Fossil fuel groups ‘spent millions’ on social media ads spreading climate disinformation during COP27

The cost of living crisis and a surge in fossil fuel prices “turbocharged an ecosystem of disinformation” around the summit, study finds.

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Fossil fuel-linked groups spent around $4 million on Facebook and Instagram ads that spread false climate claims over the COP27 summit, a new report says.

The physical presence of more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists overshadowed the November conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, as world leaders, NGOs and activists gathered in a bid to accelerate global efforts to confront the climate crisis. 

Analysis out today shows oil and gas interests were also busy online. Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD)—the coalition behind the second “Deny, Deceive, Delay” report—has documented how PR companies, front groups and oil majors were actively spreading disinformation in the weeks leading up to and during the summit.

Researchers with the coalition’s COP27 Intelligence Unit identified over 3,700 ads sharing false claims on Facebook and Instagram, platforms owned by Meta. They also found a rise in content related to outright climate-science denial by ‘anti-woke’ pundits on Twitter, who pushed #ClimateScam and lines such as ‘climate is a hoax’.

Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the non-profit Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) think tank, which led the Intelligence Unit, said the events of 2022 had “turbocharged a global ecosystem of disinformation”.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine and its impact on energy supply chains have renewed anti-climate attacks globally, as vested interests falsely attribute blame for these events to the “cult of Net Zero,” King explained. 

“Our report shows Big Oil continues to invest millions in digital advertising to launder their image as ‘climate champions’, while also promoting the necessity of fossil fuels.” 

The coalition’s findings come nearly two years after a report by the UN’s climate science body, which found for the first time that “vested interests” were delaying efforts to tackle climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that actors representing “vested economic and political interests” had eroded support for climate policy by generating “rhetoric and misinformation that undermines science and disregards risk and urgency”.

Climate denial ‘comeback’

Big Oil companies Shell, Chevron and Exxon all ran ads in the run-up to the summit, but the majority were posted by PR and fossil fuel front groups.

The 850 organizations surveyed spent between $3-4 million on nearly 3,800 adverts on Facebook and Instagram between September 1 and November 23, the report found. Adverts promoted fossil fuels as affordable and reliable, and justified their ongoing use with arguments around energy independence.

Energy Citizens—a PR and lobby group for the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry the American Petroleum Institute—ran more daily ads than all the other pages combined, the analysis found. The ad campaign advocated for U.S. production of fossil gas and oil, citing nationalist arguments around ‘energy security’.

The analysis found that a number of U.S. based pages ended their ad campaigns after mid-term elections on November 8. However, the research found disinformation ramped up with ad campaigns from three industry PR groups: America’s Plastic Makers, funded by the American Chemistry Council, which describes itself as ‘the leading association representing the $553-billion U.S. chemicals industry’, and fossil fuel front groups Affordable Energy for New Jersey and Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future.

In addition, the Saudi Green Initiative had at least 13 live adverts around the summit, just as Saudi Arabia’s delegation was accused of pursuing a ‘strategy to keep the world hooked on oil.’

The findings come as Sultan Ahmed Jaber was announced as the new President for COP28, making the Dubai summit next year the first to be led by a current oil executive.

Ben Dennes, a researcher at the University of Exeter who specializes in environmental communication online, said the $4 million figure was just the “tip of the iceberg”.

The Meta ad library used in the analysis was a “black box”, with only ads deemed by Meta to relate to ‘social issues, elections or politics’ fully accessible.

There is “unclear and subjective guidance on what this means”, Dennes told DeSmog, adding that researchers were also unable to analyze Google Ads in the study as the service does not permit searches for misinformation and greenwashing content.

It was therefore possible that “certain greenwashing and misinformation content has slipped through the net”, Dennes said. 

Culture warriors co-opt climate 

Alongside analysis of industry-linked advertising, researchers also documented climate disinformation on Twitter over a four week period from the end of October.

‘Anti-woke’ pundits and conspiracy theorists gained the most traction, the report found, and “often collaborate with a well-funded network of think tanks and pundits.” 

Climate denial tropes such as ‘climate actors are alarmist’ and ‘climate change is a hoax’ also featured. Some posts targeted the “loss and damage” fund, established in Sharm-el-Sheikh to provide financial assistance to vulnerable nations most impacted by the climate crisis. 

Researchers also found that the hashtag #ClimateScam spiked on Twitter with 362,000 mentions between July and December, raising concerns over a failure to prevent disinformation on the platform. The original content came from a non-verified account, but was then adopted by a number of verified account holders—including U.S. pundit Tom Fitton, a climate denier with two million followers.

The CAAD coalition is advocating for immediate steps to be taken by tech companies to stem the flow of climate delayism and “junk science”. It is also calling on governments and multilateral bodies to implement a “unified definition” of climate mis-and disinformation within UN key institutions.

“This research shows that climate disinformation isn’t going away and, in fact, it’s getting worse.

During COP, Twitter’s search engine pushed #ClimateScam as a top result without any justification for the data behind it,” said Erika Seiber, climate disinformation spokesperson at Friends of the Earth U.S.

“Until governments hold social media and ad companies accountable, and companies hold professional disinformers accountable, crucial conversations around the climate crisis are going to be put in jeopardy.”

Meta and Twitter were contacted for comment.

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