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Approfondimento Stella
October 24, 2023
Climate Justice

Fossil fuel companies continue their climate disinformation strategy through influencers and gamers

Insight by Stella Levantesi

Those who play the online survival, battle and exploration game Fortnite now have a new virtual map at their disposal. The map was created by six Fortnite creators and is being promoted by popular 'gamers' on the Twitch, Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube platforms. The promotion is part of a new advertising campaign and is directly sponsored and financed by the oil and gas company Shell.

The 'Shell Ultimate Road Trips' campaign is one of the latest strategies implemented by fossil fuel companies to avoid responsibility for the climate crisis and hinder or slow down the transition, as Marco Grasso, author and professor of political geography at the University of Milan-Bicocca, explained to Voice Over. 

Today, we know that the history of these strategies is decades-long and begins in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, when scientists within companies like ExxonMobil had very accurately observed how the activity of burning fossil fuels would alter the global climate with devastating effects for human health and ecosystems. To avoid governmental regulation to their industry, they lied - first about the existence of the problem, then about their responsibility for it.

"Climate disinformation has been intentionally created by fossil industry denialism campaigns that have paralyzed climate action at the global level and cascaded to the national level for decades," Grasso said. From more 'traditional' denialism to direct attacks against climate science, the disinformation campaign waged by fossil fuel companies has become increasingly insidious over the years and, therefore, its strategies are less easily recognisable.

Big Oil influencers and the new greenwashing

In the online game map Fortnite, players can fill up at a Shell petrol station, win Shell gift cards for a 'dream trip' and are invited to take screenshots of the game and post them on social media using the hashtag #Shellroadtrips. The aim of campaigns like this is to 'court' young people and change the social perception of their fossil product, experts say.

"Shell's Fortnite campaign is one of those tools through which the oil industry tries to approach an audience of young or very young people who might tend to be hostile to fossil fuels," Grasso explains. "[The disinformation campaign] takes place on many levels and is increasingly widespread, including through forms of infiltration of this kind. Shell is somehow trying to approach the world of young people by infiltrating a video game because the oil industry is very afraid that the younger generation will become disenchanted with fossil fuels and start rejecting them completely".

The numbers that these campaigns achieve are significant. According to the US-based research and information center Media Matters, at least six 'streamers' on Twitch with a total following of more than 5.5 million people promoted the campaign and the Shell product during sponsored streams that gained more than 1 million views. Three of these also promoted the sponsored streams on Instagram and TikTok. The 'streamers' have almost 8 million followers on TikTok and 1.2 million followers on Instagram. In addition to Twitch, Media Matters identified at least three other content creators who promoted the campaign in several Shell-sponsored videos on their YouTube, Instagram and TikTok channels. These have a total of 1.5 million followers on Instagram, 8.5 million followers on TikTok and 11.6 million subscribers on YouTube.

This, however, is not the first time that an oil and gas company has used influencers for its promotional campaigns. In July, an investigation by the climate investigations outlet DeSmog concluded that some of the biggest oil and gas companies, including Shell and BP, use influencers in the UK to promote what are called 'false solutions' to the climate crisis and to spread a positive perception of their polluting product to young people and families. DeSmog analyzed the cases of over 100 influencers paid to promote fossil fuel companies worldwide since 2017, from the US to Malaysia, and concluded that these campaigns have reached billions of people. The campaigns, the survey notes, are part of a global effort to give "millennials a reason to connect emotionally" with oil and gas companies, as well as to positively transform social perceptions of the industry.

According to DeSmog’s investigation, one of Shell's leading public relations agencies, Edelman, is behind the promotional strategy. Its website states that the initiative organically reached 600 million people on social media and was so successful that it increased “positive attitudes towards [Shell]” by 12 per cent and made Shell's audience '31 per cent more likely to believe' that the oil company is 'committed to cleaner fuels'. Edelman's website also reports: 'We needed them to forget their prejudices about 'big oil’ and think differently about Shell'.

Grasso points out that this strategy is used across the industry, and that in a January 2020 BP briefing document - leaked to and published by journalist Amy Westervelt - a similar question is asked: " How do we win the trust of the younger generation who have the loudest voice, and that matter the most in the future?" In response, the BP document outlines the above strategy: “We will continue to reach Influencers. But there is an inter-generational gap opening in society and we need to reach younger people”. Fossil fuel companies today, Grasso explains, "adopt even more sophisticated techniques of greenwashing, fossil-solving, and far-flung 'net zero' promises, but concretely pursue industrial plans that are still largely focused on fossil fuels".

