to fossil fuels, with the exception of natural gas – though this might change soon. Companies that go against the legislation could face fines between $20,000 and $100,000.

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, addressed world leaders yesterday at the UN General Assembly, calling for stronger scrutiny on the fossil fuel industry’s “massive public relations machine ranking in billions” to shield the industry. He compared it to the tobacco industry’s lobbyists who blocked regulation of its products

Internal documents from fossil fuel companies, revealed by the New York Times last week, showed how industry executives downplayed their companies’ own public messages about efforts to reduce emissions. The documents come from a cache of hundreds of pages of emails and memos obtained as part of a Congress hearing.