Twitter’s New Ad Policy Ignores a Subtler Form of Climate Disinformation

The new policy won’t stop the most dangerous type of climate disinformation: fossil fuel industry greenwashing, argues Jamie Henn.
Opinion
Twitter’s New Ad Policy Ignores a Subtler Form of Climate Disinformation
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Credit: Solen Feyissa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s a simple rule when it comes to corporate climate commitments: when they come out on Earth Day, they’re often too good to be true.

That’s certainly the case with Twitter’s April 22 announcement that they’ll be banning ads that contradict the “scientific consensus” on climate change in a bid to counter the climate disinformation that runs rampant across the platform. 

At first blush, the Twitter policy seems like it could be a gamechanger. In its statement, the company writes: “We believe that climate denialism shouldn’t be monetized on Twitter, and that misrepresentative ads shouldn’t detract from important conversations about the climate crisis.” 

We couldn’t agree more. The problem is that Twitter’s new policy won’t actually stop the most dangerous type of climate disinformation: fossil fuel industry greenwashing. 

As the climate crisis became a matter of global concern over the last few decades, there was a concerted focus on “climate denial” as the greatest barrier to climate action. “Climate deniers” became the catch-all phrase to refer to those opposed to addressing the crisis and an unbelievable amount of time and resources were dedicated to simply conveying the reality that global warming was not only real, but a major threat to society as we know it. 

Thanks in large part to those efforts, and the ever worsening crisis, climate science denial has become a largely fringe issue, more a matter of political identity than a serious movement in its own right. Yes, there are still climate science deniers, and an embarrassing number of them are high-ranking Republican officials, but it’s nearly impossible to find a corporate leader, even at fossil fuel corporations, who will tell you that global warming is a hoax. 

From Denial to Greenwash

What’s taken denial’s place is a more insidious form of climate disinformation: greenwashing. 

Fossil fuel giants will now tell you that they are very concerned about the climate crisis (as we now know, their scientists actually have been concerned about the crisis for decades, even as management swept the truth under the rug). Go to the websites of Big Oil companies and you’ll find them plastered with sustainability reports, net zero commitments, and pictures of wind turbines and solar panels. 

The same is true for their advertising on Twitter. ExxonMobil’s Twitter feed and promoted ads are full of promises about net-zero and carbon capture and sequestration – they even hype a “circular economy for plastics.” BP, always the oil company most committed to greenwashing its brand, goes even further, featuring the hashtag #bpnetzero in their bio, and featuring so many posts about electric vehicle charging stations, you’d think they were Tesla. 

These ads can’t be written off as easily as a crank with 23 followers ranting about sun flares and the impending ice age. As our Clean Creatives campaign has documented, the fossil fuel industry is working with some of the world’s largest and most talented advertising agencies to craft their propaganda. The ads are slick, shiny, and effective. 

The same pattern extends across the other oil majors, as well as utilities, gas producers, and other energy intensive corporations. See the world through Twitter’s advertising and you’d be convinced that every corporation in the world was dedicating most of its resources to solving the climate crisis. As DeSmog found last year, fossil fuel giants are devoting a huge chunk of their digital messaging to emissions-cutting efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the think tank Oil Change International has shown in their Big Oil Reality Check report, none of the oil majors have a credible plan to reach net zero. Their much-hyped spending on renewables? The International Energy Agency estimated it to be less than 1% of their capital expenditures, as of 2020, and ambitions to ramp up their renewable energy divisions still pale in comparison to their fossil fuel investments. Their plans for carbon capture and sequestration? A fairytale (Chevron’s flagship CCS facility has been described as a “monster problem” and has utterly failed to deliver). 

Which makes all their advertisements on Twitter classic disinformation: content designed to deceive and mislead the public, politicians, and investors so that the industry can continue to avoid regulations and accountability. After all, if the world believes that fossil fuel companies are doing everything they can to solve the climate crisis, why would we pressure them to do anything more? 

Time for a Fossil Fuel Ad Ban

This propaganda doesn’t just “detract from important conversations about the climate crisis,” as Twitter puts, it completely derails them. With so many policymakers, media elites, and investors on Twitter, the fossil fuel industry is able to use the platform to lull the establishment into a deep, dreamy sleep, even as scientists and activists do everything they can to raise the climate alarm. 

The solution is clear. Just like Twitter bans firearm and tobacco industry ads, it’s time they ban fossil fuel ones, too. If Twitter isn’t going to allow Remington to advertise “kid safe” rifles or Philip Morris to promote “healthy” cigarettes, they shouldn’t allow ExxonMobil to tout “net zero” fossil fuels. The latter is just as much of a fantasy and arguably even more dangerous considering what’s at stake. 

We made it this far without mentioning the billionaire in the room, but any conversation about climate and Twitter can’t avoid its controversial potential new owner. Will the CEO of the largest electric car manufacturer in the world stop the fossil fuel industry from using his platform to undermine climate action? I doubt it. If the sale goes through, Musk’s misguided sense of free speech and libertarian tendencies will surely stop him from putting into place any meaningful regulations.

Our best hope, then, is to do everything we can to make this propaganda less effective. That means continuing the “green trolling” that mocks every fossil fuel ad and post, exposing the truth about fossil fuels in new and effective ways, and, as we’ve done with Clean Creatives, going after the advertising agencies who craft this propaganda so that the fossil fuel industry has fewer talented creatives to work with. 

Finally, we have to remember that Twitter is not, in fact, reality. Real change will be created in the streets, in statehouses, and on the ground in our own communities, not in the endless doom scroll of the Twitterverse. Social media can be a tool for organizing, but it isn’t a replacement for it. An hour spent going to a protest, pressuring your bank to divest from fossil fuels, or working on a community solar project is indubitably better than an hour spent tweeting. 

We know fossil fuel companies will continue to try and use social media platforms like Twitter to lull us and our elected officials back to sleep. It’s our job to stay wide awake and demand others do the same.

Jamie Henn is the founder of Fossil Free Media and helps lead the Clean Creatives campaign.

Twitter’s New Ad Policy Ignores a Subtler Form of Climate Disinformation

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