Climate protest

Climate advocates dressed as Big Oil CEOs hold a protest in Dublin, Ireland on November 29, 2023.

(Photo: Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Analysis Exposes Big Oil Disinformation Efforts Ahead of COP28

"Digital platforms continue to provide vested fossil fuel actors with a cheap and easy way to disinform the public about climate change," said one campaigner.

An analysis published Wednesday shows that major fossil fuel corporations have pumped millions of dollars into digital advertising this year in the lead-up to the COP28 talks, part of a broader campaign that has inundated social media with disinformation in an attempt to undermine climate science and action.

The new report from the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition examines three groups that are largely responsible for the spread of climate disinformation online: the fossil fuel lobby, state-affiliated media networks, and online influencers who boost false information published by right-wing websites such as Breitbart.

The report estimates that just 13 oil and gas companies spent between $4.13 and $5.21 million on Facebook advertising between January and October 2023—a likely undercount, given that the platform's ad library doesn't provide details on ads not classified as related to social issues, politics, or elections.

Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and TotalEnergies accounted for 98% of the ad spending, CAAD found, with Shell spending more than the other companies.

The report argues that the fossil fuel industry's online ad campaigns reflect a "shift from climate denial to subtler forms of 'delayism' and 'inactivism.'"

"Whether via traditional and digital ad spend, proxy group campaigning, or even the use of paid-for 'influencers' on social media, industry is now marshaling its PR around two parallel (and contradictory) fronts in tandem," the report states.

The first front is "promoting the continued and 'absolute' necessity of oil and fossil gas to economies around the globe, especially in the wake of concurrent global crises" such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The second front, according to the new report, is "overselling the contribution of industry actors to achieving 'net zero.'"

The report points to a BP Facebook ad that claims the company is "increasing investment in the transition to lower carbon energy and keeping oil and gas flowing where it is needed," suggesting that the continued extraction of fossil fuels is necessary as the world shifts toward renewables.

"And, not or," reads the sponsored post, which received nearly 4 million impressions.

The CAAD analysis goes on to highlight an ad from TotalEnergies touting biogas as a "renewable energy," a characterization that experts and advocates have said is misleading.

"Digital platforms continue to provide vested fossil fuel actors with a cheap and easy way to disinform the public about climate change," Faye Holder, program manager at Influence Map, said in a statement Wednesday. "Over the past year, there has been a lot of positive momentum around tackling greenwash and disinformation, but this report shows us there is still a long way to go. And with platforms failing to implement even their own partial policies, the need for legislation protecting the public's right to accurate information is paramount."

The report also examines the proliferation of climate lies on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and X, formerly known as Twitter.

"Since December 2022, #ClimateScam has outperformed both #ClimateCrisis and #ClimateEmergency every month on X... regardless of whether you measure by retweets or likes," the report notes. "In July 2023, when use and retweets of all three hashtags surged, the most widely shared posts focused on these events. (Looking ahead to COP28, it is worth noting that November 2022 also saw a small uptick for #ClimateScam and #ClimateCrisis; a trend which may be repeated this year.)"

Published on the eve of COP28, the report provides further evidence that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to use its vast influence and resources to derail another critical chance to rein in oil and gas production that is pushing global temperatures to record highs and driving increasingly deadly weather events.

"The world is grappling with an environmental crisis compounded by an information crisis," said Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CAAD's intelligence lead. "2023 is set to be the hottest year on record, yet the urgent climate action we need is beset by denialism and viral campaigns that reject the scientific consensus."

"Such content not only undermines public support, but increasingly erodes trust in institutions and is producing violent outcomes," King added. "The professionalized efforts of the fossil fuel lobby are now intersecting with state-sponsored PR, online grifters, and commercial disinformers. We must recognize the threat of mis- and disinformation for what it is: a barrier to cohesion, to action, and to a livable future for all."

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