Polluting companies increasingly need to present themselves to the public and investors as 'green' in order to avoid responsibility for the climate crisis and to promote the social perception that they are not ‘bad’ actors. This is one of the reasons why greenwashing is on the rise. Greenwashing is expressed through misleading or deceptive communication. A study published in May 2023 found that a single exposure to two 30-second commercials on fossil fuels containing greenwashing is enough to positively influence individuals' opinion on the fossil fuel industry's activity in the transition to clean energy. The study also concluded that this greenwashing has worrying and persistent effects: subsequent presentation of accurate data on companies' actual investments in renewable energy sources, compared to what is stated in the commercials, did not reverse or correct the initial misleading impact of the commercials. Although increasingly common, greenwashing is not new. In the mid-1980s, the 'People Do' advertising campaign - considered a historical case of Big Oil greenwashing - showed Chevron employees protecting wildlife. This campaign diverted attention from the company's environmental impact and misled the public into showing Chevron as an environmentally conscious company.

Fossil fuel ‘enablers’ and lobbies

Advertising and public relations companies have been central in developing Big Oil's deceptive strategies. A study published in 2021 underlines the extent to which these actors are involved in the processes of shaping climate and environmental culture, the public debate on the issue and the creation of imagery and sales strategies. Authors Melissa Aronczyk and Maria I. Espinoza call them "strategies of silence" and, in their book 'Strategic Nature', they highlight how their role is to create and execute strategies for their Big Oil customers while remaining invisible. "The disinformation campaign is now fairly well known to have been orchestrated, financed and designed to a large extent by the oil industry and what the UN Secretary General calls its 'enablers', i.e. this whole constellation of actors supporting the oil industry", Grasso added.

Sociologists have called it the 'climate change denial machine'. Today, it could be renamed the 'climate obstruction machine', and it includes all those actors and efforts aimed at delaying or hindering climate action, from polluting companies greenwashing, to pressure and lobby groups directly influencing policy according to industry interests, and from political representatives receiving funding to obstruct climate legislation, to media platforms still hosting climate deniers or fossil fuel sponsorships.

Climate action is also heavily influenced at the political level, in particular by fossil fuel industry lobbying. In 2022 alone, the oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million lobbying the US government against climate legislation, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets. Another analysis published in 2022 by organizations Global Witness, Corporate Accountability and Corporate Europe Observatory concluded that more than 630 fossil industry lobbyists had access to last year's UN global climate conference, known as Cop27. Even at the European level, fossil lobbying has a significant impact. A report showed how, between 2010 and 2018, the five largest fossil fuel companies and their lobby groups, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, BP and Total, spent 251.3 million euros to obstruct environmental and climate protection legislation.

According to the non-profit organisation Influence Map, Italy's Eni maintains membership in several industry associations that, at the European level, oppose climate change policies, “promoting the long-term role of oil and gas in the energy mix”.

Doubt as a 'product', between media and politics

"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy" says a 1969 document from Brown & Williamson, a cigarette manufacturer. Selling 'doubt as a product' was one of the most effective strategies of tobacco companies, later taken up by the fossil industry. When interests, power and profits were threatened by government regulation, fossil fuel companies and their industry groups began to hire fake experts and exert political pressure to cast doubt on legitimate climate science.

In 2005, for example, the 'New York Times' obtained documents from the Government Accountability Project showing how Philip Cooney, chief of staff and former lobbyist for the powerful industry association American Petroleum Institute, had manipulated scientific reports from government agencies to sow doubt about climate science and minimize regulation on reducing carbon emissions. After being forced to resign, Cooney went to work for Exxon. 'Selling doubt' is a strategy that has been successful in the past and is still successful today, both politically and in the media. In Italy, some mainstream media platforms, including newspapers and television broadcasts, continue to host climate deniers, including political representatives, and promote, among others, the false message that climate science is uncertain about the existence of climate change produced by human activity, misleading the public and contributing to misinformation, propaganda and confusion on the issue.

"This instrumental approach of politics and the media to the climate issue has been, among other things, noted by the latest document published by Pope Francis that still reiterates the central and very dangerous role of denialism", Grasso said. "This impasse we are seeing is quite dramatic because we have already lost so much time".

The strategy of doubt penetrates on multiple levels. Climate action is not only hindered by communication strategies, funding and lobbying, but also by the fact that, while being a physical, observable and tangible problem, the issue of climate change, has been politicized in order to make it more doubtable. "Starting in the United States [climate] has been markedly made an ideological issue, and has been poisoned by politicization", Grasso says. "Our political leaders, globally, find it very difficult to question the model of development that has been pursued so far, and which, increasingly clearly, can no longer be used because it is incompatible with the health of humanity and ecosystems". "At the base," Grasso argues, "it is a question of difficulty in accepting radical change, in questioning the status quo".

Translated in English by Voice Over Foundation

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