Twitter says Big Oil's pandemic ads aren't "political"

As it lobbies for a bailout, the oil industry has found a way around Twitter's ban on political advertising.

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Screenshot from the AFPM’s sponsored content in Politico, May 7, 2020.


As the flailing oil and gas industry lobbies the federal government for a massive bailout, it is ramping up advertising on two of the nation’s most influential political news platforms: Twitter and Politico.

These advertisements are specifically tailored to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They claim that the oil industry—the world’s leading contributor to the climate crisis—is essential to keeping people alive and healthy, because they are helping to supply testing kits, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizer, among other things.

The ads are “clearly politically motivated,” said Geoffrey Supran, a leading Harvard researcher who studies oil company communications. They intend “to improve Big Oil’s image, to build goodwill—which was already under threat even before coronavirus—so that the public is more favorable towards an industry that desperately needs government bailouts.”

So why, then, are the ads allowed to run on Twitter, which has banned political advertising?

The answer is that they do not technically meet Twitter’s definition of “political”—which means oil companies have loophole to continue their historically effective, yet highly deceptive practice of corporate reputation advertising to buy public support for burning fossil fuels.

Big Oil’s ads: we are saving your life

The oil industry’s most aggressive pandemic-related ads are coming from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a large industry trade organization. Members of AFPM include multinational oil giants like Chevron, Exxon, and Citgo. BP, Total, and Shell have cut ties with the group over its anti-climate policy positions.

AFPM’s ads say the oil industry is “supplying armor in the battle against COVID-19”—and that “the central role of petrochemicals in health care underscores why the U.S. government classifies the petrochemical industry as critical infrastructure.”

“Petrochemicals are the lynchpin to PPE production, [and] fuel manufacturers are literally driving the response efforts,” reads a native ad in Politico, sponsored by AFPM. “We are resilient,” it adds.

The group has also purchased at least five sponsored tweets to direct users to the Politico sponsored content since April 30, according to Twitter’s Ad Transparency Center.

Exxon is also paying Twitter to advertise its COVID-19 response efforts. Since April 15, the company has run at least eight sponsored tweets promoting things like the company’s production of raw materials that make face masks, and a $100,000 donation to restaurant workers, according to the Ad Transparency Center.

The purpose: to mold public opinion

These ads are classic examples of what’s known as “corporate reputation advertising.” It’s a tactic long-used by the oil industry to buy what they call “societal license to operate,” and has long been criticized as propagandistic. (BP recently pledged to stop the practice.)

These ads do not advertise a product, but an idea—in this case, that oil, gas, and petrochemicals are essential for your health, safety and well-being. You would be less safe without them.

This is a misleading picture. While we do currently rely on fossil fuels to maintain our current standard of living, fossil fuels also massively threaten our health, safety and well-being now and down the line.

Fossil fuels are the leading cause of the climate crisis, which threatens death and economic destruction at least on par with, if not greater than coronavirus. The burning of fossil fuels has also worsened the effects of the pandemic, as research has linked counties with air pollution with higher COVID-19 death rates.

But these ads do not exist to paint an accurate picture. They exist “to mold public opinion,” Supran said.


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The AFPM’s sponsored ad in Politico, also advertised on Twitter, was particularly obvious in its political intentions. “It explicitly frames industry’s coronavirus response in the context of dwindling demand for oil,” Supran said.

Another clue comes from the mere fact that it’s in Politico and on Twitter, of all places. “This is an effort to reach opinion leaders—political actors and journalists, for instance—who may have a hand in the industry’s future.”

The cherry on top, Supran said, was the AFPM article’s kicker: “We are resilient.”

“They’re supposedly referring to the industry’s ability to effectively respond to coronavirus,” he said, “but the subtext to investors, policymakers, and the public is clear: with your confidence and support, we will survive.”

Twitter says ban on political ads doesn’t apply

It’s not just support from investors, policymakers and the public that will allow the oil industry to survive, though. It’s also media platforms like Politico and Twitter that spread the oil industry’s propaganda in exchange for money.

Politico is far from the only news organization that runs deceptive corporate reputation advertising from oil companies in the form of “sponsored content.” The New York Times and many others do, too. The Guardian is the only major newspaper to have disavowed the practice.

Twitter has tried to clamp down on paid misinformation by corporations by banning political advertising. But this policy doesn’t always work. For example, a Twitter spokesperson told HEATED that the AFPM ad “does not violate our political content policy.”

Indeed, the AFPM ad doesn’t fall under the definition of “political,” according to Twitter. Their policy bans ads that reference “a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.” AFPM’s ad doesn’t do any of that. It simply seeks to promote a general sense of goodness.

Twitter’s ban on cause-based ads doesn’t apply, either

The AFPM’s ad could, however, be banned under Twitter’s “cause-based advertising” policy. That policy restricts ads that attempt to “educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action” on social issues.

Twitter implemented this policy on the belief that “Advertising should not be used to drive political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes.” But it allowed exemptions, because “cause-based advertising can facilitate public conversation around important topics.”

The AFPM’s ad falls under this exemption, because Twitter granted AFPM certification as a cause-based advertiser.

Big Oil’s much larger political campaign

This isn’t a new tactic. As climate journalist Amy Westervelt has continuously revealed and documented in her podcast, Drilled, the oil industry has been running sponsored ads like these for decades. Times of national crisis are their bread and butter. Take this Shell ad from World War II:

The industry has also always been clear about the purpose of these ads. They are “part of the political campaign,” Mobil public relations executive Herb Schmertz said in 1991. They are part of the overall lobbying strategy to achieve political ends.

If Twitter and other platforms truly want to stop being used by corporations and politicians to covertly run political campaigns, Supran said, they need to understand this history.

“The [AFPM’s ad] doesn’t exist in a vacuum independent of the public and political lobbying that oil companies are also doing on subsidies, bailouts, and the like,” he said. “They’re all part of a political package, serving distinct by mutually reinforcing purposes.”

The purpose, in this case, is to achieve a government bailout—at the expense of American taxpayers, and of the planet’s future.

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