Twitter's Big Oil ad loophole

Climate groups can't pay Twitter to spread political content. But the oil industry can, and it's ramping up its efforts alongside Biden's climate push.

Twitter has been allowing the oil industry to violate the company’s ban on political ads, a HEATED investigation has found.

As President Joe Biden advanced numerous executive orders last week targeting fossil fuels—the leading cause of climate change—fossil fuel companies and trade groups on Twitter launched ad campaigns designed to drum up opposition.

At least two ads from the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s largest trade group, opposed “restricting development” on “federal lands and waters.” The ads ran on January 26, the day before Biden released a slew of executive actions to address the climate crisis—including one to restrict new fossil fuel development on federal lands and waters. (The administration called that day “Climate Day.”)

The ads do not reference Biden’s executive orders by name. This allowed API to bypass Twitter’s requirement that “ads cannot reference past, current, or proposed referenda, ballot measures, bills, legislation, regulation, directives, judicial outcomes, or any country-specific equivalents.”

But the ads still clearly violate the spirit of Twitter’s ban on ads containing “political content,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist who studies oil industry advertisements at Drexel University.

“The API ads are clearly targeted to oppose the Biden administration's efforts to restrict fossil fuel extraction on public lands,” he told HEATED in an email, calling the ads “classic propaganda.”

Twitter agreed. In response to an email inquiry from HEATED, a Twitter spokesperson said the API’s tweets referencing oil and gas leasing are “in violation of our political content policy and will no longer run.”

But Twitter also said other oil industry ads created in the last week to drum up opposition to Biden’s climate agenda do not violate their ban on political advertisements. Those ads remain running as of press time.

Exxon ads say fossil fuels “helping to shape a cleaner world”

Also on January 26—the day before Biden’s released his climate executive orders— ExxonMobil started running at least two advertisements on Twitter. The ads are designed to convince the public that the fossil fuel industry is environmentally friendly.

Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University who has researched Exxon’s communications, told HEATED these ads are also political. “Of course they are political,” she said. “The goal is to prevent political action on climate.”

Oreskes research partner Geoffery Supran explained why ads like these are political in a previous issue of HEATED. “There is not a product to sell,” he said. “So what purpose do these ads conceivably serve other than to promote a political narrative on climate change and energy that protects [the industry’s] business interests?”

Brulle agreed, and said Exxon’s recent climate-related ads were clearly attempts to steer the political conversation about climate policy. “The Natural Gas ad by Exxon is fundamentally misleading by failing to contextualize the carbon pollution of natural gas as contributing to global warming,” he said. “This is just another effort to manipulate public opinion to support options that the corporation wants.”

“Underlying all of these ads is a calculated effort to foster certain policy positions and public opinion that serve specific corporate interests,” Brulle added. “This is all inherently political speech and should be labeled as such by Twitter.”

But a Twitter spokesperson told HEATED that Exxon’s tweets about its climate-friendliness were not in violation of the company’s ad policy.

“They fall under our cause-based policy as environmental stewardship and can run since the advertiser is cause-based certified,” the spokesperson said in an email.

An unequal playing field on an existential threat

When Twitter banned political advertising in 2019, it did so on the basis of morality. “Advertising should not be used to drive political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes,” the company said.

Fossil fuel interests, however, are clearly attempting to use Twitter ads to drive political outcomes. And they’re doing so on the most high-stakes political issue of our lifetimes.

“What we do in the next years and decades will affect the Earth for tens of thousands of years, if not longer,” Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, recently told Grist.

The fact that Big Oil has been successful in its attempt reveals an uneven playing field. Exxon can run ads about its “environmental stewardship” that help convince the public it is climate-friendly, but climate groups cannot run ads to counter that political narrative.

That’s in part because Twitter’s ad policy prohibits “the promotion of political content”—and climate change is considered political content.

Allowing Big Oil’s efforts to remain hidden

Big Oil’s Twitter ads are also now extremely hard to find. The fossil fuel ads referenced in this article were submitted by HEATED readers who came across them while browsing Twitter. There are likely far more—but it’s impossible to figure out how many there are; how much the industry spent on them; and the extent of the ads’ reach.

It used to be easy to do. Before Twitter implemented its political ad ban, it managed the Ad Transparency Center. It allowed reporters and citizens to see all the ads organizations were running, how much they spend on those ads, and who the ads had reached. But Twitter dismantled its Ad Transparency Center after it banned political ads in 2019.

That hasn’t just affected this newsletter’s efforts. Other efforts to track Big Oil’s paid climate propaganda on Twitter have suffered, too.

In October, the organization Influence Map released a report detailing how anti-climate groups use Facebook ads to intentionally seed doubt and confusion about climate change. In the report, InfluenceMap said it could not analyze how anti-climate groups use Twitter for the same purpose.

“Should Alphabet or Twitter disclose data on climate related ads, InfluenceMap will expand its analysis to include their data in future reports on digital advertising,” the report said. (Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, also does not disclose data on climate-related ads, as the table from InfluenceMap below points out).

The fundamental problem: Twitter is naive

These problems all stem from Twitter’s warped internal definition of political content. According to the company, anything that explicitly references “climate change”—a scientific phenomenon, objectively happening—is political. Yet the fossil fuel industry’s sophisticated public relations campaigns, which are responsible for the sorry state of climate politics in America today, are not.

This corporate interpretation of “political” content could have perhaps been understandable 20 years ago. Back then, the destructive impact of the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation-laden public relations campaigns was less widely known.

Today, such an understanding of the climate problem is naive at best—and willfully ignorant at worst.

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