The climate case for calling out fossil fuel companies online
“Every day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”
Mary Heglar, who co-authors the climate newsletter and podcast Hot Take, cites that viral tweet frequently when talking about oil and gas companies. Because right now, it’s her goal to make Big Oil the main character of Twitter every single day.
“Everything they put out is fucking bullshit,” Heglar said in a phone call this week, explaining her months-long effort to convince people to make fun of fossil fuel companies online.
Heglar wants people to relentlessly, publicly drag Big Oil companies whenever they tweet about how hard they’re working to solve the climate crisis. “They’re all greenwashing,” she said. “All of it. Every single bit.”
She wants people to do it primarily because it’s an effective strategy to deprive Big Oil of its social license—something executives have admitted is necessary for them to continue extracting and profiting from climate-destroying fossil fuels.
But she also wants people to drag oil companies on Twitter because it’s an easy way to attract newcomers to the climate movement—and have fun in the process.
“It’s like a gateway drug into more climate activism,” Heglar said. “Even if you feel like you can't do anything else to fight climate change, you can definitely talk shit to Shell.”
The birth and growth of “greentrolling”
Heglar is not the first person to bully a fossil fuel company online. But she is the first in recent memory to loudly and consistently call on others to join her as part of a coordinated activism strategy.
The first time Heglar remembers bullying a fossil fuel company online was last fall. BP had sent a tweet encouraging people to calculate their individual carbon footprints—a tried and true tactic of polluters to shift the blame for environmental problems on individuals.
Heglar, who works with the climate accountability journalist Amy Westervelt, is well-versed in fossil fuel industry strategies to deflect blame for the climate crisis—so she tried to report the tweet as causing her harm. “Just to annoy them,” she said.
But for some reason, the report wouldn’t go through. After a few failed attempts, she got fed up, and directly replied to the company’s request for her carbon footprint.
“Bitch,” she said, “what’s yours???”
She was shocked at the level of engagement it got. “I saw a lot of people pile on and do their own tweets, and I remember thinking like, ‘Wow, this is a way better use of climate Twitter than arguing with one another about how their preferred policy is bad.”
The “greentrolling” movement, as she has called it, has only grown since then—and recently, Heglar got her wish: the oil company Shell became the main character of Twitter for a day. As The Guardian reported:
A climate poll on Twitter posted by Shell has backfired spectacularly, with the oil company accused of gaslighting the public. The survey, posted on Tuesday morning, asked: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?”
Though it received a modest 199 votes, the tweet still went viral—but not for the reasons the company would have hoped. The U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one high-profile respondent, posting a tweet that was liked 350,000 times.I’m willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuels emissions would destroy our planet 😇📊 What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions? #EnergyDebateShell @Shell
Greta Thunberg accused the company of “endless greenwash”, while the climate scientist Prof Katharine Hayhoe pointed out Shell’s huge contribution to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is heating the planet. Shell then hid her reply, she said.I don’t know about you, but I sure am willing to call-out-the-fossil-fuel-companies-for-knowingly-destroying-future-living-conditions -for-countless-generations-for profit-and-then-trying-to-distract-people-and-prevent-real-systemic-change-through-endless greenwash-campaigns.📊 What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions? #EnergyDebateShell @Shell
There is evidence all this is getting to oil companies. In addition to hiding replies like Hayhoe’s, oil companies are blocking accounts who consistently call them out for climate hypocrisy (ExxonMobil blocked Heglar earlier this year).
Oil companies have also started actively responding to greentrolling tweets. Shell, for example, recently tried to defend itself against a user who noted the company spent about $53 million annually on anti-climate policy lobbying.
This is what makes so-called “greentrolling” so effective. Calling out corporate hypocrisy is one thing, but doing it in direct response to a companies’ real-time communications exposes the criticism to their broader audience, sometimes forcing them to respond.
“When they say this stuff on cable TV, and in articles, and in ads, it's a one-way media street. They can just get away with it,” Heglar said. “Social media, especially Twitter, is completely different. Now it's a two way conversation.”
A conversation Big Oil doesn’t want to have
The goal of bullying Big Oil companies over their climate tweets isn’t just to educate people about corporate hypocrisy. It’s to unite activists around the goal of taking away their social license to operate.
Oil majors have admitted to investors that their business would be in deep trouble without broad public support. They’ve also admitted the biggest threat to maintaining social license is public anger over climate change.
Oil companies could remedy this threat by winding down their fossil fuel operations, and investing heavily in renewable energy. But for the most part, they’ve chosen to combat public anger over climate change by investing in strategic communication.
This consistent choice of empty climate words over meaningful climate action is why several Shell executives quit the company this week—and it’s why Heglar says social media call-outs are increasingly powerful.
“We're not going to shut down their operations, but we can change the way that they're seen,” she said. “We can change the story they get to tell about themselves.”
A guide to greentrolling
Here are Mary’s trips for how to “meet [oil companies’] greenwashing with greentrolling,” which she published in Hot Take last month:
[Wait for oil company to tweet.] Do a quick google search to find them doing the exact opposite of what they say they’re doing. So, Shell tweets about a hydro farm in China? Remind them of their risky drilling in Alaska. Copy and paste the article with the caption “this you?” And you’re done.
[Wait for oil company to tweet.] Remind them of their human rights abuses. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with what they actually posted, because it has everything to do with who they are. You can google an article for any of them very quickly because they are the literal worst.
[Wait for oil company to tweet.] Respond with #Abolish[oilcompany].
[Wait for oil company to tweet.] Respond with emojis, gifs, a quick “fuck you.”
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Catch of the day
Fish wants you to bark at fossil fuel companies online so he can keep barking at other dogs.
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