Watch for Big Oil Gaslighting on Twitter during COP26


Jill Hopke, DePaul University

When oil and gas companies took to Twitter during the first half of the UN climate conference in Glasgow, they often presented themselves as part of the solution to climate change and talked about energy security.

In many ways, their social media messages provide a window into how these companies want the public to see the future.

For example, while politicians talk about a “low-carbon economy” – indicating that while there will be carbon in our lives, it will be as low as possible – tweets from some oil and gas accounts use the phrase instead “low carbon. “A” lower carbon “economy is a much more nebulous goal that it can involve continued significant levels of fossil fuel use well in the future.

Social media is just the public face of these companies, many of whom have lobbyists at the climate conference. Behind the scenes, the industry continues to invest in mining fossil fuels that are driving climate change and its CEOs have made it clear that fossil fuel production will continue for decades to come.

The wrong direction of the fossil fuel industry

In 2015, when a colleague and I first searched for which key the fossil fuel trade groups said on Twitter on climate solutions during the COP21 summit in Paris, we found that they were largely promoting a narrative that the Obama administration’s climate policies lacked domestic support, despite public opinion research indicating otherwise.

This time, using consumer analytics software Brandwatch, I have been studying recent tweets in English from leading producers of oil, gas and coal globally during COP26, as well as by the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce. Executives of four oil companies, API and the United States Chamber of Commerce had been grilled by members of the House Committee on Supervision and Reform on October 28, 2021, about their roles in spreading disinformation about climate change.

The most common themes in Twitter posts from fossil fuel companies and trade groups on October 11th. From 31 to 8 November 2021, they focused on the energy they provide.
Jill Hopke, CC BY-ND
Keywords chart
With respect to the fossil fuel industry, companies and business leaders who have signed net-zero campaigns, such as the Climate Pledge and Race to Zero, spoke in the COP26 tweets on October 26. from 31 to 8 November largely on commitments to act on climate change.
Jill Hopke, CC BY-ND

Business accounts today come as part of the solution – for example, speak about renewable energy and electric vehicles charging infrastructure. Low-carbon projects are only a small part of the oil companies wallets, though. And the companies themselves have fueled the problem while knowing the risks.

This subtle form of disinformation, which scholars called The “fossil fuel solutionism” involves the collection of data and points of discussion.

For instance, a tweet about BP to say that reducing methane emissions is the key to “slowing the rate of warming” omits an important point. Although addressing methane leaks from fossil fuel infrastructure is an important, fundamental step step away from fossil fuels is considered crucial.

The International Energy Agency predicts that investments in upstream oil and gas will be increase by around 10% this year, albeit not at pre-pandemic levels, while investments in clean energy remain “far below what will be needed to avoid severe impacts of climate change”.

The American Petroleum Institute, in particular, posted on topics of affordable, reliable, American-made energy and concern for gas prices while thus stating that limiting oil and gas drilling on federal land “would be counterproductive to our common goal of reducing emissions.” API topic is that the restrictions would increase the use of coal and foreign imports.

Several jobs a subtle change in language to talk about technological innovation and energy transition in terms of “low carbon”, rather than the more commonly heard talk of “low carbon”. This change appears to be recent. In the past, the theme appeared in discussions of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”.

The black box of digital advertising

These accounts are only part of the industry’s social media ecosystem. The paid advertising footprint of oil and gas is much larger. It is also more difficult to track, especially on Twitter.

According to research by the non-profit think tank InfluenceMap, the industry distributes Facebook ads in key political moments. For example, during October 16-22, 2021, ahead of the Congressional hearing with oil CEOs and the recent elections, ExxonMobil spent $ 565,099 on Facebook Ads targeting US users.

Climate journalists Emily Atkin and Molly Taft discovered the low carbon theme in the advertising of fossil fuels in recent political newsletters.

For example, in relation to the United Nations climate conference, ExxonMobil is sponsorship the political news site, The Hill energy and environment newsletter, with the American Petroleum Institute. Some researchers refer to that as “Corporate Propaganda of Fossil Fuels”. This amounts to a strategy to strengthen corporate legitimacy while minimizing the need for government regulation.

Part of a larger problem

The structure of online social networks is characterized by polarization and echo chambers that allow the dissemination of misleading content on climate change.

An example is a tweet that received a lot of impressions at the beginning of COP26. It what a post by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro containing a logical error in an effort to discredit the UN’s climate work. Shapiro finished third in average reach during the first week of the summit in a sample of climate change tweets, behind only President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama.

Social media companies were scrutinized for facilitating the widespread dissemination of disinformation on a variety of topics, including climate change.

In one analysis of Facebook pages, environmental group Stop Funding Heat found nearly 39,000 disinformation posts in eight months on 195 pages known for blatant climate disinformation. It also found a 76.7% increase in people interacting with those pages over the previous year, suggesting that Facebook’s algorithm was sharing content extensively.

Taking a hint by climate disinformation researchers, Twitter launched what it calls “pre-berths“- send accurate messages in search, exploration and trend lists. But he wasn’t going to stop people and bot publish disinformation about the climate or label it as such. In the first 10 months of 2021, Twitter says climate change has been mentioned 40 million times on its channels.

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Jill Hopke, Associate professor, DePaul University

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