Exxon climate ads aren’t "political," according to Twitter
But a Harvard researcher says Exxon's ads "epitomize the art" of political advertising.
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.
If you’ve been forwarded this email, you can sign up for your own subscription here:
HEATED is a community, and I love hearing from readers. If you have thoughts, questions, story ideas or tips, you can reach me at email@example.com.
Twitter bans political ads — but not these
Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the company would ban all political ads on its platform, starting on November 22.
Banned ads include tweets about specific candidates, and tweets by corporations and other groups about political issues. The latter are known as “issue ads.”
The announcement was widely celebrated by Democratic political figures. They saw it as a way of preventing politicians and corporations from being able to pay to spread lies and propaganda on social media—something Facebook allows from politicians, and has been criticized for.
But in recent days, it’s become clear that there are some problems with Twitter’s new policy. For example: It’s easy to determine which ads are about specific candidates. But what is Twitter’s definition of a political “issue ad,” exactly? How does Twitter plan to enforce what is one, and isn’t one?
These questions have serious implications for the climate fight. For example, a HEATED investigation identified more than a dozen tweets from ExxonMobil related to climate change that are not currently labelled by Twitter as political “issue” ads. Under the new policy, these ads will be permitted to run after November 22, while environmental groups’ climate-related ads will be banned.
Asked to explain why Exxon’s climate-related ads are not political, Twitter declined to comment. A Harvard researcher who studies Exxon for a living, however, did not hold back.
“Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertising for decades,” said Geoffery Supran, who co-authored a peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil's 40-year history of climate change communications. “I’ve studied this historical record in detail, and it couldn’t be clearer to me that Twitter ads like these are its twenty-first century extension.
“These Twitter ads aren’t just any political issue ads—they epitomize the art.”
ExxonMobil: A case study
ExxonMobil has been trying to paint itself as a climate-friendly corporation via Twitter ads for more than a year.
Some of these ads, like the ones below, advertise Exxon’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions through investments in carbon capture technology and biofuels.
Other Exxon Twitter ads are about the multiple ongoing lawsuits against the company. Those lawsuits claim Exxon knowingly misled investors and consumers about the climate risks of fossil fuels.
The Exxon Twitter ad below contains a video and a PR document claiming Exxon is the victim of an “extremely well-funded” targeted political campaign by wealthy environmentalists trying to destroy the company. Exxon earned $20.8 billion in 2018, and is the 16th most profitable company in the world.
Last week, HEATED reported on these ads, with the assumption that they would be included Twitter’s political ad ban. But that may not be the case.
Some of Exxon’s Twitter ads about the lawsuits are labeled political “issue” ads by Twitter. But the one above is not. In fact, none of the tweets cited in this article are labeled “political issue” ads by Twitter, nor are several others. (All of Exxon’s ads can be found HERE—the ads that are considered “issue” advertisements contain the word “issue” on the bottom of the tweet).
A spokesperson for Twitter declined to explain why. “We don't have anything to share beyond the original announcement at this point,” the spokesperson said.
Exxon’s ads “epitomize the art” of political issue ads
Geoffery Supran—who studies the history of the fossil fuel industry’s climate change denial at Harvard University —told HEATED that both types of ads are part of Exxon’s political strategy.
The advertisements about Exxon’s low-carbon investments, for example, serve a specific political purpose: To tell consumers that Exxon is not the enemy when it comes to climate change.
“They’re promoting technologies that don’t yet exist at any meaningful scale,” Supran said. “There is not a product to sell. So what purpose do these ads conceivably serve other than to promote a political narrative on climate change and energy that protects Exxon’s business interests?”
(Exxon never advertises reducing actual fossil fuel extraction to fight climate change, which scientists say will be key to averting irreversible catastrophe).
The advertisements about the climate fraud lawsuits are more blatantly political. “They’re literally alleging a political conspiracy,” Supran said. “What else do you call a paid social media campaign designed to discredit peer-reviewed science? It’s not product advertising, and it sure as heck isn’t science.”
Great news for Exxon—and the entire fossil fuel industry
Exxon’s climate ads on Twitter don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a small part of a much larger strategy being executed across the entire fossil fuel industry to ramp up climate-related messaging and advertising.
This messaging and advertising is a direct response to the growing climate activist movement, which increasingly recognizes scientific reality: that the 1.5 degree Celsius target requires a complete phase-out of the fossil fuel economy.
It’s not just climate activists saying that, either. Leading Democratic presidential candidates are, too. “Without question, the 2020 Democratic presidential field is the most anti-fossil fuel in history,” E&E News reported in September. “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would consider pursuing criminal charges against fossil fuel executives. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has accused the oil and gas industry of corruption. And former Vice President Joe Biden has pledged to "take action" against energy companies.” In addition, all major Democratic candidates have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, which swears off campaign contributions from fossil fuel corporations, executives, and lobbyists.
The fossil fuel industry hasn’t yet agreed on a strategy to combat this movement. “We’re fighting pitched battles all over the place,” Brian Kelly, vice president of federal government affairs at Sempra Energy, recently told TIME magazine. “I don’t have a solution for how to deal.”
One solution companies have settled on, though, is paid messaging. So the fact that Twitter does not consider fossil fuel company climate messaging to be “political” is the best news they’ve gotten in a while.
Well, other than all of Trump’s recent regulatory rollbacks.
ICYMI: The coal industry’s Texas leftovers
Meme by HEATED editorial memeist, @climemechange.
Yesterday’s issue was an interview with a reporter who spent a year investigating how coal companies are using loopholes in state law to leave behind “potentially thousands of acres across Texas contaminated with toxic chemicals, which can leach into the groundwater and soil and endanger people’s health.”
More nice things
Ya’ll continue to be nice, and it’s dope. These tweets in particular made my face get all smushy yesterday.
Your support means the world to me. It’s also essential to keeping this newsletter thing going. So please, if you’re spreading love about HEATED on the Twitter machine, tag me—I’m at @emorwee.
And if you’re not subscribed yet, you can do it below.
OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!
If you liked this, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you want to share today’s issue as a web page, click this button:
Questions? Comments? Tips? Send ‘em to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggestions for an action readers can/should take in response to something I’ve written in this newsletter? Send those to email@example.com.
See you tomorrow!