Oil and gas inundated Facebook with election season ads after Biden released climate plan

ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute were top spenders in a $9.6 million election-year fossil fuel marketing blitz targeting U.S. Facebook users.

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Facebook's Facebook page in 2012. Credit: Christopher, CC BY-SA 2.0

Ads promoting fossil fuels reached Facebook users in the U.S. at least 431 million times in 2020, a new analysis by watchdog organization InfluenceMap finds, with the bulk arriving after the release of then-candidate Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan and in the lead up to the presidential election. Ads specifically focused on marketing fossil fuels as clean, green, or part of a climate change “solution” were viewed more than 122 million times by Facebook users in the U.S., the report finds.

The 25 oil and gas companies and advocacy groups covered in the report paid Facebook a total of $9.6 million to share the ads with social media users.

About 200 million people in the U.S. use Facebook at least once a month — meaning that for less than $10 million, the oil and gas industry bought enough ad space to expose all of Facebook’s users in the U.S. to their messages at least twice on average.

“Despite Facebook’s public support for climate action, it continues to allow its platform to be used to spread fossil fuel propaganda,” Bill Weihl, Facebook’s former director of sustainability, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Not only is Facebook inadequately enforcing its existing advertising policies, it’s clear that these policies are not keeping pace with the critical need for urgent climate action.”

Facebook Feeds Flooded with Pre-Election Oil Ads

The vast majority of the oil and gas industry’s ads were paid for between July and November 2020, InfluenceMap found, adding that there appeared to be a sharp uptick immediately after Biden released his sweeping climate plan last July.

Credit: InfluenceMap

ExxonMobil alone paid Facebook over $5 million — more than half the total examined — to show the company’s ads over 139 million times in 2020. The second-highest spender studied was the American Petroleum Institute, which paid Facebook $2.97 million, and OneAlaska — a political group whose three top donors were BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil, ranked third, spending $330,00.  

“Despite its own commitment to mitigate climate change, Facebook continues to receive millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry every year to post ads promoting the use of fossil fuels,” InfluenceMap wrote. “It received $9,597,376 for the ads covered in this research.”

“However, the true figure is likely to be significantly higher,” the group added. “It is not possible to know what the exact figure is because, as this research shows, the social media platform is not consistently applying its own advertising policies for climate change ads.”

Credit: InfluenceMap

After coming under fire following the 2016 elections, Facebook announced changes to its approach on political advertising. “Transparency is a priority for us to help prevent interference in elections, so the Ad Library offers additional information about ads about social issues, elections or politics, including spend, reach and funding entities,” the site now explains. “These ads are visible whether they’re active or inactive and will be stored in the Ad Library for seven years.” 

Earlier this year, the social media giant announced that it would make 1.3 million political and social issue ads stored in its archives, including those that ran in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, available to academic researchers.

But Facebook’s process for deciding what ads are archived, allowing them to be tracked, relies in part on the advertiser properly identifying themselves — and it’s not very clear what sort of review Facebook applies to ads that aren’t properly flagged as political by the purchaser or what Facebook’s standards are when the site differentiates between political and non-political ads, InfluenceMap wrote.

And that apparent inconsistency impacts what ads are stored in Facebook’s Ad Library, where researchers can later access data on those ads, InfluenceMap wrote.

InfluenceMap identified instances where ads paid for by oil and gas companies weren’t flagged for storage in the Ad Library. For example, in May and June of 2021, “Shell paid for several ads featuring a video detailing the company’s support for net-zero emissions by 2050 and proclaimed the company would be taking action to reach that target,” the report says. “Ads with a brief text intro were labeled as social issue, electoral, or political ads, while those without the text but the same exact video were not.”

“We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against Pages, Groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false,” a Facebook person said in a statement provided to DeSmog. “We also connect 300,000 people a day to reliable information through our Climate Science Information Center.”

A Shell spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions from DeSmog about ad labeling.

‘More Nuanced Messaging’

The themes in the Facebook ads reflect the increasing sophistication of the oil and gas industry’s efforts to promote burning fossil fuels and delay the transition to renewable energy despite the escalating climate crisis, the report found.

“This research reveals the latest iteration of the oil and gas industry’s playbook on climate change,” Faye Holder, an InfluenceMap program manager, said. “Rather than outright climate change denial, the industry is deploying more nuanced messaging including the idea that it is part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

Credit: InfluenceMap

The $9.6 million Facebook advertising spend is just a tiny sliver of the oil and gas industry’s overall advertising budget, but the themes InfluenceMap identified are broadly consistent with those featured in the industry’s other advertising campaigns. “The five biggest fossil fuel corporations in America spent a combined $3.6 billion on advertisements from 1986 to 2015 — an average of about $124 million a year, according to research published last year in the journal Climatic Change,” the HEATED newsletter reported this week. “More often than not, these advertisements attempt to sell consumers on an idea, rather than a product — the main idea being that fossil fuel companies are helping save the world.”

The report focused on 25,147 Facebook ads that promoted oil and gas generally and “the climate-friendliness of the sector,” InfluenceMap wrote. Other advertising themes included messages about jobs, the “pragmatic” benefits of fossil fuels, and marketing oil and gas production as “patriotic,” the group wrote.

The industry’s election-year Facebook ads focused heavily on Texans. The oil and gas industry’s financial performance was dismal in 2020 and Texas’s oilfields were particularly hard hit. Nearly 60,000 workers in the state’s oil and gas exploration and production sector lost their jobs in 2020, the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, a trade group, reported in February, adding that wages in the sector fell sharply for those who remained employed.

Credit: InfluenceMap

But, on a per-person basis, Alaskans were even more likely than Texans to see a large number of oil ads on their Facebook feeds. “The average Alaskan had around 47 ad impressions on Facebook during the year,” InfluenceMap wrote, “while the next highest amount was in North Dakota, which had 14 impressions per person.” The report chalks the focus on Alaskans up to a battle over Alaska’s Ballot Measure 1, which would have raised taxes on oil and gas companies but that failed to pass.

In addition to specific policy goals, the report focused on the ways that trade associations and individual companies paid for different messaging.

“Companies, and ExxonMobil in particular, are focusing on ‘Pragmatic Energy Mix’ narratives [which focus on the short-term merits of continuing to use fossil fuels], the American Petroleum Institute is posting thousands of ads on the climate-friendliness of the industry and the role of fossil gas as a climate solution, while advocacy groups are successfully using ‘Community & Economy’ arguments to lobbying against specific regulatory measures.

“Some of the most significant tactics found included tying the use of oil and gas to maintaining a high quality of life, promoting fossil gas as green, and publicizing the voluntary actions taken by the industry on climate change,” the report concludes.

That’s all on top of ads that actively promoted outright climate denial in 2020, which a previous InfluenceMap report found Facebook users saw at least 8 million times during the first half of 2020.

“The research also shows the industry is using social media strategically,” InfluenceMap concluded, “and deploying its ads at key political moments.”

InfluenceMap’s findings drew a scathing response from Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, CNN reports.

“For decades, fossil fuel companies have misled the public, to regulators, and to Congress about the true danger posed by their products,” Khanna said in a statement to CNN Business, noting that his committee intends to ask fossil fuel CEOs to testify before the Congressional subcommittee soon. “This report proves our knowledge that the industry’s disinformation campaign is alive and well.”

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